Agents warn publishers over digital rates

Literary agent Sonia Land has warned book publishers they will lose control over authors’ digital backlists unless they improve their royalty offer.

Land this week announced her decision to publish 100 of Catherine Cookson’s novels as e-books through her company Peach Publishing, bypassing Cookson’s physical publishers Transworld. Other agents warned against the move, one calling it "tantamount to a declaration of war".

In a column in this week’s Bookseller, Land called on publishers to up their rates from 25% to 50% of net proceeds from e-books to secure digital rights.

Land said the publisher forced her hand by not showing an interest in Cookson’s digital rights. She said: "I’ve been thinking about this for a year and a half. They never approached me with a deal, but I think they knew I wanted a better offer."

Speaking about publishers in general, Land said: "The thing that really annoys me is that they won’t even negotiate a decent rate . . . They say ‘25% is perfectly reasonable’. They need to stop pretending it’s so expensive. I’ve just done it. I can do my sums."

Other agents, while sympathetic to Land’s arguments, were cautious about splitting from publishers. Referring to Land’s decision and the move by Andrew Wylie last year to publish e-books, Caroline Michel of PFD said: "These moves are made out of frustration with the business and royalty model on offer, not a desire to suddenly turn publisher."  Another leading agent backed publishers’ ability to market an author and said: "I firmly believe that authors and agents shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. I’m a great believer in there being one force in emphasising the brand of the author." He added: "I want to work totally with publishers but I think publishers should be at least open to an escalating royalty rate on e-books."

Land was also critical over publishers refusing to do print deals unless digital rights were included. "They have said that if we don’t agree to 25% they won’t even offer to publish, and some of our authors have to get published, so I’ve agreed, but we have authors such as Peter Ackroyd and Tom Sharpe, and we’ve just not agreed that they can proceed at that rate."

Land said other agents would look at their backlists, and highlighted Patrick O’Brian, which Sheil Land represents and which is published in the UK by HarperCollins.

However, Land said she would monitor Cookson sales before deciding whether to repeat the process: "I’m not going to do this for another estate, unless sales improve. I’ve got to see it work."

Meanwhile, publishers advised against splitting digital and print rights. A Transworld Publishers spokesman said: "We firmly believe that it is in the best interests of the book industry to keep physical and e-book rights together and that as publishers we are best placed to edit, market and sell our authors’ work to as wide an audience as possible. We have broad and ongoing talks with agents to explain the economics of e-book publishing and our confidential royalty rates are part of our strategy for the e-book market which is constantly evolving in what we believe to be the best interests of our authors and the industry as a whole. We are committed to sustaining a healthy physical books market while creating a viable e-book market and in collaboration with the agent community we continue our daily progress in the digital conversion of our backlist."

There was also concern about literary agents becoming publishers. Redhammer agent Peter Cox said: "I think that the idea that agents can save their skins by becoming publishers is a fallacy." Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin called agents publishing e-books "a transitional thing. It is a small pimple on a long horizon".