This is a translation of the "open letter" originally published in "Le Monde" edition of 02.12.10
With permission of the authors.
Unequal rights for digital books
We often agree, dear editor and friend, when discussing literature, but I must now bring up a point of contention: money. In France, the subject is taboo and the word vulgar except when related to one of Zola’s works. I just received your “Contract Amendment” regarding “digital rights.” For those who might happen upon our exchange (which I’d like to keep confidential), I want to explain that digital rights are source to the royalties I get when my book goes from paper to screen, and is read on an iPad or a Kindle.
When asked, you answered, reassuring, that this market is embryonic. That’s true. But who can predict the future? Look at the world of the audio CDs: in only a decade it almost completely gave way to that – immaterial – of digital distribution of music. In short, you ask me, while waiting for the situation to become clear, to sign the damn amendment where you grant me 10 percent of the net price of the book, as on paper. As a result, I have to speak percentages; forgive me in advance for being so vulgar.
I know the traditional book model, you’ve once explained it to me: 53 percent of the sale price goes to distributors and 15 percent to the printer. You grant me an average of 10 percent on each book sold, which leaves you, dear publisher, a little over 20 percent to live on. So on each of my books, you earn twice as much as me, which is justified, I agree (even though you could be more generous), since you make that financial bet that has justified the very existence of your profession since Diderot: You advance “fixed costs,” from proof to production, not to mention the efforts of your publicity service to promote it to critics.
So, in your “Contract Amendment”, you suggest that I keep these same 10 percent rights on my digitized book. You are yet freed of the handling, storage and printing costs, and it will leave you 90 percent, since you sell this “book” at the same prices on the web as in the bookstore (a commercial aberration that probably buys some time for booksellers, and that’s for the best). Certainly, with 90 percent, you’ll still have to pick up some costs. You transform the work to an “eBook” format and you “secure the data” (I’m told that these costs are negligible, but correct me if I’m wrong).
You say that you have to pay the “virtual library” (sometimes your own subsidiary, you little rascal!) up to 30 percent. But some tell me that this percentage can only decrease (it is already often 20 percent), since everything in that “distribution channel” is virtual and competition is fierce. Ultimately, for this book I wrote, you’ll get between six and seven times more money than me, right? But maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m a writer, not an accountant.
David against Goliath
Ten years ago already, a major French publishing house’s CEO said in Le Monde: “Our traditional system is falling apart. In a world that is increasingly digital and where direct-to-consumer sales are used more and more, the temptation will be great, especially for authors, to change the rules of the game. Especially the one by which they get 10 to 15 percent of rights over a creation that is still theirs, whereas they could get more.” I gloss over his “a creation that is still theirs,” which is more ironic – I’m sure – than unfortunate. I would like to reassure you: “Changing the rules of the game” is not my immediate intention.
In the United States, William Styron’s heirs left the venerable publishing company Random House, which offered them 25 percent of the net price (i.e. 20 percent of retail) for a Web publisher, Open Road Integrated Media, which offered them 50 percent. Interesting how copyright holders sometimes can be indifferent to historic connections. As for us, we are friends, aren’t we? Despite our friendship, I hope I’m misunderstanding, when I’m listening to you, that you consider electronic rights to all my previous books as yours, even if we signed these contracts well before the “Web years” and even if they bear no mention to Internet publishing. I do not read anywhere either in my amendment that you would consider renegotiations of the low percentage someday, despite technical developments and cost reductions.
Finally, I fear that since a digital book is never “sold out”, you won’t feel compelled to reprint it anymore, that I won’t be able to have the rights reverted so that I can keep it alive somewhere else. I cannot believe it. Such practices, among friends? I’m like you: I do not know how the electronic book trade will play out in the mid-term. I see two options: The reader will download it on the traditional publisher’s site, or on the site of a more generous “web publisher”, to whom an annoyed author will have entrusted his Internet rights (do not presume I’m making any threat here, it is an academic hypothesis). Or the reader, driven by a portal such as Google, will look for it in an online bookstore, Amazon, Fnac or Google itself. Oddly, the latter hypothesis seems more plausible, because the reader generally knows the book’s title or author’s name, and more rarely the name of the publisher.
If these “tablets” spread and if reading habits changed, I wonder if high selling authors would not consider getting around the publisher, considering that they no longer need its label. With distribution agreements providing the author with at least 65 percent (like Apple), rather than publishing agreements at 10 percent, they could take the risk of selling a little less to earn more. What do you think? You’ve considered all this, haven’t you?
In this battle beginning between the Goliath of distribution and the David of publishing, I know which side I want to be on. After his reader, an author’s greatest ally is his publisher (and booksellers, but that’s not the issue here). And publishers have never been in greater need of their authors. For, if no writer can exist without a publisher, surely no publisher can exist without an author. I know what I owe you, dear friend. I want to be your ally, and that you would consider me as one. So here's my question: do you humiliate an ally?
Paul Fournel, Cécile Guilbert, Herve Le Tellier, Gerard Mordillat and Gilles Rozier, authors. Article published in Le Monde, edition of 02.12.10
Translation with help (among others) from:
Steve Silkin. His books are available on Kindle or Nook