Will Best-Selling Authors Go It Alone With Implementation of 1978 Copyright Law?

A  1978 copyright law presents an interesting new factor affecting the future of publishing, in particular, the publishing of backlists. The article “Publishers brace for authors to reclaim book rights in 2013“, describes the situation. Apparently, authors can reclaim works assigned to publishers more than 35 years ago. That deadline is approaching for works published in 1978. The unknown is how many authors might take advantage of the law, and how publishers might fight it.

I recently read Be the Monkey, a conversation between authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath about how digital publishing is changing the way that authors consider what they called “legacy publishers,” that is, publishers of paper-based books. They argued that, in many cases, it was more profitable for an author to publish digital works independently, rather than through a legacy publisher.

Let’s consider for a moment one of the books noted in the “Publishers brace…” article, Stephen King’s The Stand, published in 1978. The Kindle version of this book sells for $8.99, which qualifies it for the 70% royalty option. If he published it independently, King would stand (no pun intended) to earn $5.98 per e-book sold, calculated as Royalty Rate x (List Price – Delivery Costs), or 0.7 * ($8.99 – $0.45). This calculation is from the Kindle Direct Publishing Pricing Page (delivery costs based on the US delivery of a 3 MB e-book at $0.15/MB).

How much does King get now from his publisher for that same sale? Eisler and Konrath suggested that an author under contract to a publisher might only earn about 15% on an e-book sale after Amazon, the publisher, and an agent take their cuts, $1.35 in our hypothetical case. Of course, who knows what kind of deal Stephen King has with his publisher!

It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

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