Digital Book Publishing and the Author's Bottom Line

Literary Agency CEO Tim Knowlton Talks Technology and Money

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Digital technology models affect the author's bottom line. Getty Images

How has the digital publishing landscape affected the traditional authors' bottom lines?

In this interview, CEO of Curtis Brown Ltd. Tim Knowlton discusses technological changes in book publishing and some key areas in which digital technologies have "disrupted" authors' bottom lines — including book sales to publishers, distributor pricing, ebook contract terms, and piracy.

Valerie Peterson: Digital innovation has challenged the whole book publishing industry to find new models. How has it affected the agent's role in advocating for authors?

Tim Knowlton: So much of [what's going on in digital] has been amazing… I'd say that awful lot of what it has changed about agenting is about information access.

I mentioned how editors have to financially justify their book acquisitions to boards with sales numbers — today, every editor can tell you how many copies of a given book did sell. And that's going to be part of their pitch to the editorial board.

VP: So authors should understand that the quality of the work itself — the novel manuscript, say, or book proposal — doesn't stand alone.

TK: Publishers ideally would like to guarantee that whatever they acquire will be a bestseller. So… computerization and access to sales information have made the agent's job of selling a book to a publisher more challenging.

VP: Amazon.com has effectively utilized that information access and has been a force in so many of the digital publishing innovations — and, some would argue, has disrupted the ecosystem of the industry, not always to the benefit of authors' bottom lines.

TK: Amazon established itself by distributing books and has become the preeminent seller of just about everything by knowing about its customers and all aspects of their lives by what they buy, and customizing their relationship with those customers.

Being able to keep track of the tastes of all of those customers [and utilize that information] is still good for book sales.

So though I still don’t see drone delivery, at this moment it's hard to compete with Amazon in the digital sales landscape.

That said, one advantage to the publishing mergers in the technological landscape is that the Big Five have more power to negotiate terms with retailers. They need to be able to do that, as we saw that with Hachette vs. Amazon.

VP: That standoff was reported to be about ebook terms. I know pricing is a complex issue, but what's your feeling about ebook pricing?

TK: As agents, part of what we do is to protect an author's ability to make a living —and if the price of books goes too low, then nobody is able to do that and we lose those writers' voices.

When you talk about book pricing, it's not only how it affects the publisher, how it affects the author, how it affects the agent — it's also how it's perceived by the reader. I think the reader is correct when they say, "How come this ebook costs just as much as the paperback and I can't do as much with it? I can't give it away as easily, I can't show it off on my bookshelf — I can do a lot of different things with the print book I'm buying that I can't do with the ebook."

I think bundling is a reasonable solution — for example, offering a discounted ebook if you buy the print book.

VP: And, of course, authors' livings and ebook pricing begs a discussion in royalty rates. Have ebook royalty rates become standard in book contracts?  

TK: Yes, publishers do have standard ebook royalty rates. But to me as an agent, the standard rates aren't always as high as we'd like them to be — and they aren't always appropriate for the particular deal, 

We have a division for licensing our clients' backlists in digital — Curtis Brown Unlimited. As with any book contract, there are individual negotiations — and often, with them, a non-disclosure agreement.

VP: What developments are you watching closely and where are you yourself finding technology useful?

TK: I'm really interested in seeing what happens with subscription models.

And one of the things that the technology and ebooks have allowed me to do much more easily is market research.

It's my job to know the market and what the bestselling books are and why and so I at least read the free sample chapters of any authors work that I'm interested in learning about. I get to know the voice, the characters — I don't necessarily have to read more than that. Unfortunately, after that sometimes I want to read the rest of it — which isn't always convenient since I've got a lot of our own Curtis Brown client manuscripts and books I need to read!

VP: Speaking of free… piracy has threatened author income for longer than Curtis Brown has been around, but the digital landscape has made access to pirated books so much easier. Thoughts?

TK:  I feel that every parent should have an anti-piracy discussion with their kids, who grew up expecting their music and books and content to be free. So many kids aspire to create fields — what they don't understand is that piracy of intellectual property threatens the livelihoods of anyone making music, film, art and, of course, books.

Curtis Brown Ltd is a member of creativefuture.org — they've got a positive, educational message in educating people and getting them to understand that if everything were free — books, music, movies — our creative class won't be able to make to make a living.

VP: What's been amazing for you personally about the technology?

TK: I got my first ereader — a Kindle — in 2007 and from the start loved the fact that I can go off on vacation with my tablet and bring ten books and it doesn't weigh anymore than one does.

But my personal seminal digital moment came a couple or so years later:

As I did every morning, I was sitting on the train, commuting into the city, reading a print copy of The New York Times when I read Dwight Garner's review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — not our book.

The review was so phenomenal that I got out my Kindle and put in the author's name, Rebecca Skloot. The book came up, I downloaded it and immediately began reading it.

About three minutes later, the woman sitting next to me asked… "Did you just do what I thought you did? Read the review of a book — and now you're reading the book?"

"Yes," I told her — that's the first time I ever did that and I've done it lots of times since. From where we came in publishing even a decade ago, that is absolutely amazing.

Read More of Tim Knowlton's Insights

In addition to running Curtis Brown, Ltd., CEO Tim Knowlton specializes in copyright matters, represents authors and estates, and heads the Film and Television Department.