Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Hey, Nunya!

Business: Lately, some authors on social media are saying that it’s time authors shared details about their book contracts and income to break open the financial secrecy inherent in this business. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?

From Frank

Agree or disagree?


Allow me to explain.

Ever bump into someone at a gathering who sidles up to you and asks, "So what's the favorite sexual position for you and your partner?"


How about "How much money did you make last year?"

Not that, either?

That's because both questions are a) awkward, and b) none of your business. So if someone is asking, they're out of line in most situations. I mean, if you're at a couple's retreat for enhancing your intimate connection with your partner and the person asking is the therapist, I suppose we're okay on the first question. And if the second question is coming from the IRS, you pretty much have to answer. But outside of that sort of limited context, it's not your business.

The money question doesn't change because of where it came from. Whether I make my living selling shoes or teaching, it's still not anyone's business how much I made at it. Same holds true if I write books. And yet, people do seem to think they somehow get a pass on this question because it has to do with royalties, not a paycheck.

Or something.

Maybe because it's art and not a day job? I don't quite understand the psychology of it.

That's my disagree part.

Now, I realize that this question is about much more than "how much money did you make last year selling books?" In fact, it's a great question when it comes to the broader strokes. And just so you don't find this entire post to be tone deaf, I also realize that some of the call for this open-ness is to help level the playing field when it comes to writers of color or other groups that the industy has historically been biased against.

I get that, and I'm all for it.

To me, though, there's a big difference between people sharing the structure of their "standard" author contracts and/or publisher practices versus divulging actual royalty figures. What percentage I make on each sale, and other terms like subsidiary rights? You bet, let's share away. Shady business practices by a publisher, agent, or other entitity? Absolutely. Hopefully, it helps you avoid them and/or puts public pressure ont he bad actor to force a change or resolve a bad situation (or reveal me as full of crap if I'm making a false accusation.

But how many books I actually sold? Nope, nunya bizness. Besides, what do you gain by knowing that? No more than you gain knowing what your dentist made last year.

This is, if you can't tell, my agree part.

I think it all comes down to the purpose that is served by sharing information. If it can help authors in their own journey (contract terms/structure or bad actors in the business), we should be free with these facts and advice. The difference between some legitimate author-to-author help ("did you see an uptick in sales as a result of using that marketing service/strategy?" or "do you you KU or go wide?" or "is publisher XYZ timely and open with royalties?") and simply some nosy and invasive curiosity (some form of "how much money did you make last year?") is the difference between a great conversation and one that ends.

So if you ask me at a conference about something from the former category, I'll gladly discuss. My guess is you'd do the same. But if you hit me up with something from the latter category, I'll take a page from my wonderful (and sometimes lovably caustic) stepmother Gail and ask you an equally inappropriate question in return. And while I don't really care if the answer is 'missionary' or not, the point will hopefully be made.


Here's something that absolutely is your business, if you want to contribute to Covid-19 relief. I have an essay in this charitable anthology edited by Lawrence Kelter. It's a personal one in which I discuss some life and writerly struggles that I hope are somewhat universal. I also hope my conclusions are seen as optimistic, and apply to this pandemic (and the social reform that we are experiencing, for that matter).

All proceed go to Covid-19 relief, and the anthology is chock-full of some great authors. Get your copy for less than $5! Just click on the cover to choose your platform.

Another release of mine came out the same day as the charity anthology. I created, edit, and write episodes for the series, A Grifter's Song.  Season 2 has wrapped and the full season is now available in two paperback volumes (buy them and get the digitial version free, btw). Volume 3 has episodes 7-9, featuing Eryk Pruitt, Asa Maria Bradley, and Holly West. Volume 4 has episodes 10-12, featuring Eric Beetner, Scott Eubanks, and me.

Subscribers also get the exclusive bonus episode, which is both a sequel to the season 1 bonus episode AND an alternate take on the events of this season, including a surprise twist.

Season 3 is in production, featuring Matt Phillips, Lawrence Maddox, Jonathan Brown, Michael Pool, Carmen Jaramillo, and S.A. Cosby. That'll kick off January 2021.


Susan C Shea said...

I think the only way for it to possibly work is to collect data anonymously (always suspect in any case) and only publish aggregate. Like with health information. And I'm still skeptical that authors will sway the beancounters who dominate publishing houses.

James W. Ziskin said...

Nice post, Frank. I agree/disagree with you 100%.


Unknown said...

The man is right (and you know it makes me crazy to agree with you, Frankie 'ol boy)...some things should be shared and some shouldn't. The problem, from where I stand, is that sometimes the unsharable become an umbrella that allows everythign to be kept double hush hush, even in the aggregate as Ms. Shea mentions. Publishers, of all sizes in my experience, simply do not want any writers to know what other writers are doing, or even the number of low-dollar contracts versus middle-dollar contracts versus high-dollar contracts. I've had publishers tell me straight up the lack of transparency, like any other industry, is because not everyone sells enough books to be rewarded with a top dollar contract. If you sell more, you're worth more. Ah...gotta love plain dollar explanations in a percentage dollar conversations!

As soon as 'real business' began buying publishing houses in the commodities-driven '80s, things changed for publishing. It became less about developing the writer (or musician in what the record industry used to be...Rush was allowed 4 albums before they hit a sizable audience whereas these days if there isn't a handful of Top 40 and at least 1 Top 10 song on the debut album...buh bye), and more about counting the beans. Hate to say it, but the oft and legitimately vilified bean counters who have always existed in publishing have carved out a larger and more outsized role in the last 30 years. It's less now about making a profit and more about making enough of a profit and to let every writer have the top dollar contract would be to cut into that profit.

Or...I could be full of shit and simply reactionarily angry 'cause my books are selling squaddely-do. Eh...either way.

Trey R. Barker

Frank Zafiro said...

SUSAN, good point.

JIM, thanks!

TREY, you make some points as well. The only thing I would argue is that if Rush had never had a second album, I could not care less. ;-) But of course, the same story is true for my fave, Bruce Springsteen. After his first two albums sold middling to poor, he needed a hit with the third or risk getting dropped by the label. Born to Run was the outcome, but it highlights the point you're making. Tastes aside (I wasn't joking about Rush - they don't do it for me, though I fully recognize the talent and the fan base), it seems like there is less patience in the artistic world on the business side of things.

Hence why my publisher books are with a small press and the rest of them are published independently. At least I know the I won't give up on my self.

And I've read your work, so you shouldn't either.