What value do you add?

First a little bit of Amazon BAAAAAD, B&N GOOOOOOD to fascinate you.
I’m always amazed at this whole good and evul thing with book-sellers and publishers. It’s really not that black and white. These are people you’re doing business with. Not lovers or fairy-tale creatures. There may once upon a time have been good book publishers who found talent and nurtured it, so the world could be a better place, and good booksellers who hand-sold great literature for the sake of readers and writers, purely… In some widely diverging universe maybe there still are. But in this one they’d have a mouse’s survival in a cattery. I’d trust Amazon or B&N for that matter, about as far as I could throw up, and projectile vomit isn’t one of my talents. But the truth is all of these companies have good and bad points. Amazon has not done anything that B&N didn’t as far as I can see. And from the author’s perspective, they’ve given us several very valuable gifts. They gave the number Publishers kept secret from us… free. They gave access to retail space, free, which meant that publishers no longer closed off all the access to that, except through them. They paid rates we could only dream of from anyone else. They gave us prompt payment. They did more for authors than anyone else.

This is something that no other bookseller, or publisher did. They could have. There is still an awful lot of help most authors need. The best thing that B&N and Apple and Google and the publishing houses could do, is match or batter these conditions and add some extra help. Instead, the authors guild wants us back on the plantation? I don’t trust Amazon, but if it’s that or a return to the old order I know what I am choosing.

I’d agree that publishing adds value – the issue is: how much is that worth? Historically publishing actually added value in three main ways: 1) Editorial expertise – intellectual labor (which is what writing is – intellectual labor, even mine.) 2)Seeing to the production and distribution of the paper product. 3)And this trumped them all, and meant the true value of one and two were irrelevant to the cost of their services. They provided access to retail space which was basically not available in any other way.

Unfortunately Macmillan’s scrap with Amazon ended up in the authors winning the battle for Macmillan (for which they got no thanks or reward, but more grasping), and Amazon replying by doing away with points two and three. So now publishers are once again relying the value added by intellectual labor. And having lost their trump card, exclusive access to retail space, they actually have no idea what that is worth. They’re trying to continue as if it was worth points 1,2&3. The value add = how much (plus a little) authors see publishers as worth. The trouble for publishers is intellectual labor is directly comparable with what the author does. Let’s assume you’re a really fast writer, working 8 hour days 5 days a week (for most of us this is a dream) and you finish a book in more or less 3 months – call it 500 hours of intellectual labor. Now, the book goes to your publisher – where it is very hard to conclude it sees more than 100 hours actual labor, not all of it very skilled. So at best your publisher is putting in 1/5 of the time you do (and this is probably the most generous estimate.) But you would expect a highly skilled editor to be worth more per hour than you are. Maybe… even 5 times. 400% more than you are valued at. Except… that’s a _total_ including the time of intern, and the badly paid copy-editor. So the skill level being paid for by the consumer and author is not particularly high. — and of course that’s NOT what these people get paid. This is a measure of value added. But it actually gets worse. The publisher expects to take 55% of the total income as to your 15% (1:3.66) for 1/5 of intellectual labor. Which leaves the intellectual labor of your publisher valued – by their share of the income – at at least 18.3 times yours, and quite probably a lot more. Yes, actually the money goes into paying rent in Park Avenue, and the interest on the huge advance they paid Joe, and the Legal department. But none of these things add value to the final product for the author or the reader, just to the publisher.

So: how much is your work worth relative to your editor’s work? Do you accept their contribution being worth 18 times yours? Or like me do you put a different relative value on their work.
Do you see a different way for them to approach this issue of relative value added?


  1. So I work in IT in a start up. We sell direct and also via distributors and resellers. We have a fairly simple way to determine how much discount/commission you get on any sale you make. Basically we have a number of N%s (where N ranges between 4 & 10 depending on your commitment to volume – and tends to start low but go up as you sell more).
    You get N% for a referral. You get another N% if you actively help close the deal (i.e. do some selling and don’t make us do all the work). You get another N% if you do first level tech support and you get another N% if you actually bill the customer and manage all that paperwork. And I think there’s another N% that I’ve forgotten.

    It seems to me that publishers/amazon should get somethign similar. And I agree Amazon does more or less do that. They get 10% for handing the sale, 10% for providing the website & kindle etc.

    I don’t see the same applying to (large, traditional) publishers. And that is definitely a problem. The sooner they go bust the better. I just feel sorry for the various authors who’ll learn that bust or not they agreed to terms that are pretty similar to prison rape (only choice: bring your own butter or not).

    1. agreed. Targets would make sense. For example I would be eager to sign up for a final 15% royalty… if the publisher would sign up for making good on certain sales and marketing targets. It would make perfect sense to me to merely earn 15%… if that 15% meant more money for less hassle than I could achieve on my own earning 70% selling directly to Amazon. The trouble is that the value they did add was obscured by the enormous power that exclusive access to the retail space gave them. What they’re doing at the moment is worth perhaps 10-15% of the gross price.

  2. Yes, actually the money goes into paying rent in Park Avenue, and the interest on the huge advance they paid Joe, and the Legal department.

    From their perspective, those are a large part of the point to being a publisher. I doubt they’d be able to see the need while they still have enough of a backlist to subsidize the failures of the current business model.

    As to how much an editor is worth, IIRC you mentioned in the past your admiration for Eric Flint’s structural editing skills. What percent would he charge to edit a book that will end up published independently?

    1. Why should that be a percent? Why should an editor get a portion of the book sales forever more? There’s room in this for the editor as someone hired by an author for a reasonable amount (which could ultimately lead to the better editors becoming well paid ‘superstars’ who could command much higher rates than less good ones).

      It’s an option that’s already starting to happen – in which case the editor’s share is what the author thinks their services are worth.

      1. Exactly. As you know I pay my best editor a flat fee. And have been doing it on traditionally published books, simply because that improves the book.

        Dave — I’m seeing more draconian edits across the board. Draconian and wrong headed. I don’t know if I got lucky, or if this is a move from the industry to “improve” their contribution. One edit was so bad that the chief editor discarded it wholesale when I got sarcastic. It was supposed to be a copyedit, but it was an edit and it was BAD (this being an historical and done by someone with no real knowledge of history beyond wikipedia.) And it’s becoming a trend. For 21 books I was left to run unfettered, and frankly learn my stuff. Now I’m being edited by people who haven’t EDITED 21 books.

        Yes, I know I’ve said I’d pay for the editorial services of a Campbell, say, but look here GOOD editors are as rare as good writers. It is both a matter of instinct and a matter of craft. You learn with each thing you edit. I’ve seen Amanda become from decent to a very good editor. Dan started at good, and I think he could be “legendary” if he wanted to do it, which he doesn’t. Me? I’m primarily a writer. I tend to assume everyone I’m editing not only has my tool box, but likes the same effects. Apparently this isn’t true. So I have to work really hard at it. I can do it, but gifted I ain’t.

        So what will this effort at editorial excellence on the part of traditionals generate? My guess is it will p&ss off authors further.

        Oh, and you’re wrong on your estimation of value. Time isn’t value. But that means what the author creates: original creative work, is even more valuable. There are few people who can do it and very few work at publishing houses. And it also means that unless the publishers can contribute unique, rare talent in editing, they have lost the game.

        What does this all mean? I

        1. Hmm. explains a bit about getting editing suddenly that I never got before.
          How do you estimate value added by intellectual labor then, Sarah? Yes, a genius editor can spot (and fix) something in one read -through of 2 hours, that a mediocre one can’t in 2 months. That just means that the gen genius is worth a lot more in value add than a bad one. A great editor can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. There are just very few great editors. But it needs a time component to it. Your time -as a fast writer – is worth more per hour than a slow writer (not as the industry thinks, less). And yes, original creative work is rarer and harder than most editing, but it is the same kind of work – like comparing peaches with nectarines, rather than old days where publishing could claim their work was like comparing peaches with plastic giraffes.

          1. I’m HOPING that we can just pay the good ones more. That they’ll have lines to their door. I’m hoping to make enough to keep my favorite editor working for me on retainer. I’m hoping to be able to pay him so much he won’t have a day job or take other commissions. Yes, I know how unlikely that is, but h*ll, it’s worth dreaming.

            Honestly, as with writing there is no way to estimate what a good editor is worth, because it’s SUCH a unique characteristic. I’m hoping that as results show, people will beat a path to their door.

            I am willing, btw, to pay 50% of proceeds in that language to anyone wishing to translate my books and put them up in foreign languages. I would PARTICULARLY like someone to translate the musketeers into Portuguese because my dad wants to read it.

        2. Editing is tough. I’m learning it the hard way, by doing it.

          Then I get the scare of my life. A friend wants me to publish her book. Shirley Meier has been published by Baen in the past, and her earlier stuff was good, solid work. The Starfire one with Steve White was a fun romp.

          The one she handed me? I think it’s Hugo Award material.

          I’m being really careful with it. Really careful. It’s so good that I’m scared I’ll ruin something if I touch it. I talk to her about everything. I think that she thinks I’m turning into a gibbering idiot at this point…


          1. Speaking as an editor — newspaper, although I do have a couple/three books under my belt at this point. I’d love to just charge a flat fee or per word rate and call it good. I _can_ make your finished product better but it’s still _your_ product and I don’t see the need for any editor to earn a percentage of an author’s royalties in perpetuity for any reason.

      2. Why should it be a percent?

        Clearly it need not be, but philisophically I think it’s beneficial for all sorts of “skin in game” teamwork kinds of reason.

        It also depends on a risk/reward calculation by both the editor and author. Some editors will want certainty and thus a fixed fee (probably paid by a specified date), others will prefer the potential larger but later rewards of getting a %age of sales. Likewise some authors will prefer to make a book with a number of fixed costs and then see all sales beyond those needed to pay those costs as pure profit. Others will prefer not (or may be unable) to pay costs for editor, cover artist etc. up front and would rather pay for those services as a percentage of sales.

        And no doubt there can be hybrid models (smaller fixed fee plus %age).

        I think there’s a lot to be said for the current state of the market where all participants can experiment with different models because I doubt it is going to be clear which model is best.

        I will note that in my experience (writing technical white papers & the like) a good editor is priceless. Not that that means she is woth 50% of the sale exactly but the improvements a good editor can make/suggest are immensely valuable and deserve to be paid for. OTOH a bad editor is, as Sarah says, of limited if not negative value

        1. Francis,
          A “good editor” is also highly subjective — which is another way in which it’s a good thing to have an open market for writers to find editors. Take my second agent — he has a “formula” by which he “makes” bestsellers. He really does. He’s done so for half a dozen people I know. But his attempts to do it to me resulted in the highly flawed version of All Night Awake which of all my books (including small press under pen names) remains the lousiest seller. See, the formula he applies is a thriller formula. I won’t say my books are all interior, but I think most of the work I do is with the characters. I have plots also, and action, but to me the interest is how those affect the character, not some big external goal. Having “an important person” at risk is part of his formula — it’s not part of mine, since I’ve stated I find the whole “corridors of power” thing a dead bore. So… He’d be a great editor for someone writing and marketing thrillers, for a character-oriented Shakespearean fantasy he, to be honest, sucked.
          There are very very few editors who can rise above that sort of thing. And a bad editor can kill a book, particularly when working with a writer with no self-esteem. (Which most of us are to some extent.)

          For instance, just from work on short stories, I know I couldn’t work with Eric Flint (Yes, that’s what delayed our collaboration so long.) No, it’s not that I think my work or words are sacred. I have at various times worked to specification and I’ve done any amount of writing and changing to order. No, it’s more that we approach writing from COMPLETELY different head spaces. He will tell me things need to be done that just make me stare aghast and go “but… that requires rewriting the story from page one.” Or he’ll tell me such and such a character needs to be based on “x person we both know” — which except for very minor tuckerizations is NOT how I work. Completely different head spaces. In fact, I think my approach worries him as much, because the one time I gave him something (the first version of the Shakespeare book) he looked at it and couldn’t explain to me what he thought was wrong other than that his series had moved on past the point at which it would have come in. But he couldn’t figure out HOW to fix that without killing the rest of the novel. Which is why it will be rewritten with a completely different plot soon.

          Dave has called Eric’s editing modular. You take a unit of plot and move it around and drop it elsewhere or point it in the opposite direction. Mine is organic (which is not the same as unstructured.) There are tendrils going everywhere from even the smallest subplot. If you eliminate one of those, or add one of those, you can follow through and clean up the pointers and repoint. BUT if you MOVE things around or make them have a different meaning, you effectively kill the book. It’s sort of like moving organs around on an animal, as opposed to shelves on an ikea unit.

          On the fee vs. percentage — you MIGHT be right on some people being willing to hire an editor for percentage, but look at the other side of “skin in the game”. If the editor has done all this work, and he thinks your book needs three pages of sex, and the only way he’s going to get paid is percentage, then you just put yourself in the same position as with traditional publishing, where you have to take the chance this editor hit the vision just right and will make it better and not truncate it or castrate it. For someone like me who writes from something other than the front brain and who, therefore, can’t always DEFEND her choices without days of thought, this is a HUGE impairment.

          1. To an extent. Depends on how much you trust the editor to do his/her best without it. But I think it would drive me nuts. Of course, I don’t work well with others unless I like them BEFORE we work together… And sometimes not then. Dan and I collaborating would probably kill our marriage.

  3. You’re right in not trusting Amazon. The way that Amazon prices e-books for their international customers at Amazon.com leaves little doubt that they’re… let’s be polite and call it less than trustworthy. Charging $3.44 for a $0.99 book on the flimsy excuse of taxes and wireless fees is a clear scam. That’s why whenever possible I avoid them. Bunch of… insert you’re choice of expletives here. :0)

    Rui Jorge

    1. I’m not going to argue with you about the prices except I will point out that it isn’t clearly a scam. Yes, they do have to pay taxes and, yes, they do need to pay for delivery. A lot of that is imposed by the country in which a customer lives, especially if that customer lives in a country where Amazon doesn’t have a dedicated “store”. That said, no, I don’t completely trust them. I don’t completely trust any store or publisher or company. However, as I said in my post on Saturday, I’m tired of a certain group of writers and legacy publishers and booksellers claiming that all of publishing’s problems lie directly at Amazon’s feet.

      1. Hi Amanda,

        I’ve no problem with the tax charge, that’s a proper one. My problem is with the wireless fees that make most of the mark up on the e-books for international customers. It’s a blanket charge, applied to everyone. That’s a shady practice since not all their international customers have a 3g kindle, or even a kindle. Their charging a fee for a service they haven’t provided to those customers, and that those customers at that time have no way to use. That looks like a scam to me.

        I’m not saying that Amazon is the source of all evil by the way. Just that they shouldn’t be trusted.

        Rui Jorge

        1. Rui, agree with the not trusting. But then, I don’t trust most corporations. As for the wireless charge, I’m sure there is a way around it for those using Kindle apps for PC/Mac, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to implement such a change.

    2. Oh they’re no angels. It’s the assumption that everyone (or anyone) else is that gets me. The whole regional sub-licensing bit irritates me – but that’s another rant.

  4. Let’s compare book publishing to music publishing. I also happen to own a small recording studio, and do a bit of work here and there. I know a few people in the music industry. A lot of them wish they didn’t know my (Graham Henderson, President of the Canadian Recording Industry Association hates me).

    If you look at what we are seeing with books, almost exactly the same things happened and are happening in music. In music the change started with Napster and MP3.com, which freed artists from their reliance on the Big Four music labels.

    The big difference between music and books is that the artists in music have never made money on “music sales” but primarily on touring. Now they are starting to make money on music sales because they can upload to iTunes or eMusic without having a label, like we can upload to Smashwords or Amazon without having a publisher.

    In both cases, the Big Four Music Labels and the Big Six Book Publishers have never added any real value, besides the ability to:

    1) Provide advertising
    2) Provide shelf space

    Exactly how much value the Big Six retain depends upon the level of ebook sales. I wrote an article about that back in October and a follow up article in December. The first one is the important one, the second was written to explain why my numbers are so different, if you don’t care, you can ignore it.

    The most important point is that Mike Shatzkin, who has fifty years in publishing is in agreement with me, we just disagree on the time frame. I think the tipping point is October 2012, Mike thinks it is October 2013. At that point, who needs shelf space?

    Hope that makes sense. It’s nearly 11:00 PM, and I should be in bed.


Comments are closed.