Technology & Science

E-books: Royalties vs. respect

Despite easy and lucrative offers from Amazon and Apple, traditional publishers are still where most authors want to be, says House of Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan.

Authors still seek traditional print publishers

With competition between electronics makers taking off for the fledging e-reader market, which is expected to hit 14 million units in the United States alone this year, the book publishing industry is being rapidly redefined.

New players such as Amazon and Apple aren't just competing with traditional retailers such as Indigo and Borders, they are also going head to head with the publishers themselves by making it easy — and potentially lucrative — for authors to skip going through regular channels to get their books out to readers.

Both Amazon and Apple have introduced self-publishing platforms that allow authors to put their e-books up for sale on the Kindle or iPad with only a few clicks. Both are also offering authors a 70 per cent cut of whatever they sell, which is exceptionally better than the royalties offered by traditional book publishers, typically five to 15 per cent.

A panel of experts, including Indigo president Joel Silver, House of Anansi's Sarah MacLachlan and authors Paul Theroux and Katherine Govier, discussed the future of publishing and e-books on Saturday as part of Toronto's Luminato arts festival. After the discussion, MacLachlan — president of Toronto-based Anansi, which publishes Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, among others — sat down with CBC News to talk about whether self-publishing is beginning to have any allure.

With Amazon and Apple making it easy and enticing to self-publish, how does a publisher keep authors — especially established ones — from defecting to this model?

You sort of answered the question right off the top and that was by saying "established authors." Established authors can pretty much do whatever they want, but established authors are probably 10 people that we can name. Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, Stephen King, maybe it's only three people we can name. And then it's maybe Stephenie Meyer and what's her name who wrote Harry Potter … we've almost forgotten about Harry Potter now.

But for everybody else, my question is, "OK, you write a book, the thing you traffic in is ideas, do you also then want to become your own manufacturer, your own sales and marketing department, your own shiller of your idea?"

I think publishers have a place as cultural aggregators. We put a stamp of approval on something by accepting it and by saying, "Yes we want to get behind this and put our resources behind it." That's something that a lot of people don't necessarily think about. Publishers add value.

The other part is collection. Amazon is saying they're going to give you 70 per cent, but what happens on the day when Amazon decides not to pay you or takes two years to pay you? You're still a lone ranger out there trying to get your money back from them. So for me, I love entrepreneurial writers, I love the idea of you going out there and trying to do it for yourself, but it's a very complicated enterprise and the question is: how many want to get involved in that?

You say that one of the challenges for a self-publisher is marketing books online. What happens when new models emerge, such as crowd-sourcing and social media, to allow for that?

It's already there. Most of us in the book publishing industry, in terms of traditional marketing and publicity departments, have turned their attention entirely to social networking and the World Wide Web and what's going on there. (It's funny, I'm probably antiquated in calling it the World Wide Web.) In our house we have somebody devoted to web marketing because that is where we can get an audience that is knowable, trackable, with whom we can interact, which is a very important thing for us, to know how people are responding to the books we're putting out into the marketplace. There's no question that we will be coming up with ways in which to sell and market books that exist online and that will probably be online.

Do you think publishers need to do more for authors these days when authors have the option to self-publish with such ease and attractive royalties?

Our own philosophy at House of Anansi is that we do everything for the writer. That's what we offer as a small independent house. We don't have an algorithm for dealing with a book that's to say that after so many months, we're giving up on it. We get in there and it's very personal for us. The question comes with critical mass and size — how long can you be a personal shop, how much can you grow and still be a personal shop? I do believe that, yeah, we have to be able to offer things to writers as publishers that they may not be able to handle doing themselves, and might not want to handle themselves. I will say there's a ton of writers that don't want to do the social networking and blogging and who don't want to participate in that arena. We then take it over and do it for them.

But there are many stories out there that publishers aren't doing book tours anymore and that they're cutting back on promotion. Aren't they under more pressure to be doing those things?

I can only speak from what we do, but the big multinationals, I don't know if they're under more pressure. They're probably not, they're probably under more pressure to deliver a good bottom line and to abandon a book if it's not working. That's what happens, because they publish so much that they spread their risk over a lot of titles. When a book is working, then they pick up and work on it, but I don't believe they actually try to make it.

Are the bigger publishers concentrating more on the marquee writers?

[Possibly] but those marquee writers allow them to buy the writers that are going to come along and maybe become the Stephenie Meyer or the Dan Brown.

There was an interesting comment from the audience during the panel discussion that called you all "gatekeepers."

That's sort of what I was referring to when I said we were cultural aggregators because we are that. I think anybody who wants to publish a book ultimately wants to have it published by somebody. In some way that gives them a sense of value, in saying "I wrote something that was good enough to be published by this company."

Self-publishing still has a kind of… it's a little bit pejorative. America is a very interesting and rich example of self-publishing, and what happens often is that traditional houses, when they see a self-published book doing really, really well, they'll go and pick it up. I don't feel it's a bad thing to self-publish at all, but I do think what publishers [do] is … we try to deliver the best books and get behind them.

It's strange, because in music, if you put out your own album, that's fine.

There's nothing wrong with it at all. By the same token, if you're an indie band and you get published by Arts & Crafts or Maple Music, there's probably a little bit more of a good stamp. I think a lot of the indie music scene and doing your own thing is a reaction against the big, giant music publishers. That could happen in books because they're not dissimilar kinds of creatures.