I’m glad for Michael Chabon that he’s going to have most of his backlist come out as ebooks with Open Road Integrated Media. And in this interview with AP publishing reporter Hillel Italie he makes a reasonable criticism of major publishers’ stance on ebook royalties vs. traditional print book royalties. But why did he have to push the rhetorical pedal to the metal with hyperbole by earlier stating that current royalties are “criminally low”? Chabon rightly criticizes publishers’ unwillingness thus far to escalate from 25% of net proceeds to 50% on ebooks–a royalty that Open Road and others including Amazon’s publishing division do already offer–but then degrades the discussion with inflamed language.
And why indulge in this overstatement, given to Italie: “It’s not fair for them to take a roughly identical royalty for an e-book [as a print book] that costs them nothing to produce.” This is a logical fallacy–that ebook edition of a print book would never exist but for the investment the publisher made in the print edition–the acquisition; line-editing; copyediting; design; manufacture; sale; distribution; marketing. While I agree with Chabon that these royalties should surely not be identical, and 50% may be the right share for most books, it’s just not true that the ebook is cost-free.
I suggest that the book industry view the cost savings from the diminishment of print as a kind of “peace dividend” for authors and publishers and other stakeholders like retail booksellers. That one the U.S. government had a shot at in the 1990s after the Cold War didn’t work out so well, but this time things could still turn out differently. All parties should share fairly in whatever windfall there is to come. I would accuse the major publishers of being shortsighted and dumb and in thrall to old ways, but I fear that hyperbole like Chabon’s will only further degrade the debate and discussion that must proceed between publishers and authors, lest Amazon eventually become the monopoly publisher and bookseller many bookpeople nowadays fear is looming in our collective future.