A Statement of Fact

*Sorry to be so late.  I took an allergy pill last night, which acts like a sleeping pill and leaves me groggy and out of it.  So doing the post for my blog and this post took FOREVER.  Forgive me.*

Okay, many of you want to go traditional for the money, the security, the being on the shelves, the fact that someone else handles the money.

I want you to think of “someone else handles the money” and of the control you’re giving up.

No, I don’t mean control in keeping your cover, or your typos, or…

I mean control of the money.

I’ll start this by saying that 10 years ago my first editor told me “we no longer keep books in warehouses. We’ve gone print on demand.”

This makes sense because running say 100 books costs the same as running 1000. It also makes the idea of reprint a muddle. BUT it saves taxes on inventory.

Now, I don’t think Baen uses this system because I happened on a discussion between two editors on a book published years ago that they still had “a boatload in the warehouse.” (Not my book, but I still have a few too, I think.)

I don’t know why the difference, but the other SF/F publishers, my editor assured me, had gone all print on demand.

This makes a mockery also of the clause on the contract that says rights revert to you but they can sell the remaining books.

… um….

My Bantam books reverted more than a year ago (yeah, I know, but I need to line edit them before they go up, and you know what this year has been, with illness, move, house remodeling, moving older boy out to medschool, etc. This is the year of the changes.) Suddenly I’m getting shots of them on bookstore shelves, sent by enthusiastic fans. AND I’m getting fan mail specifically for Heart of Light at the same rate I got when it first came out.

Needless to say the edition tracker says first edition, and if I contacted them they’d tell me they’re just selling stuff from the warehouse. (In fact Lee and Miller said that Ace miraculously kept finding books in warehouses for up to eight years. Yeah.)

Now, I’ll point out that something odd must be going on with my back list across the board, because a friend bought Darkship Renegades at the grocery store. This month. Not sure what THAT means.

But Sarah, you say, it will surely be in your statements. So, yay, you’re getting money.

Um… really?

I bet you money (and will photocopy the statement and put it here when it arrives) that what I get is 10 sales (which is fewer than the number of fanmail I’ve got on this.) Bet you. Any money you care too.

Am I saying the statements are dishonest? Some, undoubtedly. For instance I find it interesting that my refinishing mysteries ONLY pay royalties when we ask to have the rights revert. (Because paying royalties – usually around $145 – resets the clock.) It MIGHT be a coincidence, but you know… So might a thrown coin landing on edge three times in a row be a coincidence. In real world terms, OTOH it’s called “A fricking miracle” that requires divine intervention. Or something.

But mostly what statements are is imprecise.

In the old days, print runs were impossible to estimate precisely. So people guesstimated. And of course, they guesstimated in the publishing company’s favor. Right now, from what I understand, some orders go directly to the printing plant and might or might not be reported to the publisher (they’re supposed to be, but things get lost, particularly small orders.)

And then there’s how many books sold. This is not exact (it could be, because computers) because there is no way to TELL how many books sold, even if all bookstores were (ah) well organized and reported perfectly (ah) there is no POS info.

So the royalties are calculated based on the Nielsens (which capture some of the bookstores in the big cities) and then the rest is extrapolated. (That means if you’re a publisher like Baen who does well in the South and comic bookstores and non traditional venues you take a hit anyway.)

I don’t know what formula they use. I know there’s something wrong with it, because I wrote for three publishers, across three houses, and sometimes they reported EXACTLY the same sales on different books and genres.

You see that coin? It’s on edge again.

Given uncertainty, companies, of course, deal in their favor.

Now there are many good things going for my books being on shelves years after publication, even if I see not ONE red cent. More people will discover me, for instance.

But it’s also a gross distraction, when I’m setting to bring out the author’s edition of those books (the editing wasn’t to my taste.)

And it means I have no control. And that I’ll never be “properly paid.”

So score another point against traditional publishing. It’s not worthless, but you will not get the bang you get from indie.

In my case, other than Baen, I’m not even bothering to submit anymore. And it’s not all for political reasons.


  1. The traditional publishers do not use Print on Demand (PoD), the price per book for PoD is _much_ higher than traditional offset printing, but offset printing requires a large print run.

    The minimum size of an offset print run is smaller today than it was in the past, but you are still talking thousands of copies.

    The cost per book for PoD is also going down, a few years ago, the PoD printing cost was higher than the retail cost of an offset print book, then it dropped so it was lower than the retail cost of a similar sized book, but without sufficient margin to allow you to sell to bookstores at 50% list price (let alone deal with the returns). In the last year or so, the PoD price has dropped to the point where you can now get them into bookstores and not loose money on them. But if you really expect to need a bunch, a traditional print run will still be much cheaper than the same number of PoD books.

    As far as I know, it’s only the micro-publishers (like the Amazon imprints) that do PoD

    1. There are other small press folk out there. I have a friend who publishes through a small press (that is all of two or three years old.) I’m pretty sure it’s POD.

      The bonus on this particular small press is that it was started by one of the authors when the small press she *was* publishing through folded. So the contract terms are very author-friendly in terms of royalties, rights reversals, and so forth.

      The upside to this press is that it does provide editors and graphic design assistance. The downside is that there’s a waiting line for the editorial help, so the publishing schedule is dependent upon when someone is available to proof your work… 😀

  2. (That means if you’re a publisher like Baen who does well in the South and comic bookstores and non traditional venues you take a hit anyway.)

    Did you mean the above, or did you mean “That means if you are with a publisher like Baen”?

  3. My current project is one that I’d kind of like to submit to Baen. However, they’re about the only ones I’ll submit to.

    And no, it’s not because of politics, though I won’t deny that’s a nice bonus. It’s because they’re the ones with a reputation for not screwing their writers over. That and their authors actually earning out their advances, which is a big selling point for me if I ever do traditional publishing.

  4. Thank you, Sarah for exposing the archaic, convoluted (dare I say crooked?) inventory and royalty reporting system that most legacy publishers follow in lock step. Sharing this information helps writers make better decisions.

    As for the other reasons folks gave for publishing traditionally over indie:

    Money – Indie authors make more. http://authorearnings.com/report/may-2015-author-earnings-report/

    Security – see the ‘death spiral’ (substitute B&N for Borders). http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/12/death-spiral.html

    Getting books on shelves – there’s nothing to stop indie authors from doing this. It ain’t magic. http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/the-new-world-of-publishing-cant-get-books-into-bookstore-myth/

    1. I definitely have noticed more indie books in the bookstores and libraries the last couple of years.

      1. Cool.

        Yep, if you have a sole proprietorship, a decently professional web site, and a posted schedule of discounts, stores might already be stocking your books and you don’t even know it.

    2. Wal-mart’s web site can tell me if my local store has a jar of Peter Pan on the shelf, with reasonable accuracy. Which means they know how many they ordered, and how many they have shipped to the store, and how many they have sold at that store. Saying that B&N doesn’t have that capability is ridiculous… and we all know that Amazon could tell you 😀

  5. in this day and age, i am sorry, there is *no* excuse for why they don’t have precise numbers, at least from the big chain stores.

  6. No one needs a _political_ reason to publish with Baen – especially since they’ll publish people of every shade of politics.

    The reason to publish with Baen is that Jim was a stand-up guy and Toni is a worthy heiress to his legacy.

    1. Oh. I don’t publish with Baen out of politics. If it came out that way it is not what I meant to say.
      I publish with Baen because they picked me up when no one else would after my first series failed. Also because Jim Baen kept me in roof the last time I got in house trouble. There are debts you can’t repay and which aren’t monetary. I’ll write for Baen as long as they want me.
      And Toni is one of the nicest and smartest people I know.

      1. And it’s fairly obvious to me, a casual observer, that Baen appears to be thriving while the big five are cutting corners and tightening belts.
        Now for the bad news. Baen only publishes about five new books a month so roughly sixty a year. Nearly all of those are from established Baen writers. I also understand that their slush server is in a constant state of overload and keeps several first screeners quite busy.
        Personally, were I a serious writer, I would be ecstatic to have Baen for a publisher, but failing that, indie is not at all a bad route to follow. It certainly gives an author much greater control of every aspect of their work.

  7. The entertainment business in general has always relied on the opacity of their bookkeeping methods–there’s the famous “Hollywood accounting” method of ensuring that no film ever makes back its costs enough to have to pay off on below the line points. The music business is full of stories–some well documented–of best selling artists who never received any royalties after their initial advance because their contracts specified impossible to meet terms for “covering costs of promotion”.

    I knew one musician who played as part of a muti-act tour (five or six bands) that hit a dozen or so college towns in the Midwest to full houses and found out after the tour that the contract specified that each act was required to cover the costs of the entire tour prior to any royalties being paid out. The lawyer that my friend contacted too late said that the language was in the contract (if you knew what they were using certain words to mean) and that it was perfectly legal because my friend had signed it.

    These companies have gotten away with this kind of exploitative behavior for so long because they were the only way for artists to get their work to the marketplace. They aren’t anymore.

    I saw this happen in the music business. When CD burners and later mp3 downloads made it possible for anyone to start her or his own label the traditional producers screamed and cried and tried to smear all indie music as amateur garbage. It didn’t work for them and it’s not working for the traditional publishers. The ones who are going to survive are the ones who accept that artists have a choice and that they are going to have to treat them as equal partners rather than supplicants to the throne.

  8. If anyone hasn’t read Kris Rusch’s article on Transparency, you really should. She talked about the same things Sarah is talking about, the inability to accurately report sales.

    That inability exists for videos, audios, and textual works.

    Curiously businesses like Toyota or General Motors can tell you that the part you need is in stock at a dealership in [INSERT LOCATION NAME HERE] and be right 99 times out of a 100. But most of the businesses which deal with copyrighted works, which are far smaller, are incapable of doing this (Amazon and Smashwords are exceptions).

    It does make one wonder.

Comments are closed.