Authors Pay a High Price for Traditional Publishing.

This new world of publishing now allows authors to make many publishing choices after they finish a book. That’s a great thing compared to just ten years ago.

Now an author can go the old traditional route, they can go full indie and do everything. Or they can publish somewhere in the middle, taking responsibility for all the work, but hiring out parts, or all of the tasks needed to be done.

A thousand choices in the process now. And that’s a very, very good thing for authors in the abstract.

But all choices have costs. This post is about the costs of going traditional with your novel.

First, a little about my route to this point.

For my first 40 years in publishing, I chased only traditional and made my living through traditional publishing for over two decades and hundreds of short stories and over a hundred traditionally published novels.

Then back in the gold rush days of electronic publishing in 2009-2011, I stopped traditional publishing and did everything myself (except copyediting). I got out and into book form over 200 titles under a business name.

Since that point, I changed back to the middle ground and pretty much hire everything done except for the covers and paper formatting on Smith’s Monthly. I still do all that myself because I enjoy it.

On all the rest, I sell my work to WMG Publishing (a mid-sized press I helped start) and let them do the work. But I maintain control of how the product goes out and the look.

As the possible publishing choices have become more and more obvious to many, many authors (at least those without heads stuck deeply in the sand on one side or the another), a nasty problem with traditional publishing has cropped up.  Many writers talk about this new problem, but very few newer writers listen.

So this blog is just one more attempt to help a few writers from making some ugly mistakes with traditional publishing.

The Big Traditional Publishing Change

As electronic books came into a true reality over the last six or so years (ignoring the 15 years of sputtering before that), traditional publishers started to adjust to meet the new world. It does not seem like they did from the outside, but they have in many, many ways. And are still adjusting.

And as indie publishing ate into the sales numbers of the traditional publishers and their authors, and discoverability became an issue for traditional publishers just as it always was for indie authors, traditional publishers had to adjust even more.

No traditional publisher would survive in 2015 with only paper books and their old trade channels. Most traditional publishers now say that electronic is from 20-35% of their entire income. They work on 5% margins with high overhead. They would not survive in any form that we know without electronic income and low author costs for that electronic income. So because traditional publishers needed to, they have adjusted in many ways.

Two Major Adjustments that Hurt Authors

First adjustment: Author advances against royalties went down almost across the board.

A standard genre advance is now in the $3,000 range. A lead list title can get a little more, but inside most genres, advances for all but the major bestsellers are now far under $10,000 for most books.

Second adjustment: Contract terms changed to “life of copyright” and reversion clauses became useless.

In the last two years I have seen a couple dozen author contracts from various traditional houses. “Life of Copyright” is always a non-negotiable contract term in the United States if you are a normal-level writer.

This is very new and did not exist without a working reversion clause before this new electronic revolution. Now reversion clauses (meaning there is a point you can try to get your book back) are either gone or pointless.

(Major 1% bestsellers and overseas and small press publishers will often have term limits in contracts, usually around 7 years.  I have seen overseas contracts and small press contracts and been told by a few 1% writers that they have term limits.)

But all the rest of us (the other 99%) if we sell to a major traditional publisher, will sell life-of-copyright to a novel and NOT BE ABLE TO GET IT BACK.

And if you are a new writer going begging to traditional publishing with your manuscript in hand like a tin cup, the contract will have even more nasty stuff including nasty do-not-compete clauses that won’t allow you to write anything else. All for no real money.

Now I could go on and on about the illusionary “support” traditional publishers and agents say they give writers, but anyone who has dealt with that system for any length of time knows that’s just gotten worse as well in the last ten years. Far, far worse. So I’m going to skip that sink-hole for this blog and just talk about the real costs of selling a book to a traditional publisher.

Here Come Some Numbers

Yes, there are numbers involved here.

The “life of a copyright” at the moment in the US is the life of the author plus 70 years.

An example: I finish the book I am working on. I am 65 years of age. Say I live another 30 years to 95. Then add 70 years and the life of the copyright for the novel I just finished will be 100 years.

That’s what the “Life of Copyright” term in a contract means.

That’s right, your great-grandkids might be able to get your book back that you sold for a few thousand in one hundred years or so. But at that point the book will drop into the public domain and not be worth anything to them.

At the moment (and I say “at the moment” for a reason), there is a copyright exemption where the artist can get their work back in thirty-five years no matter the contract, if the artist jumps through some timely hoops.

Corporations are working to get this exemption taken out. Wonder why…

But here, in 2015, the exemption still exists. So I’m going to use 35 years for the math.

Most young writers selling to New York have no idea of life-plus-70-years, or even what 35 years even means. They just want to be anointed with publisher fairy dust and have someone else do the work and make all the decisions. They want no responsibility for their own work.

Most new writers never take a long-term approach. But we will pretend for the sake of this math that the new writers learn copyright along the way after signing a traditional contract and that 35 year reversion clause in the law stays in place.

So using 35 years and a $5,000 advance (decent these days), traditional publishing is buying your book from you for the lofty sum of $142.00 per year.

And you will never see another dime thanks to the very low royalty rates and such things as “high discount sales” plus standard publishing accounting practices.

And remember that traditional publishers will treat your book like produce, if they notice they bought it at all. The book will be on the stands for a week or so and then gone, returns in paper destroyed as the traditional publisher moves on to the next book.

And then your book will drop into high-priced electronic oblivion because to the publisher, that book is now just a property asset on their accounting ledger.

Oh, Wait! I Forgot the Gardener

If you go traditional and believe in all the hype, you will find an agent (I call them gardeners.) So for a few phone calls and for handling your money (if you are really, really sadly stupid), the gardener get 15% for life-of-contract as well. 15% of your property (think house (property) when thinking copyright) for a few hours work in the yard.

So your $5,000 decent genre advance is now $4,250 and your yearly value you will get for your property for 35 years is about $121.50.

And for those of you who are indie, realize these poor traditionally published writers CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT THIS.

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

For a writer who kept control of their property and was indie published, if a book is selling at the level of about 3 per month, the writer would push it some, or write more in the series, or write some short stories to boost it, or do a Bookbub, or who knows what…. Writers are in control.

So What Does An Indie Writer Need to Do to Make the Soaring Sum of $121.50 per year a Traditionally Published Writer Makes?

(Some math. I’ll be quick.)

$4.99 cover price of indie book x 70% = $3.50 per sale. (approximate)

$121.50 divided by $3.50 = 35 sales per year or about 3 per month across all platforms. (Not even counting paper copies.)

That’s right, to equal the amount made by a decent genre sale to a traditional publisher, an indie publisher must sell 35 copies per year.

And who knows, maybe ten years after the book was first published, the indie author redoes a cover and the book takes off, or the timing in the culture is right and the book takes off. If that happens, indie writers make all the money.

Can’t happen in traditional because your book in ten years is long forgotten and only an accounting number in a ledger. And chances are the traditional publisher has forgotten to send you even the royalty statements.

The Overall Math

Instead of going down into the monthly sales, I want to stay on the large number to look at this from another side.

$4,250 income on a decent traditional genre sale (total after the money you paid to your gardener.)

Say you have a book that came out about a year or so ago now. And for almost a year it has sold steadily at about 40 copies per month average across all sites in all forms. Say it is in electronic at $5.99, paper at $12.99 and audio just over $6.00.

Say you make an average of $3.50 per sale across all platforms. So in one year you would have made about…

$3.50 x 480 copies is about $1,700.

Then, say you do a BookBud or get in a good book bundle and jack the sales for a short term way up. It does not take many.

In one year at that rate (with a boost that the writer controls) you could have made on one book more than traditional publishing could have paid for a decent advance on that same book.

And that book is a long, long ways from bestseller status, or how many sales many indie writers report.

One year down, thirty-four more years of earnings to go on that book. (Remember, if you sold it to traditional, you would not get it back any sooner than 35 years.)

Do all books do that well? Some do a ton better, many, especially early on in a career, do not. But back to the first number.  Many books do sell 35 copies a year. 

Either way, the writer has the control and the freedom to give the book a boost if the writer wants.

At any point into the future.

Why? Because the writer still owns and controls his books.

The writer owns the copyright.

Remember this one clear fact of modern traditional publishing…

When you sell to traditional novel publishing, you no longer own your own work.

You sold it for “life of copyright” terms, meaning the traditional publisher owns everything you gave them, and in most contracts I have seen, that’s everything.

And if you or your heirs are not smart in 35 years, you have completely lost the work.

All because you wanted to be anointed  with trade publishing magic fairy dust and turned you into a “real author.” (Whatever the heck that means.)

The Real Price of Traditional Publishing

So many writers over the years have called their novels “their babies” or “their children.”

Yet these same authors will take that baby and sell it for next to nothing and then wave goodbye as the baby goes away forever. The baby then gets dressed up for a few months by its new parent, after which the the baby is tossed in a dark corner without food to survive for decades on its own.

You want to use that analogy for your work, think it through and don’t lose control of what happens to your baby.

Now, with indie publishing, you can keep that kid at home. Sure, sometimes kids cost some money to maintain and dress and help grow. You can keep helping your child mature and grow and earn expenses back. You can control the outcome of that kid’s life and who the kid impacts.

And maybe even get the kid to pay rent and buy some food.

The real price of traditional publishing is total loss of control over your work.

“Life of copyright” is seventy years after you are gone. That’s a long, long time.

Think it through before you go chasing the magic fairy dust of a traditional publisher anointment. You will pay a very high price.

Actually, your baby, your novel, will pay the price, and all you will be able to do is watch.

And cry.