Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Australian writers - the rock and the hard place

Despite gloomy forecasts and sliding graphs recently, e-book sales are not nosediving. But here in Australia, I think the global effects of e-books are only just starting to sink in, especially with writers. This is not a whine or a rant, by the way, this post is a business discussion. What is the rock? Australian publishers who, when you sign a contract with them, demand ALL rights, which means world rights and e-rights. You need to have a lot of clout to get this amended or changed.

What is the hard place? Very few Australian books are sold to overseas publishers. We hear a lot about books like The Rosie Project, Burial Rites and Diary of a Wombat (not to mention The Book Thief and Jellicoe Road) and how many overseas territories they have sold to, especially the USA. But they are the exception, not the rule.

For most Australian writers, especially children’s writers, it’s  unlikely the overseas rights on their books will be sold, especially if the book is deemed “too Australian”. That means the market is Australia (and sometimes NZ). It’s a small market, and getting smaller.  If someone from the USA wants to buy an Australian book via an online bookseller here, they will very likely pay $25-30 for a small paperback, because of the horrendous postage charge.

Aha, you say, but now we have e-books. We sure do. But even if your publisher releases your book as an e-book, it’s very likely they will limit availability to Australia. If they do decide to sell it “world wide”, how will anyone know about it unless YOU tell them? (To put this another way, how do readers in other countries hear about Australian books without a marketing campaign of some kind in their country?)

If you’re Tim Winton or someone who has an international reputation already, it’s not an issue. But Winton’s books already sell overseas as print books, so a globally available e-book is obviously going to sell.

Aha, you say, what if you sell your book to a US publisher first? You get an agent over there, they sell your book, and Bob’s your auntie. You have two options: you can hold back Australian/NZ rights and sell them separately, or you can let the US publisher keep them and either sell your book to an Australian publisher or import it here. Here’s the other rock and hard place – if you’ve already sold US rights (and e-rights), it’s highly unlikely an Australian publisher is going to want your book, unless it becomes a best seller over there. The prospective rights that might earn them good money are already gone.

If the US publisher is allowed to import your books here after 90 days (if they decide it’s worth it) because nobody here wants to publish it, you’re going to be responsible for most of the marketing. That means a heck of a lot more than some FB and Twitter posts! Same goes for if the US publisher releases your book as an e-book. The big word in publishing and marketing now is “discoverability”. Who else is going to get your book noticed except you? A US or UK publisher is already dealing with that in their own markets. 

And there are a number of awards here that require the book to be published in Australia, not published elsewhere and imported.

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s an issue that’s come up for me several times over the past few years, and e-books have actually made it more complicated, not less. I’ve experienced these difficulties in various ways and permutations, and so far, there is no easy answer. I completely understand publishers’ need to stay solvent and do good business, but …

There are lots of aspects to this issue. Print books are not going away, but e-books don’t look like they are going to be the income earner that a lot of writers were hoping for. It’s not even a territorial copyright issue, really. I’d be interested to hear from other Australian writers with similar experiences of the rock and the hard place.


john w t said...

This is very informative and interesting.
I'm a musician and for us there is a similar perplexment (if there is a correct word please tell me)with the onset of the digital revolution.
My own approach is to think only about the art and learn to live independent of income. I realize this doesn't suit everyone.
Look forward to reading more from you as you develop solutions.

Sherryl said...

I agree, John, musicians have been down this hard road, too - before writers. Writers are only just starting to see the issues and how perplexing it all is indeed.
Musicians have the option of live performances, I guess (they say that's why so many are going back on the road!). But it's not easy for anyone.

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