None of what I’m going to say here is arcane, or even particularly disputed. It’s only the way that assembled in my head that forms an ugly picture. But most of it is stuff any veteran of midlist traditional publishing knows and will tell you.
For instance, while I can’t prove that traditional publishers cook the books (note where I don’t have the money for a forensic accountant. This might change — not due to any endeavor of mine — in the near future. But for now, I lack the resources) I can tell you that all of them report books of a certain age as selling exactly the same number of copies to the single digit.
Regardless of the genre, subgenre, or what treatment the book got. And if you think that’s likely, I’d like you to consider some completely not swamp land in Florida, which is only a little humid.
Now people older in the field than I claim that this is due to a “formula” used to calculate sales, or perhaps to the peculiarities of bookscan (which AT BEST reports 1/2 the books sold. At best. If your publisher sells heavily in comic stores and such it’s closer to 1/3.) And that’s as it may be, but it still doesn’t elevate royalty statements above fiction.
BTW while on that, one of my more recent traditionally published books, one which I can’t dispute for reasons of contract which are peculiar, was reported as selling NO ebooks for a six month period. This is like a rain of frogs, or perhaps a UFO landing, because you know, I have several books out indie, and some of them are old, have lousy covers, and I haven’t run sales or even mentioned them in forever, but I can’t recall going six months without their selling at least a half dozen copies.
Again, at this point all traditionally published midlist authors aren’t even raising eyebrows. Likely, they’re nodding along. And it might all be incompetence, not malice. But again, it’s largely fiction.
Now, read what I said above again.
Books, even old, not particularly well promoted books sell at least a few copies per six months.
This is known in the field as “the long tail.”
There are some things we’ve learned about indie publishing, in the years since it was thrown open to us unwashed.
One is that if you only have one book out, and it sells really well, you should buy a lottery ticket, because your luck is of that order. It happened relatively often in the early days of indie, if you put your book at 99c and were mildly lucky. Now, you’d need to be very, very lucky.
HOWEVER, if you have a certain number of books out, you’ll make a minimum amount. I can’t remember how many books I have out? 11? 15? (It’s late at night. I’m NOT going to count.) However many, even without sales or anything new (something new increases sales for all of them) I make around $200 a month as a BOTTOM income. (I do know I need to write more, and publish more. I’m getting there. 2020 has been very difficult.) Normally my income is closer to $500, but I sometimes do some half-assed promo to get there.
And some of the books, like the Shakespeare trilogy, or the Musketeer mysteries, sell two/three copies a month each, usually.
I was thinking about that, and about some things I learned recently, from listening to older/more experienced writers (oh, things like trade paper back is assigned to books publishers want to kill as it always sells way less than either mmpb or hard cover. Oh, yeah, and series publishers want to kill won’t have the sequel bought right away. (You’ll be told they have to “see numbers” which is nonsense as they know numbers in three months) and left to languish. Of course, if after all that your books still sell, they might postpone a book three times, and perhaps release the ebook as a stealth release months before the paperbook and without telling anyone. Probably planning to send in tyro reviewers to give it bad reviews. (It’s a shame my fans have watches on my name, innit?) Not that it matters. Like the polls before elections, they prepare a convincing case when they announce the book sold less than any of your– not in bookstores, not publicized at all — indie releases.)
One of the guiding factors of my understanding of the world is “whom does this benefit.” And finding an industry that sets its product to fail is rather baffling. I mean, I knew they did, kind of at a gut level, but I assumed it was stupidity. Not a business model. Then I overheard that conversation and went “oh.” Older pros can tell a book is being set to fail by any number of signs some of which even I didn’t realize.
And then it occurred to me the model that makes all this work. And also “why traditional houses are still making money.” Even as authors make less and less, the houses go on. And that also gave me kind of a peek at the future. A future in which more and more writers sell a book or two for a pittance and then no more…. And the quality of the books matters not at all, btw.
You see, if you take an author’s one or two or three or five or six books, and report them with really low sales, tell the author you won’t publish anymore, ignore the author’s (registered) letter requesting rights reversal and intimate the author will be allowed to buy a fantastical number of paper copies, which the house would have to be stupid to keep in stock in paper if the book isn’t selling (in my case, at half price, it would cost me 50k to be allowed the rights to Darkship and Shifters. I don’t have 50k. (I honestly also wasn’t told it would be half price. And in the unlikely event all those paper copies actually exist, what the heck would I do with them? I don’t go to cons, and I don’t have storage space.) And if I did have the money it would go to forensic accountants and lawyers, because I don’t need books moldering in my garage, and also I’m NOT a nice person. I try to be good, but nice is not on the program. But I’m not the only one offered this kind of deal, nor is the publisher unique.) … well, what is the author going to do? They’ve been told no one buys their books. They don’t have the money to sue for their IP. And even if they did, unless they’re spiteful bastages like me, why would they spend that money? After all, older books sell less. The long tail is mostly a bunch of really tiny sales. Even if I continued the series (I actually intend to but in a way that denies the back list sales. Again, did I point out I’m NOT a nice person? I’m just rather amazed people who worked with me for years don’t know that. Maybe there is a certain degree of self-delusion) the back sales would be negligible and it would probably take decades — about what’s left in my life — to make back those 50k.
But why would publishers want properties that aren’t selling that well? Why not just give the IP back, after they set the book up to fail? Why set the book up to fail at all?
Ah. Because of the long tail. In the era of ebooks, which you don’t need to store in warehouses, and which you can have out in unlimited numbers with no additional cost, the more books you have in your catalogue, no matter how little each of them sells, the more money you make.
Say you have 50k books in your catalogue, some of them so old you’re interpreting ebook rights from penumbras and emanations, and each sells two copies a month, and makes you $4 apiece…. You’re getting a very healthy income.
Heck, it’s better than having a mega bestseller. Because a mega bestseller might get uppity and sue. But if each of those books is making under $5 a month, chances are you don’t even need to send out a statement.
Honestly, ponzi scheme architects go in awe of traditional publishers in the era of ebooks.
And, you know, when I realized that, everything fell into place: why careers keep getting shorter and shorter. Why, even with indie competition, writers are treated worse and worse. Why some publishers are buying the things they are (well, you know, if you don’t mean each book to make a lot of money, you might as well promote your comrades. Besides, they need publishing credits, so they can get teaching jobs.)
Is my insight necessarily true? I don’t know. It fits my experience and that of other midlisters. And — if the older authors I heard are right — it explains why bother setting books up to fail.
Again, as I said above, I have no proof. Maybe it’s all a mare’s nest, right?
And besides, you’ll say, whom does it hurt? I mean, they’re making some money, right? And I am not losing that much.
Sure. Except that is my long tail, and however little it would add to the monthly income, it would add some. And writers aren’t some kind of dog, who should have their tail clipped.
So, yeah, sure. Feel free to think I dreamed all this up, and it’s a symptom of an overactive writer’s imagination. I’ve been accused of that in the past.
And maybe it doesn’t hurt anyone, really, and it’s just my cross-grained disposition that makes me really mad at the entire thing. Maybe, even, there is some publicity attending to being traditionally published. Or some validation. (Not that I’ve found, but hey, you might be luckier. Or a better writer. Or more commercial. Or something.)
But I wouldn’t sign any contracts without a hard and fast time limit. Because, you know, the tail that gets docked might be your own.