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Is Traditional Publishing an Increasingly Bad Deal?

Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Steerpike, Jul 16, 2014.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, says the Society of Authors in the UK.

    Notable from this story, the median annual income for a professional writer in the UK is £11,000. That's abysmal.

    Publishers are still making money, but they're doing less for authors for the relatively small amount most authors are seeing in return.

    One has to wonder whether for most authors it even makes sense to pursue the traditional route anymore. At the very least, it seems like it would be best to at least try the self-publishing route to begin with, and then go after a hybrid model if you're successful.

    Traditional publishing is 'no longer fair or sustainable', says Society of Authors | Books | theguardian.com
     
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  2. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    Interesting. But some important things to note about the stats - they include journalists etc - this isn't just about authors. And I would guess the average journalist in employment earns a lot more than 11,000 ponds and many are only part time.

    Also those who aren't considered are those who aren't members of these various professional bodies. They weren't surveyed. And most of them probably earn a lot less.

    My 2c, it has always been a rough road trying to make a living as a writer - particularly a novelist - and self publishing has offered an alternative route to financial rewards. But for most of us we were never going to get rich from it. Hopefully we were going to get our work out there, achieve our goals as writers that way, and keep our day jobs.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  3. deilaitha

    deilaitha Sage

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    Britain is peculiar. In America, we are paid in money, not small bodies of water. ;)
     
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  4. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    The thing is, as I read it, those that are self-publishing are earning even less than those with the publishers. In another example, it takes the author so long to write because she's working basically two other jobs, so her earnings from writing are not substantial.

    Part of the reason that the publishers are earning more is because the advances are down, except for the celebrity types.

    As self-publishing becomes more and more viable, the traditional publishers will have to adjust. If not, the quality of what they have left to publish, and their ability to compete will slip.
     
  5. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    I don't understand when people suddenly decided they could make a real living as an author.

    The number of fiction authors who can support themselves on their books is, as it has always been, a vanishingly small fraction of those who have their books published. I think Vonnegut once said there were 10 that he could think of. Imagining one can do otherwise is no more realistic than buying a Powerball ticket and setting up a trust for your kids before the drawing.

    As Glen Cook put it in an interview:

    Think of it this way: the median family income in America is around $50,000, as it has been since the '70s (which shows how pathetic and decadent America has become despite all its ipods and streaming video, but that's another discussion). Let's say an author has to pull half the weight in the family because it takes two now to earn what one earned in the '70s (another indication of how pathetic, etc.). To earn $25,000 in sales from a traditional publisher in which 35% of sales are ebooks (a reasonable approximation), the author would have to sell about 5500 $25 hardcovers and 1800 ebooks); 10,500 $15 trade paperbacks and 3500 ebooks; and 17,000 $8 mass markets and nearly 5700 ebooks. That's your year one, which is what most publishers base their numbers on; they might put a token figure in their p&l for year two or paperback. I sat in a lot of postmortem meetings at Avon in the '90s, and I can tell you, those numbers were tough to hit even back then, even for World Fantasy Award winners. For every Ray Feist, there were 10 books that maybe did 10,000 in mass. Today, with orders cut to the bone to save on inventory (Amazon doesn't order very many copies up front, their entire business being built on reordering from distributors when they need inventory), I have to imagine those modest numbers are harder to hit.

    Let's look at it from the self-pub side. To make that same $25,000 on a $5 ebook for which the author gets a 35% royalty, the author would have to sell around 14,250 copies. How many self-pubd titles do that? How many authors, compiling the sales of all their titles, make that? And if they do after how many years of not making that?

    That's the living of publishing. You don't go into it for the money. You go into it because you can't imagine not doing it. I just sold my first story to Daily Science Fiction. It's 109 words including the title. I'm kicking myself because, had I not cut it to the bone as a challenge to get as close to 100 as possible, had I left in just 4 more words, my payment would have enabled me to afford a sofrita bowl at Chipotle. That said, I'm overjoyed. I published poetry for a decade. My total sales: $40 from one sale recently.

    It's not much different on the other side of the desk, either. The starting salary for an editorial asst is around $30,000 now. It was $17,500 when I started 20 years ago, and St Martins paid their assistants even less, $16,500.

    As to advances, they're down because orders are down, so the year one projections that advances are based on are also down.
     
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  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    For a five dollar ebook, you get 70% royalty, at least through Amazon. Still a fair number of books you have to sell, though. Given the breakdown, does traditional make more sense than self-pub?
     
  7. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    I checked that royalty. It's now only 70% in a few countries.

    Re trad v. self, that's a business decision: what chores do you want to off-load on another for an advance you might never earn out and royalties you would thus never see v. what chores do you want to contract for yourself so you can make more in the future to offset your upfront costs. Either way, though, on the issue of making a living from books, it's extraordinarily difficult.

    Well, there's one way to do it. I was on a panel once with Kai Bird. His book (the Oppenheimer one, I think) was 15 years late. He'd long since burned through his advance. An audience member asked, "How do you support your writing them?" He said he got regular cash infusions from the Laura Fund. The moderator said, "What's that?" He said, "My wife, Laura. She's a doctor."
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    No, it is 70% for books that meet the list price requirement ($2.99 or higher, in the U.S., for example). That's the standard royalty rate from Amazon. The countries mentioned above are the exceptions, where you also have to be enrolled in KDP Select to get the 70%.
     
  9. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    OK. My bad. So a self-published author has to sell 7000 or so copies, but I forgot the initial outlay for editing, cover design, etc. If that's, say, $1000 (which doesn't include the cost of time) then s/he'd have to sell 7300 copies to make his/her nut and cover that cost. So my question is, how many self-pubd books sell that well at that price? I'd add that if the books were sold for $2.99, then the author would have to sell 12,500 copies year one to make $25,000 and recoup the $1000 outlay. Same question, of course.

    And there's another question: How many authors are willing to give up their careers to make only $25,000?
     
  10. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    The economics of it is a difficult thing for an indie. Yes on a five buck book an indie should get 70% on almost all his sales of which the US and the UK are the big markets. So that's $3.50 a book. Simple math tells us that's just over 7,000 copies.

    But here's where it gets tricky. The indie needs services. Some do them themselves, most pay. So that comes down to three main expences. Editing which can be anywhere from $500 to $2000, a cover design $100 - $500, and marketing which is anyone's guess. So he's got to sell a few more to cover that.

    But, to cover that, the indie is not limited to producing books at a glacial pace. Four books a year is not uncommon.

    So lets assume our indie manages that, produces four books a year and for the sake of easy maths, his costs on each book are $2,500. Now we need for our indie to cover $25,000 profit and $10,000 expences with four books. That's 10,000 total sales or 2,500 sales per book on average.

    That's doable. Most of my fantasies and sci fi's sell around 2000 copies within a year of first being published. (If I could stop wasting writing time on Christian fiction, urban fantasy and shorter works, I'd be there. Damned muse - I need to punish her sternly!)

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    It's really not as simple as that. Trad publishing is not something you choose, you only choose to submit your work to agents and/or publishers. Then THEY get to decide whether to take a punt on you. It's less a business decision than a dream you pursue. A matter of the heart, not the head.

    Self-publishing, on the other hand, is very much a business decision. You get to make all the decisions: what work you can do yourself, for no cost beyond your time, and which has to be paid for, and if so, exactly how much to pay. Then you can assess the likely return on that investment. It's perfectly possible to put out a self-pubbed book at zero cost, by doing everything yourself, or trading with other authors, or calling in favours from talented friends. Then you're in profit after one sale.
     
  12. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    I agree with you in the sense that some people don't want to be authors. They want to be chosen. They usually aren't.

    But I disagree that selling a book to a traditional publisher isn't a business decision. It's just one an author's not entirely in control of. It's no different than seeking outside funding for a business. You trade control for other assets. As George RR Martin says in a new interview with Buzzy Mag:

     
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2014
  13. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    This is a fair point which inspires the question: How many authors have four books a year in them that are worth publishing and buying? Because if they aren't, those 2000 readers will go away quick.
     
  14. deilaitha

    deilaitha Sage

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    Others have said this more eloquently than I, but most writers write for the love of writing. Neither self nor trad will get you rich quick (unless you are an anomaly). The chief benefit of self-publishing is that you maintain control of your rights.

    Either way, the money is just a craps shoot.
     
  15. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I think it would on what kind of living an author is aiming for. Not everyone wants the stereotypical American Dream[SUP]TM [/SUP]of a big suburban house, a couple of cars, and a nuclear family with a litter of kids. For me a small condo all to myself (and maybe one girlfriend who could also bring in money) would suffice, and I don't even trust myself with a vehicle. Not sure how much that would cost or whether being a full-time author could cover it, but it sounds pretty low-maintenance to me.
     
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Traditional Publishing might be an increasingly bad deal, but I'm not sure it's easy to say that self-publishing is faring any better. It's a tough time for a tough business, and I think the worsening of publishing deals only reflects that it's becoming increasingly difficult for a new author to stand out. The market is flooded with books, and I think it's going to take some time to adjust to the way the industry has changed.
     
  17. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Actually it's very easy to say if you've looked at this data collected by author Hugh Howey and an anonymous computer programmer (and author) who goes by "Data Guy":

    July 2014 Author Earnings Report – Author Earnings

    The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report – Author Earnings

    (And there are several other reports worth reading. Remember, you don't have to take their interpretation for it, you can look at the data yourself for free.)

    And also look through this thread on The Passive Voice blog where hundreds of writers come forward to talk about how they've reached "quitting-the-dayjob" success through indie publishing:

    Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing


    The fact that so many writers are willing to accept the idea that authors just don't make enough money to support themselves as a normal and ok thing is very disappointing. Especially because it's only true for most authors because the writers get the smallest cut of the money from the content they create and because publishing companies continue to control the rights to their work preventing authors from making money on it in any other way than through the publisher. This is not normal. Publishers have been exploiting authors for decades and the exploitation gets worse and worse every year. Authors need to fight back against this by refusing to sign with publishing companies who won't give fair and mutually profitable contract terms and maintaining control of their work and their career.
     
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  18. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    The problems with Howey's data and scraping process were well documented the last time this report came out. Most importantly, he's just looking at a relatively small sample of books, the bestsellers of slice of a slice of a slice genres. It's like he's measuring the skill of all soccer players in England by just looking at the winners of every league.

    I suspect he's nonetheless roughly correct when it comes to his most salient point when it comes to the publishing industry, but that point is entirely misleading when applied to individual authors:

    What he doesn't answer: how many authors? If 20% of revenue from literary fiction comes from "The Goldfinch"--whose appeal he aggressively underplays as "a single aggressively-promoted title" despite it being the Pulitzer winner, a long-awaited novel from a bestselling author, extensively talked about it in both literary and pop fictions arenas, and arguably the book of the year--then how much of that 40% comes from just a few huge authors? How many authors receive just a pittance of it? And what order of magnitude of authors aren't being counted in his report at all.

    I am entirely in agreement on another point: DRM is an insane business strategy. No book should have it.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    If we've concluded that one is unlikely to become rich, either by pursuing the traditional route or the self-publishing route, and that the average traditionally-published author isn't really making that much money (and knowing some mid-list authors, I can tell you that they confirm this), then the question is this:

    Why give up the control and go the traditional route, without at least trying the self-publishing route. If you're not liely to be substantially better off, is it worth what you're giving up?

    Obviously, if you're Stephanie Meyer and you are offered a $3/4 million dollar advance for your first novel, it would seem crazy to turn it down and hope you can do better self-publishing. But for the average author where the advance, if any, looks small, it doesn't seem to me to be worth going traditional right off the bat, and not at least trying the alternative.
     
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I'm not clear what point you're trying to make. Some people do well self-publishing, sure. But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of self-published books just don't sell. Not at all. And most people have no idea what they're doing when it comes to selling their books and standing out above the published slush pile.

    Self-publishing at present remains a deeply flawed industry, with an overwhelming amount of content, few quality controls, and nowhere near the number of marketing venues required to sustain them all. Negotiating power has shifted towards traditional publishers because of the way that the self-publishing craze has reduced the potential of a single author. And until something changes this is going to remain a difficult time for the industry.
     
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