tiers and tears

Traditional publishing was always – or at least for as long as I had anything to do with it – a two tier affair.

If you were first tier you got bells and whistles, and felt the love from the industry, its sycophants and establishment. You got your book advertised widely, your book got launched with fanfare, you went on signing tours, you got reviewed, your book was in the media, as were interviews, you might even go one a tour of the US and Europe, having travel and dinners with book-sellers at your publisher’s expense (yes, really. I know someone it happened to.). Your publisher paid booksellers for end displays or counter or window displays. Book distributors were told to push your book into as many stores as possible, at as large a volumes as possible. Book stores had you computer listed as re-order on sale. It was possible to fail, but the publishers had invested a lot in seeing this did not happen.

If on the other hand you were lower tier… you got the B-team editor, the cheap cover, and your book got put on the list of books given to the distributors. That was really pretty much it, if you only came out in paperback. If you got a hardcover, then as all hardcovers got reviewed, there would be some kind of review, somewhere. Bookstores, if they bothered to take your book at all (distributors said ‘well, here’s the list. You have to take x copies of this tier 1 author if you want any copies of x bestseller. Oh, and we also have these’) put you into their computer system as ‘re-order on demand.’ It was possible to succeed, but it either took a huge following outside of anything your publisher did, or absolute runaway brilliance combined with a lot of luck. As an example I can point out that Terry Pratchett (who most- including me – regard as runaway brilliant) had quite a few books as lower tier, going nowhere much – before being picked up by a large publisher, given a great cover, and tier one push. He never looked back.

This resulted in a very clear dichotomy in the incomes of writers, too. There was no gradual slope from doing badly to doing exceptionally well, with a more-or-less even distribution of numbers at various incomes all the way up. You were either doing exceptionally well, earning hundreds of thousands to millions (often in advances alone) for a book or you were lucky to earn 5K for new writers to 10-15K for ‘midlisters’. A handful did better than that, without getting into the first tier. But essentially you had a big group down on the bottom and a small group at the top, with very few between. The bottom group was once again divided into a lot making 5K or less and a rapid drop off of those who could make a very mediocre living at this. You were unlikely to sell more than one book a year (they wanted to see you did, before buying another). Very occasionally an author would get promoted from the top edge of the lower tier to the first tier. It was a big jump.

Now – if you were on the lower tier you probably were pretty pissed off – or thought you were a failure or rather mediocre at best. Many wrote a great book – which they expected to get first tier treatment, despite the pissy little advance and then, when it failed to sell much (at least according to the sales figures authors got to see. That’s another topic) and because of the contractual secrecy clauses and natural human culture of ‘omerta’ assumed they were the only ones who did this badly. In truth, they were often doing better than their peers. But they had no idea that this was the case. Many an author just gave up. One has to wonder how many other Sir Terry Pratchett equivalents just never broke through. But that was your choice. Accept it or do not get published. Agents – who could move or start an author in the upper tier where worth their weight in gold, and were treated with reverence.

If you ever actually pushed hard enough to try and find out why So-and-So got endcaps and book-tours, you might have got to the explanation that there were two ‘components’ to costs for any one book.

The first of these was a fixed cost, no matter if it was Jo Noob’s book or Mary Bigname’s book. It cost the same (in theory, anyway,) to edit, proofread, typeset etc. Office premises had to be paid for, and the interest on loans (to pay the big advances) had to paid for and Jo and Mary’s books carried an equal share of that overhead. In practice of course, Jo got the B team or less attention, and Jo’s advance didn’t really have an interest bill. And Jo’s cover was a cheap one. But go with the idea that it cost the same. Let’s for purpose of example say that fixed cost was $10 000.

The second component was the variable ‘per unit’ cost. In theory Jo and Mary’s book cost the same per unit to print and distribute. Let’s for purpose of the example say $1 a book. (in practice of course Mary does get volume discounts, because printers also have fixed and per unit costs).

Going with theory anyway Mary will sell – because she’s tier one -100 000 books (Mary will in practice also sell hardcovers and these days audio, and possibly translation rights. In practice she may well sell much less than 100 000 but all these add up). The publisher will see around 40-45% of cover price, gross. So call it 50% of $7. $350 000 minus fixed cost ($10 000) and minus per copy cost ($100 000) minus advance of ($100 000 (will not earn out)) and the company has made a profit of $140 000.

Jo will sell say 5000 copies (quite good for a noob in sf/fantasy) and the publisher will see around 40-45% of cover price, gross. So call it 50% of $7. $17 500… minus fixed cost, ($10 000) and minus per copy cost ($5000) minus advance ($5000(will not earn out))… and the company has lost (in theory) $2500.

So really, they will tell you, they’re doing Jo a big favor. And even if they spent $100 000 pushing Mary’s book, they’re still $40 000 ahead in profit, with $2500 to spare to pay for Jo’s loss. Mary is carrying the company AND Jo and another three just like her. Jo is lucky Mary is there and getting all the bells whistles and promotion, because otherwise Jo and three other noobs/midlisters would be unpublished. And the company makes a paltry $20 000 net profit, because of their generosity.

Of course… we’re never allowed to see the actual numbers. Nor the breakdown of the fixed cost. Nor does anyone point out that the fixed cost for running the company, paying the salaries, interest bill (for Mary’s advance) and the premises is $50 000 – whether the company just does Mary’s book, or Mary’s book plus four others. If the company only published Mary’s book that fixed cost would not be split. It would be $50 000, not $10 000 for her book to carry – and the company would have $10 000 loss.

The other fact that you’d never get acknowledged was the law of diminishing returns. The latest – for example, Harry Potter book would have had many millions spent on promotion and all the bells and whistles. How many extra sales did that bring? If they had literally told not a soul, spent not a cent, and just put it on the shelf – within minutes, the news would have exploded across the world. How many sales would they have lost? Some, perhaps – but if they got a thousand for every $100 000 spent I’d be surprised – each extra sale costs more than the profit on the book. While scale is a factor here, it’s true that ‘bang-for-your-buck’ the better known an author is – especially if they have a large internet following and fan-base, the LESS value promotion has per book.

Things have changed, of course, with the coming of Indy and e-books. Trad are still trying to operate as if it all does not exist, in part, I suspect, surviving by selling the family silver (e-books of their back-list – for which they pay authors a pittance, if at all, with interesting accounting). What I think has come out of it is a far broader spectrum of incomes, with a more normal distribution. There are now many authors earning far less per book than the minimum advance in days of yore – on the other hand Trad minimum advances have also declined, precipitously, I gather, to judge by the vast number of ‘award winning authors’ now teaching college kids how to write ‘award winning novels’ you can’t make enough to live on, or rich dilettantes (or with rich families, spouses) or scrounging on patreon.

Indy is hard. But it’s not just two tiers, top and bottom. and you can publish as much as you can put out.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

10 comments

  1. It occurs to me that this heavily tiered situation arose during the same period when to sell your book, it became necessary to have an agent (which to my understanding was not done at all before about 1960). Explanations of this unholy symbiosis are left to folks afflicted with these parasites.

    1. There were definite signs before.

      In one respect it was worse because the numbers were actually not available, so it was all based on chatter.

  2. WRT the $$ spent to advertise: advertising and marketing are tax deductible so Publisher isn’t spending as much as it looks like. Also, I’d expect some very creative accounting all throughout the process.

    Here’s one corner of the publishing ecosystem. Bill (dear husband) was a copy editor at the Rock Hill Herald from about 1990 to 2000. The Herald had about 50,000 subscribers (TOPS!) on Sunday, less Monday – Saturday. They competed head to head with the Charlotte Observer (much, much larger).

    Bill got a full page every Sunday for books. Just books. He wanted to review and Editor let him.
    Soon after he began the page reviewing new library books and sending out tear sheets, books began arriving in the mail at the Herald.
    By the time we met and married in 1993, he got a pickup truck load of books every year.
    On spec. For your consideration. They came from publishers big and small, NYC and local, academic and mass market. We got books from Oxford University Press! Sometimes he asked for a book (one of us wanted it) and the answer was ALWAYS yes. Yes, Tor sent out hardcover review copies.

    Most of the books got moved onto the York County Library system. We never read most of them because there were just too many of them.

    Bill did review paperbacks but Misty Massey reviewed far more because she liked sci-fi and fantasy. He always printed Misty’s reviews and sent tear sheets. They’d both be thrilled when one of Misty’s reviews got quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition.

    This was one way books got noticed.

    I don’t know if Publishers do this as much anymore because newspapers aren’t what they used to be and few of them devote an entire page every Sunday to books. During his tenure at the Patriot News, the size of the book page diminished substantially. Books flooded in there too.

    As a reviewer, Bill also got ancillary material sometimes although TV producers sent much better swag than Publishers did; promo pictures, video tapes and then DVDs, coffee cups and so forth.

    Just from our vantage point at the bottom righthand corner of the ecosystem, we were constantly amazed at how much money sloshed around.

  3. When I was regularly reviewing books on my blog, I would get unsolicited books in the mail (or email) from several publishers. More than I could read, and many I had no interest in. That has pretty much stopped as Real Life has put a huge dent in my blogging, and reviews were becoming less fun and more like work. Consequently I dropped off publisher’s radars.

  4. It’s been interesting too to watch end-caps at the regional B&N. Sometimes it is genre (“If you liked [best seller/movie book] you’ll like” and related titles. Occasionally it is “Books our employees like.” Recently it has been “Hugo nominees” (that lasted one week!), causes (feminist history, feminist fiction, African-American fiction, minority-author sci-fi and fantasy, gay autobiography, gay fiction) and US politics. The central table in the adult and YA speculative fiction area has been gay-related fiction or gay authors. I’d be curious to see if the pushes are from publishers, distributors, or the chain’s HQ.

    1. It might also be the bookstore employees. The one bookstore in my tiny burg (there’s a state college there) staff picks tables are pretty relentlessly woke.

      1. Well, I have seen names listed on the recommendations but I’m not sure I believe them.

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