Digital royalties ‘land grab’, say agents

Digital royalties ‘land grab’, say agents

Publishers have been accused of “holding authors over a barrel” when it comes to e-book royalties.

With the London Book Fair set to open tomorrow (8th April), agents have told The Bookseller there has been a “land grab”, with some major publishers accused of refusing to publish e-books where contracts state an author royalty rate of more than 25%. The Society of Authors (SoA) has also said it is seeing “unfair” practices from publishers. But publishers denied the claims, emphasising they have strong relationships with agents and always act in the best interests of authors.

Andrew Lownie, of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, said he was “increasingly concerned about the ‘bullying’ approach of some major publishers”. “An area of concern is publishers trying to unilaterally impose a 25% rate on contracts—clearly stated in the contract to be mutually agreed—arguing that that’s the ‘standard’ rate and simply uploading the books without agreement,” he added.

Lownie said he had experience of a publisher publishing an e-book at a 15% rate after he had refused 25% . “Quite often I find publishers are selling e-books when rights were never granted in the first place, or refusing to make an e-book available because the contract gives a rate of over 25%,” he said.

The SoA’s chief executive Nicola Solomon said she was “deeply concerned” with publishers refusing to publish e-books on contracts where there was a royalty rate of more than 25%. She said that in cases where older contracts had a rate of more than 50%, she had seen publishers writing to authors to “say they aren’t prepared to do that, [they] say they won’t put the book out . . . but they won’t revert the rights either. It seems to us that is totally unfair.” Solomon likened it to “subjecting an author to economic duress, saying ‘we are holding you over a barrel’” because most authors could not afford to take publishers to court.

A HarperCollins spokesperson said its royalty rates were confidential, but said: “We routinely publish an e-book version of all frontlist titles and are also digitising all backlist titles where we control the rights, in order to make them available to readers as soon as possible. Not only does this generate revenue for our authors, but our research shows the single most effective way to fight piracy is to have a legally available e-book for sale on all platforms.”

A spokesperson for Hachette UK said: “We always act in the best interests of our authors, and always in collaboration with them and their agents.” A Pan Macmillan spokesperson added: “We negotiate rights and rates on a book-by-book basis and we publish at the rates contracted.”

Penguin Random House declined to comment.