More Money Musings – and Publishing

A launch down at Plymouth

A little more about money, since apparently everyone is interested in authors and their incomes.

First, although people seem to understand the simple principle that “advances” are only interest free loans against future income, there is still confusion about how much authors get paid.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of advances, these massive sums which make the intrepid author so wealthy, tend to be below the £10,000 mark. However, as we all know, top flight authors earn a lot more.

Some years ago I was told of an author who earned a huge half-million advance for a first novel. In fact, the advance was so massive (this was in the 1980s) that the papers picked up on it. The media apparently descended on the fellow in droves, and the sales of his book rocketed. As you would expect.

Except when my agent told me about this super-happy novice author, about ten years later, he had earned in total about fifteen thousand. Not a half million, not even a hundred thousand, but less than a tenth. How could that be?

Easy. The publicity team at the publisher got it splashed because of the massive advance. But what was not explained to the poor hacks who shoved this news story over their front pages, was that the contract money was almost entirely dependent upon a film deal. No film, no huge sum in advances. His actual advance was much smaller, and I don’t think he earned out.

Most authors are very lucky to get more than a few thousands. In a survey conducted by the Society of Authors in the 1990s, it was found that the top authors sucked out most of all the money from the trade. That is not news: it’s the same in almost every profession. For some professions it’s roughly the top twenty percent who win eighty percent of all the money, the 80:20 rule; in others it’s more like the top one percent get ninety percent. Nothing new in that.

Obviously, other authors suffer. At the time of the survey, the national average wage was some twenty one thousand pounds.

In the SoA survey it was found that three quarters of all authors earned less than twenty thousand pounds; two thirds earned less than half that; and half earned less than a quarter – in other words, they were making less than five thousand pounds from their writing each year. What was truly depressing was, that two of these people, who had no other income, actually thought that this money was reasonable compensation for their efforts.

In the past there were many authors who were being developed. There were ranks of “mid-listers”, who were the authors who were growing, and who were hoped to make some money at some point in the future. The publishers kept them on, because they could afford to.

The delight of the book industry was, you see, that prices were protected. Shock! Horror! That means the poor punter could not get a discount. And the punter was lucky.

Another book signing - Good Old Tiverton!

If you were to buy a book at a local bookshop, you would pay the same as you would in a large retail outlet. No discount.

There were a couple of beneficial spin-offs to this. First, publishers were flush with money. They had the ability to keep authors going, even with small print runs, because they knew that they would get a reasonable return. So it kept a number of authors in print even though their audience at that time was minimal.

The second benefit was, bookshops could afford to stock these books. They knew that they would earn some forty percent or so of the cover price, and because the buyer could as easily purchase from the corner bookshop as from a Borders, the bookshop could stock an eclectic mix of different books, knowing that he would make profits from the fast turnover of the latest Grisham or Dick Francis.

Since the end of price-fixing, what have been the benefits?

Well, buyers can now buy books at huge discounts. You can walk into a Waterstone’s and get a hardback for half price. That is good. For you, in order to get that one book.

However, the knock-on effect has been the complete eradication of the small local shop. All the little bookshops that held the strange, weird and wonderful mixed books on underwater basket-weaving, have gone. That means those more curious books now cannot be published. They have gone.

A seond impact has been that discounting crucified the publishers. That is why (see my last post) authors’ incomes have been heavily slashed – the publishers are keen to share their pain. They have to discount, so they pay authors not on the price of the book, but on the money they get in. Instead of seven percent of the paperback’s price, authors get seven percent of net receipts – so if the book is discounted fifty percent, the author’s income is halved.

But it’s worse than that, of course. The publishers can see that they have to focus on the very top authors, the ones that earn them the most. So, logically, having listened to their accountants, they have taken an axe to their midlists.

Five years ago I heard of one crime list in which the despairing editor had taken over a stable of thirty three or four authors, and in the course of ten years, she had been forced to reduce it down and down, until at that stage she only had sixteen left. And she had been told to cut it by another two.

Many good authors cut; many good potential books never to be printed. That is the result of the cutting of prices of books.

And there’s more, of course. I have no idea what the total number of bookshops forced to close may be, but here in the West country, it is more than ninety percent, I’d guess. The shops in Plymouth have all gone; there is one in Tavistock; one in Crediton. In Newton Abbot, the last folded this year. Apart from them, there are very few in Devon. They couldn’t compete with the super-discounted mass-sellers, and without them, couldn’t keep their stocks of esoteric knowledge. All gone. And this week even Borders looks to have decided it’ll have to close its doors.

Now – many people will say, all those authors who aren’t massive-sellers don’t deserve to be printed. You shouldn’t keep the prices of all books higher just to keep a few authors in print when they can’t hack it.

The answer to that is, almost all the top selling authors today were once mid-listers. Writers like Ian Rankin, like Terry Pratchett, spent many years as mid-listers before hitting their own sweet spot and becoming millionaires. With the system now in place, those two authors (and many like them) would have lost their contracts, and lost their careers. Their readers would have lost the delight these two have brought.

There is another argument against price fixing, of course: that is, that authors today have many other alternatives to old-fashioned dead tree publishing. They can self-publish, or they can put books on the web as ebooks. So they’re lucky.

No, of course they aren’t. If someone puts a book on the internet, how does he or she persuade people to look at it? There is a need for money to design the covers, time has to be spent contributing on web fora, more time and effort spent writing comments on Twitter and facebook – time that would be far better spent writing a book instead.

Books are being lost because authors don’t have time to write them, because they are falling through the net (no one can find them on the web in order to buy them) and because authors get so dejected they start looking at other alternatives, rather than writing.

So these are very interesting times in publishing.

Are books dying? If so, the disease is taking a long time to kill them off. However, I am not utterly despondent.

All businesses and business models are changing the whole time. Publishing is just one. It is seriously alarming that Google and Amazon appear to be attempting a worldwide monopoly on books and learning, but soon anti-trust cases will have to be launched to curb their ambitions.

In the future, I believe that there will be more web-based publishers. Firms which will employ editors, copyeditors, marketeers, publicists, and trained salespeople. They will pay a lesser royalty, but promise marketing and sales input that will help flog the books.

And then, hopefully, you will again begin to see authors being left alone to write, and you will see the weird and wonderful odd books beginning to return.

Er, if you have a few hundred thousand quid, bung it my way and I’ll set up the first business with this model. It’ll make us millionaires!

And you will recall the ancient Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”!

6 Responses to “More Money Musings – and Publishing”
  1. Act More says:

    This is a fascinating post. What about ebooks? A blogger with a decent following can publish an ebook and make more than if he ever seriously published the book, right?


    • Hi – and yes. But as I pointed out at the back end of this piece and the one before, the trouble with ebooks is getting the news out there. Now you might well have a blog with two thousand readers, in which case you’ll hope to convert quite a percentage, but for me it’s still not in the same league as selling fifty thousand of my paperbacks every six months. The calculation I have to go through is: how much would I have to charge per book, how much would I take at 75% royalty, and how much therefore would I earn from epubs rather than dead trees. And it’s not so easy to calculate. i don’t have a massive following on blogs yet – It’s all new to me still – and so I’m like other authors, still feeling the water. One fear I have is that medievalists and readers of medieval books tend to be less enthusiastic about holding lumps of plastic rather than bendable pieces of paper!

      However, it will happen. electronic works will take over. And I am only hoping that in the brave new world there will be better methods of spreading the news about good books to be read. I cannot trust Amazon or the other, normal methods of disseminating news of new books! It’s too hard to find something new.


    • Izza says:

      I grew up in Cochrane Park and joined High Heaton Library when I was 5. That was in 1958 when it was made out of wood! I waekld there and back every Saturday morning. I loved everything about that library. Not just the books either .the librarian’s hand-held date stamper fascinated me.. How I wanted one of those! Closing public libraries is an outrage. They are ours and we must fight to keep them all.


  2. An insightful article. Depressing but ending with a forcefully hopeful note…I guess it’s either that or cry.


    • I haven’t burst into tears yet! But I think there is cause to be positive generally. The main risk, I believe, is the monopoly of Google/Amazon. However, without a monopolistic approach, how would people know where to go to access books? So in general I’m pretty hopeful. Otherwise, I would be sobbing into my whisky!


  3. Carsten says:

    Biblio, I agree; things are chgnaing but book lovers are as excited as ever about new books and their favorite authors. I saw an article this morning about how book festivals are drawing larger crowds than ever. The writer believes this to be because fewer and fewer publishers are sending their authors out on the road to meet their readers. Regional book festivals, once or twice a year, might be a good compromise that publishers can still afford and readers will settle for. I suppose we’ll see.


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