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Michael Chabon, royalty rates and an e-book backlist

December 20, 2011 |  3:57 pm

Michaelchabon_2010Michael Chabon's two first novels, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys," were released as e-books Tuesday. They're being published by Open Road Media, which has offered generous royalty rates to authors and estates for rights to e-publish their backlist titles.

Chabon talked to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie about how traditional royalty rights affect authors and publishers, and how that might change.

“When it’s comes to royalties on a paper book, that rate (25 percent) is completely fair when you think of the expenses a publisher takes on — the delivery trucks and the factory workers and the distribution chains. But it’s not fair for them to take a roughly identical royalty for an e-book that costs them nothing to produce," Chabon said.

That royalty rate, minus additional costs, applies to his novels "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which won the Pulitzer Prize, and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." 

"I agreed to the traditional e-book royalty, which I think is criminally low, because I didn’t really have any legs to stand on. I didn’t want to get left behind in the e-book revolution," Chabon explained.

What Chabon doesn't say is that the pricing structure between print books and e-books has changed. The 25% royalty he got applies to books sold using a wholesale-retail model, so his percentage was out of the wholesale cost booksellers paid to publishers. With the agency model Apple promoted to sell books through its iBookstore and Amazon agreed to -- which has raised some oversight eyebrows -- the profits are split by percentage. And those percentages leave authors with a smaller nut than ever before.

For the e-book editions of "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys," Chabon will receive a 50% royalty rate. Open Road is selling three other Chabon titles: the short-story collections "A Model World" and "Werewolves in Their Youth" and "Maps and Legends," a book of essays. Chabon was able to seek a new e-book publisher for these books because e-books had not been addressed in their original contracts.

Open Road Media is also the home of the e-book editions of Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn," Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by William Styron, along with many more.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Michael Chabon. Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

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