Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Pity the poor author... by Cathy Ace

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?

The short answer is: hmmmm....

I realize this topic has been raised on social media in an attempt to shine a light on the underpaying of certain groups of writers vs others, both historically and today. I also want to say I think it’s a conversation worth having. However, it’s such a complex area that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “an answer” to the question being posed. What do I mean? Let’s break it down. The main reason this question has been raised – as far as I can tell – is to shine a light on two key elements in contracts between authors and traditional publishers:

a) the advance paid, and

b) the percentages of royalties paid.

An “advance” is a payment by a publisher to an author “in advance” of any sales being made; it’s an upfront, risk-based payment. The gamble the publisher is taking is that the accumulated “royalties to be paid to the author” will at least equal the amount of the lump sum they’ve already paid the author. There are some accompanying questions about contracts, however:

1)      What % royalties will be paid to the author for what format of sales, and rights, and where? (Note: this usually varies for hardcover, paperback, digital, large print, domestic sales vs non-domestic sales of books, then there are serializations, translation deals, audio, TV, and film rights to be considered too.)

2)      When will royalties be received by the author vs when they were earned? (Note: different publishing houses pay out royalties on different schedules for different authors; an author might not receive money made from a book sale today – in July 2020 – until spring 2021.)

3)      When will what percentage of an advance be paid? (Note: advances can be split up to be paid in differing percentages at various points – upon commissioning a manuscript, upon receipt of an "acceptable" first draft, upon publication, for example.)

4)      If the publisher offers an advance, will they then offer a smaller % of royalties, and vice versa? (Note: a publisher might offer a lower % if they pay a higher advance.)

5)      If a publisher has paid an advance to an author, how much harder will they work regarding distribution deals and promotional effort to sell that book so they get their money back? (Note: wider distribution for, and greater promotion of, books where the publisher is already on the hook for more money is the norm.)

6)      If an advance is paid and the book doesn’t reach projected sales, is an author less likely to get a future contract from their existing publisher, and - if they're then dropped - is their name tarnished in the entire industry? (Note: “poor sales” means a book didn’t sell as many as the publisher believed it would, though it might have sold more than another book by another author where the expectations were lower.)

But here’s another complication: by simply looking at the numbers in a contract - and especially if you just take an advance figure - you still don’t have an accurate picture of how much an author will "make from a book", over time. For example, my first novel was The Corpse with the Silver Tongue which is still selling well (thank goodness!), and that’s largely due to the fact there are eight more books in the series, so readers believe it’s worth trying the first in the series because there IS a series; the success of each of the books in the series is tied to the success of the others. (FYI: I was never offered, nor paid, an advance for any of the Cait Morgan books - I chose to view this lack of an upfront payment as me "saving up" my income, rather than as a complete and dismal failure on my part.) 

Overall, I think the reason most authors don’t want to explain – and it takes a long time to explain, as you can see – how much money they have “made” for a particular book is twofold: 

a)       if they’re anything like me they don’t actually know the answer; I have NO IDEA how much income I have derived from The Corpse with the Silver Tongue since it was published in March 2012…because I haven’t kept track of income against that specific title amongst my existing sixteen titles; and

b)      if we simply told you how much our earnings per year were as they are shown on our tax returns most of us (and by that I mean 99% of all traditionally published authors) would have to face up to the horrible truth that VERY FEW of us can afford to live off our earnings from pure book sales. As the years pass, and as the number of titles being sold increases and other possible income streams associated with being a published author grow, we stand a bit of a better chance of accumulating income, but it takes time.

Would I like a big, juicy advance one day? Oh yes. However, I know authors who’ve had an advance of over $100,000 for a three book deal, but it’s taken them three years to write those books, and they haven’t “earned out” so get no more money than that, and are then dropped due to “poor sales”. A “six figure deal” sounds brilliant – but it’s still might "only" produce an average income of around $33,300 per year, which is why most authors have “a day job”, or another source of support (eg: a partner who’s earning a living wage and is able to support them), or another source of stability (eg: they might have retired from a career with a pension/have investment income which takes the pressure off).

My hat’s off to those who succeed, and thrive. And it's off to all those who are living exceptionally frugal lives to be able to be an author. 

If all this has made you feel great sympathy for me, please feel free to consider spending some of your hard-earned cash on my efforts! You can find out about me, and all my books, BY CLICKING HERE. Thank you.




Paul D. Marks said...

It really all is very complicated, isn't it, Cathy? As you say, it's hard to tell just how much one earns from this or that particular book and does it earn out? It always sounds more glamorous than it is...

Cathy Ace said...

Yes, complicated!!! :-)

Susan C Shea said...

Yers to everything you point out, Cathy. I have the vague impression I haven't lost money by becoming a writer!

Cathy Ace said...

Hi Susan - coming out even at the end of the year? Priceless...LOL!