Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 11.0: Kindle edition update

The chorus is getting deafening — which is to say I’ve hit double digits in requests/complaints about no Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) on Kindle.

It’s pissing me off too, for a couple of interrelated reasons.  The first, obviously, is that I want to have my work reach as many readers as possible in all the formats available.

The second, intimately tied to the first, is that I want this book to make as much money as it possible can…not just to rake it in now (ha!) but to increase the value of my next project.

The third, related to that, is that for the time being, Kindle sales, while they have both advantages and disadvantages for traditional publishers, are a damn good deal for authors and their publishers — and, I think, for readers too.  To make it real, without revealing the precise details of my own particular rights agreement, current royalty rates on Kindle sales are either the same as authors receive for hardcover sales, usually 15% of the cover price,* or some quite healthy percentage of the net receipts per sale that Amazon delivers to the publisher.  The arithmetic on the latter worked out a little better for me, so that’s where I landed.

(Net is one of those dangerous terms in media businesses, but here it remains, again, at least for the time being, a pretty straightforward concept.  The publisher delivers a file — a .pdf — of the book to Amazon.  Amazon preps it for the Kindle store, converting the file into its distinctive .mobi format, and sells it.  There are essentially none of the convenient bolt holes, often called “distribution expenses” into which movie accountants can magically disappear receipts.  So the net royalty is so far a pretty comprehensible offer.)

All that’s background to the question of why there isn’t a !@#$%^&* Kindle edition of Newton…

Partly, the fault lies on my side of the ledger.  I signed the contract to do the book sometime in 2005 or early 2006.  (I honestly don’t quite remember).  No Kindle existed yet, and the contingency was not covered in the negotiation.  So it wasn’t until one of those we tried to send a pre-pub copy for potential review asked for a version for his Kindle that I wondered when/if we would see the title in this format.  That set off a flurry of back-and-forths between my agent and my publisher to work out which variant of the deals outlined above we would do…and it wasn’t until right about the hardcover pub date of June 4 — maybe a little before — that we finished off the agreement.

But all that was done and the files prepared, I was told, by about June 11.  Again, according to those who know, it takes Amazon about a week to process the file and get the Kindle edition up and available for sale….except it’s now July 5 and there ain’t nothing there.

So it’s over to Amazon — and frankly I have no idea what the hold up is there.  I’ve tried to call into the Kindle operation directly, which is difficult, and my publisher has been reaching out to the Amazon folks who deal with them, but nothing much is forthcoming.

So part of  the point of this post is to say to those that want their Kindle copy and want it now (which is, after all, the point of owning one of these) that I’m trying, and I do expect that it will show up pretty soon.

The other point to be made is to say that I do not get the Kindle economic model, and that I suspect it will change in the not too distant future.

What I discovered (or rather, what those who actually spend time working on these things told me) is that Amazon pays the same price to a publisher for a Kindle sale as they do for a hardcover copy of the book.  Now, of course, there are a shipping and handling and warehousing costs that Amazon must escape at the Kindle store compared to a traditional book sale, (though the wireless distribution network is not free, certainly), but still, given a rough guess that the price at which Amazon buys a book from a trade publisher is not going to be less (or at least not much) than 40% of the cover price — for a book like mine, retailing at $25 a copy, that puts Amazon’s cost at $10 — or one penny more than the typical Kindle tab for a  new trade book.

Cue the automatic “but I make it up on volume” joke.

Now, I’d guess that Kindle/Amazon have made more clearly plausible deals for other content — specialized books that go for different prices, some best sellers, newspapers and blogs all come to mind.  And presumably they’ve taken a leaf out of Apple’s playbook and are turning a nice profit on the boxes themselves.  But I can’t quite see how a device built so thoroughly around the experience of reading books can survive if its major source of content arrives at a loss.

So, remembering that any prophesy you read here is worth at most no more than you paid for it, I can’t see the kind of deal I just struck to sell my book on Kindle persisting into the future.  I think Amazon is going to try to alter its payment structure to publishers when/if the Kindle store becomes a sufficiently important sales channel.  I expect, if/when that happens, all author royalty deals to be net deals and that the percentages will fall, certainly from their maximum levels now.

If I’m right — and to assess the probabilities I favor a quarter with the state design of the location in which you find yourself now (non-US readers are on your own…just don’t use a clipped coin) — then my suggestion to authors in the midst of contract negotiations now would be to talk carefully with your agent; if it were me signing to a project to come out in two to four or five years, I’d think hard about going a different way on that deal than I did on this one, and go for the retail royalty, if possible.  But I’m pretty conservative about money matters, and I value predictability pretty highly.  YMMV.

That’s my bit of publishing under-the-hood stuff for the day.

And by the way — if you do want a Kindle edition of Newton and the Counterfeiter, or even if you want to help push this part of the project alongplease do click on this Amazon link and press the button that says “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” — found just below the cover image at the top of the page.

*There are a bunch of specified exceptions to this — no royalty is paid on “deeply discounted” (i.e. remaindered) books, for example.  But basically, when you buy a book at Amazon’s price or in your local story, the author gets 15% of the number printed on the back cover or the inside front flap.  If the author has received an advance (as almost all trade book projects do), that royalty is credited against the advance until enough copies have been sold to pay off the full sum, plus any extras on the author’s account — the fee for indexing, for example.  Only after that can a writer expect to start receiving (months or years past contractual deadlines in too many cases) actual cash money.

Image:   Luis Meléndez, (1861-1932), “Still Life with Watermelons and Apples,”

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