What Authors Need to Know About Online Publishing

Online publishing can seem like the ideal outlet to new and existing authors — an outlet that bypasses the traditional gatekeepers of conventional publishing.

Traditional publishing often takes the lion’s share of the cover price, with the author receiving as little as 3%, while online services offer as much as 70% of the sale price. But at what cost?


Online services, especially coupled with the Print on Demand services, offer many benefits. However, in recent years there has been some confusion and furor about the terms and conditions of these services.

Traditional contracts between publishers and authors specified any advance payment, royalties, and the number of books which would be printed. But in keeping with changes in the publishing industry, the contract world has changed accordingly.

The three major services offering authors direct digital publishing are Amazon Kindle, Google Play, and Apple iBooks. Each requires authors to sign publishing agreements.

Here’s why you should check these agreements carefully…

Amazon Kindle

AmazonAmazon has made a name for itself by creating hardware specifically for readers. The Kindle has become insanely popular as a specialised eReader offering access to a massive marketplace, with cut-throat prices.

The Amazon agreement has two tiers, one which sells an eBook as a trading commodity via Amazon.com and another which is tied to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

KDP includes a lending library called Kindle Unlimited, which many digital experts question as being a feasible concept. How can you lend an electronic book?

Authors are paid by the number of pages that are parsed or displayed long enough to have been read by the reader.

Several authors have compared this to buying a meal from a supermarket, taking a few bites and then taking it back because you don’t like it. Any supermarket may refund once, but surely on an ongoing basis it would generate bad will.

The author agreement also ties the author into an exclusive agreement with Amazon for the book itself, requiring that it not be available anywhere else in printed form for as long as it’s available through KDP Direct.

Apple iBooks

A few years ago Apple caused a minor storm with this paragraph within its Author Licence:

“(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;

(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.”

Apple iBooks

The internet soon noticed that agreeing to the clause gave Apple copyright ownership of your book and assumed sole rights for publication, distribution, and denial of publication. There was a lot of dismay over this and not just from authors. Apple went on to clarify the matter, stating in an additional clause that they only reserved the right to exercise full control over the iBook format, and not the work being published:

“If you want to charge a fee for a work that includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author, you may only sell or distribute such work through Apple, and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple. This restriction does not apply to the content of such works when distributed in a form that does not include files in the .ibooks format.”

This is basically a clause that prevents the author, customer, or any potential intermediary from selling the book in that specific format without a clear agreement, and presumably monetary remuneration with Apple.

How does that affect the author?

Appealing to the widest possible market is the Holy Grail of online publishing. In order to do that, any book requires promotion and ease of access, which means multiple formats.

This agreement ties the use of the popular apple iBook format to a legal agreement with Apple, and stops any use of third party, direct sales in that format without a written legal agreement with Apple.

Google Play

Google seems the most benign of the big three with a simple, easy to follow contract. The primary problem with Google Play at this point is that it doesn’t seem to be well managed. Of particular interest to authors is that Google Play is a haven for book pirates.

Google Play

Of course, that is a problem for authors whatever form they publish in. But it could cause readers to turn away from Google Play Books, if they find they are paying for cheap ripoffs rather than the real thing.


Online publishing gives the author a significantly greater share of the revenue, but it has as many limitations as conventional publishing.  Authors are well advised to check through all of the terms and conditions of each and every service before they sign on the digital dotted line.

The unbound book conference by Institute of Network Cultures. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Amazon-kindle-logo by El Taller del Bit. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Available on the App Store (black)” by Apple Inc.appstore/AppStoreMarketingGuidelines.pdf. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Google Play logo” by Google. – This vector image was created by converting the Encapsulated PostScript file available at Brands of the World (viewdownload).Remember not all content there is in general free, see Commons:Fair use for more.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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