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Straddling the divide: Michael Chabon has mixed feelings about granting ebook rights

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Starting this week and continuing into 2012, virtually all Michael Chabon novels, stories and other writings will become available as ebooks, news the author looks upon with pleasure and resignation.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Chabon has been a published author since 1988, long enough to land on both sides of the legal and financial digital divide.

Chabon controls e-rights to such early works as "Wonder Boys" and his acclaimed debut novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" because they came out well before the electronic era and digital editions were not mentioned in his contracts. For those books, Chabon signed with Open Road Integrated Media, a digital publisher that offers 50 per cent royalties. Chabon called the terms "extremely fair and generous."

E-rights to "Kavalier & Clay," published in 2000 by Random House, and such recent HarperCollins releases as "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" are owned by the original publishers. For those editions, Chabon's royalties will be around 25 per cent, the industry standard and comparable to what publishers offer for hardcovers and paperbacks. Countless writers and agents have said the rate for ebooks should be raised.

"I agreed to the traditional ebook 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 ebook revolution," Chabon said recently.

"When it comes to royalties on a paper book, that rate (25 per cent) 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 ebook that costs them nothing to produce."

A spokeswoman for HarperCollins, Tina Andreadis, said that the publisher does not "comment on our contracts with our authors." Jane von Mehren, senior vice-president and publisher of trade paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group, declined to comment on Chabon's criticism. But she did say in a statement that Random House was "thrilled" to release the e-book and trade paperback of "Kavalier & Clay" in June 2012 and "reach all the potential readers of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece."

With ebooks estimated at 20 per cent of overall sales, and growing, the fight for new and old releases intensifies. Amazon.com, which also offers higher e-royalty rates than traditional publishers, has aggressively expanded its publishing program and signed the bestselling self-help author Timothy Ferriss. Open Road, co-founded in 2009 by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, has acquired e-rights to several popular "backlist" works, including Pat Conroy's "The Prince of Tides," Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying."

For traditional publishers, holding on to a classic can be expensive: Simon & Schuster reportedly paid seven figures for electronic rights to Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

Unlike Bradbury, who has likened ebooks to "burned fuel," the 48-year-old Chabon has no philosophical objections, only contractual ones. He has a Kindle app and iBook app and says one of his four children is enjoying the e-versions of the "Lady Grace" mystery series. He loves paper texts and believes they will last forever, but understands the convenience, and necessity, of buying a book at any time.

"I don't want someone who just finished 'Wonder Boys' and wants to read another one of my books to be unable do so because there's no bookstore nearby," he says.

"The technology is a cool technology, the appeal is obvious. As readers, we tend to be more subject, more prey to the need of instant gratification. Readers are greedy. It's a benign greed, and I think ebooks have the potential to satisfy that greed."

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