Whether they call themselves publishers or distributors, whether they promise elaborate marketing plans, or the basic production tasks necessary to get an e-book up for sale, there are a growing number of companies selling (and acquiring) backlist books. Richard Curtis, who started e-books in 1999, likes to remind people that his outfit was the first kid on the block: the original e-book publisher, if you will. Open Road likes to say that it’s the biggest. (The company, which was founded by Jane Friedman in 2009, has 3,000 titles on its list.) Whatever the pitch, or the particulars of the deal, as e-book sales have continued to climb, there has been a surge in companies offering services of varying natures to help authors and agents (and sometimes estates) start making money off of old books that have never been published digitally. Here’s a rundown of some of the companies in this space, and what they offer.
Terms: Pays 50% of net receipts on all e-book sales (as well as print-on-demand), with length of license usually between five and 10 years.
Number of titles: 1,200
Notable authors: Greg Bear, Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss, John Norman
Background: E-Reads was founded in 1999 by literary agent Richard Curtis. Since then, the company has amassed a growing number of backlist titles, with particular strength in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Curtis said when it comes to the deal making, he works with a mix of agents and estates. He added that he sees agents as his stiffest competitors. “Earlier in the decade many agents gave us their backlists, but now they are keeping them for themselves.”
Company: Rosetta Books
Terms: Rosetta offers 50% of net receipts to 2,500 copies, and 60% thereafter. It acquires world English rights for a five-year license, and offers no advances.
Number of titles: 500
Notable authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Goodkind, Lisa See
Background: Started by another literary agent, Arthur Klebanoff, Rosetta made headlines soon after launching, when it became embroiled in a lawsuit with Random House over digital rights. (The suit, which began in 2001 and was ultimately settled, turned on the question of whether authors owned their digital rights if they signed contracts so old that the documents did not reference e-rights.) Now Klebanoff sees big opportunity in this space. On the subject of competition, he says: “There are several thousand attractive deep backlist rights available for licensing—more than enough to go around.” Like Curtis, Klebanoff is also striking deals with a variety of parties, from agents to estates, to authors themselves. That said, he noted that for backlist titles—Rosetta publishes some frontlist—he primarily negotiates with agents and lawyers.
Company: Open Road Integrated Media
Terms: A 50-50 profit share with no advances and no royalties, and a license ranging from three to seven years.
Number of titles: 3,000
Notable authors: William Styron, James Jones, Alice Walker, Pat Conroy, Pearl Buck
Background: The brainchild of former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, Open Road was created in 2009 and quickly became a leading digital publisher. As a spokesperson explained, the company “helped jumpstart this area,” and when it offered its first downloads in May 2010, “the issue of backlist titles as e-books became clear.” Now Open Road works with a mix of authors, agents, and estates, emphasizing its prowess as a marketer. Among the company’s pitches: 80% of its staff are marketers (headed by Luke Parker Bowles) creating content for its e-books. Though the company has begun to experiment with frontlist—it has an E-riginals program and also works with some authors on new titles—it predominantly publishes backlist.
Company: Argo Navis
Terms: 70% of revenue and a license term of three years.
Number of titles: “Hundreds,” according to Perseus’s David Steinberger
Notable authors: Actor Evan Handler (Californication), journalist Linda Wolfe, M.J. Rose, Nancy Friday
Background: Less of a publisher than a distributor, Argo Navis was launched in 2011 by Perseus to offer literary agents an easy way to publish their authors’ backlist e-books. Given its perch as an agent-focused service, David Steinberger, president and CEO of Perseus, said he doesn’t see any direct competitors. Thus far, 27 agents have signed agreements with Argo Navis.