The World
An aerial view of The World Island in Dubai Oct. 25, 2010. Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

DUBAI -- I was talking on Dubai Eye Radio's The Business Breakfast the other week about the wonderful story of Sonia Land and Random House.

Literary agent Sonia Land (of the highly respected agency Shiel Land Associates) signed up prolific author Catherine Cookson to publish her backlist online under a new imprint, Peach Publishing. Over a hundred Cookson titles have consequently appeared on Amazon's Kindle Store. (The covers alone are a talking point and have prompted more than one comment along the lines of If that's your idea of cover art, I hope you're better at the rest of the publishing skill set.)

The teensy weensy fly in the Cookson ointment is that she already has a publisher, Random House subsidiary Transworld. Land offered a higher royalty rate, according to The Bookseller. In a Hollywood-style gambit, the news was followed hard by Random House signing top author Tom Sharpe to publish his backlist on Kindle with them, cutting out his literary agent of some 30 years' standing -- see where this is going yet? -- Sonia Land. At least the Tom Sharpe covers are pukkah.

Heavy hitter agent Ed Victor has followed suit and others have confirmed they are looking at launching their own imprints. You'd be forgiven for surmising that, faced with an existential threat, publishing is tearing itself apart.

The issue of royalty rates for e-books has been an increasing rubbing point between agents and publishers -- Amazon takes 30 percent of a Kindle book, leaving a whopping 70 percent for the publisher (or author, if you're self-pubbed). Agents are arguing that given the physical costs of print, distribution and returns are now out of the equation, a royalty rate of 50 percent of the cover price for the author is equitable. Publishers are currently paying 20 to 25 percent.

Agents generally get 15 percent of their author's income from books. So an e-book with a $10 cover price (incredibly expensive, by the way, in e-book terms) would currently give Amazon $3, the publisher $4.50, the author $2.125 and the agent $0.375.

The growing pressure many authors feel in favor of self-publishing is only increased by the realization that selling your book at a much more realistic $2.99 would net you, the self-published author, $2.09 -- nearly as much money as going through a publisher and an agent and selling at $10. There's increasing traction around that $2.99 price point -- and if your book sold at that price through a publisher/agent, you as the author would get a lowly $0.635.

Meanwhile, the most successful indie author of all time, million-selling Amanda Hocking, has signed a $2 million deal with a traditional publisher through an agent, presumably retaining her digital rights. Oh, to have the clout to do that!

The question now becomes, How much value do a publisher and an agent give me here? What are their roles in the e-book world? This question is also being asked a lot by publishers and agents. Any answers on a postcard, please!

Alexander McNabb is a Dubai-based author. This piece was originally posted on his blog, Fake Plastic Souks. Check it out at