Saturday 11 January 2014

Why authors and trad pub don't reveal authors' earnings

Three days ago, a traditionally-published author blogged under the title: HONE$TY PO$T: An Average Traditionally Published Author's Pay. It's a full and frank disclosure of what she has earned over the past three years from her book deals with Harper Collins. You can read a cached copy of it here (EDIT: now expired, so I'm glad I copied it- cached because within four hours, the post was taken down.

Why was it removed? It's unusual for authors to tell anyone what their advance is, because advances these days are pretty unimpressive. You'll probably hear about it if it's what's referred to as a six figure sum. But mostly, so modest is the average advance, the author prefers to focus on her achievement of having a book deal with a major publisher; people have heard of Penguin or Simon & Schuster, and will be respectful.

And publishers don't want to disclose that they pay authors such beggarly amounts. It would certainly raise eyebrows - and maybe more authors would consider going indie. After all, where would publishers be without writers? Nowhere. Yet from the way they behave, you'd think writers are a minor and non-essential part of the business, who use up a lot of agents' and editors' time that could be more profitably spent elsewhere. Those agents and editors earn a living wage, while writers are advised not to give up the day job. Writers are right down the bottom of the publishing heap. Let me quote from that post:

"My books are paperback originals - no hardbacks - and I make 6% of the paperback sales, 25% of the ebook sales.  Publishers take a big chunk because they have a lot of employees to pay, and print costs are not cheap.  Of my percentages earned I share 15% with my agent and put away approximately 15% for taxes.  That means for every $10 paperback of mine that is sold I get $.60, and $.09 of that goes to my agent."

This writer is not complaining. In her own words, she is happy and grateful.

Roll on the revolution.

P.S. The author tweeted she had to take the post down for 'contract disclosure reasons'.

P.P.S. If you are curious to read the copy I took of the post and comments, email me:


  1. Jeez. I wonder why she took the post down? Far too many writers seem to be afraid of agents and publishers. I think if more writers were upfront about the pittance they're paid, it might help begin to change things.

    There was a daft post on YWO the other day which said that no-one can call themselves a writer unless that's how they make their living! How I laughed.

  2. I'm guessing Harper Collins wasn't too keen on her revealing their mean payments to authors, so told her it looked unprofessional. Or maybe friends advised that it wouldn't be good for her image as a successful writer.

    I agree with Chuck Wendig, that you're a writer if you write, and a professional writer if you sell your writing.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this, Lexi. I can imagine how unhappy HarperCollins was at having this information out there. I hope the writer hasn't damaged her relationship with them as I imagine they may now see her as 'high risk'.

    It is surreal that the publishing industry has evolved to shift the only vital component - the writer - down to the bottom of the pay structure.

  4. Surreal indeed. But evolution keeps right on going, as the dinosaurs discovered - and so did the little nimble mammals scuttling around their feet, who went on to inherit the earth.

  5. Great post, shame it was taken down. One of the biggest myths about writers is that we're rich. One thing's for sure - we're not in it for the money!

  6. I'm prepared to go on record and say I am not rich from my writing. Or from anything else, for that matter :o)

  7. I was quite shocked when I read the cached copy of that blog post. That is a pittance and such a ridiculous percentage she takes of the paperback sales. Lexi is right, the writer seems to be the least important part of the equation and if it wasn't for them, then there would be no publishing industry. I just think things are the wrong way round and there isn't the respect for the writer that there should be. It certainly made me think twice about my search for an agent.

  8. If writers would look clearly at the bad deals they are offered and refuse them, things would improve fast for authors. Unfortunately too many manage to convince themselves that the stingy and stringent contracts that are standard in the publishing industry are acceptable.

    (LK, I always appreciate comments including the words Lexi is right.)

  9. What was incredible and sad to me was how determinedly happy and grateful she is with her "deal" and how understanding she is that a publisher is a business that has to make a profit.

    I want to bang some cymbals around her ears. Can she really have no idea that some self-published authors are doing much better and not that many are doing worse?

  10. An eye-opening post. I wonder if any other authors will come forward to state how much - or how little - their advances and earnings actually are? I read somewhere that we hear about the six-figure advances only because they are so rare.
    And let's hear it for the 'little nimble mammals scuttling round the dinosaurs' feet'. We may not inherit the earth but at least Amazon pays us every month which is much nicer than waiting six months.

  11. Agreed, Judith. It's so difficult to get a trad deal unless you have contacts or are famous, anyone who does would probably have succeeded as an indie, and made much more money. A trad deal that success attracted would have more generous terms.

    Mary, another nice thing about being indie is we can experiment; change prices, covers and categories, bundle books and see what works. Publishers frequently put an ebook on Amazon then abandon it, often not even bothering to fill in the Author Page.

  12. Roll on the revolution.
    I think I would prefer evolution!

    Lexi, given that publishing is a business that has to make profits for shareholders, how would you improve the starting author's predicament?

    I imagine that top authors like Norah Roberts say, will negotiate very lucrative deals. But starting authors bring a great deal of investment risk with them, especially as the market seems to be flooded with wannabe writers. From the publisher's view point they might prefer payment for taking the risk that the books might not sell.

    It seems to me that starting as an Indie is probably best for authors who need the money. Once a respectable sales record is established, then negotiating deals with top six publishers may be more attractive and desirable.

    If you don't need the money (not everyone does!) then just being accepted by a good publisher may be an acceptable reward. If the talent is there and books sell, then deals will gradually improve.

    I believe that Bill Gates of Microsoft fame started out playing with computers in a garage or back room. Starting authors take note!

  13. Publishers pride themselves on 'curating' - one of their areas of expertise, allegedly, is picking out saleable books from the shortlists agents send them. I think they should have enough confidence in their choices to pay proper advances. Though part of the problem is that when the advance is small, the publisher has less incentive to promote the book. The book is likely to spend a couple of months spine out at the back of bookshops before being returned to be pulped in order to make way for new books.

    The answer for unknown authors is easy: self-publish.

    The answer for publishers is:

    1. Get rid of the ridiculous returns system which wastes money
    2. Deal with the slush pile yourself - cut out agents
    3. Promote books - don't expect the author to do all the work
    4. Move to cheaper premises
    5. Bring out books fast - there is NO EXCUSE for taking eighteen months to publish a book
    6. Pay authors monthly, not once or twice a year
    7. If you can only afford small advances, then it is unreasonable to bag all rights, including to platforms not yet invented, until seventy years after the author's death. A five thousand advance should come with rights to the book for five years, after which rights revert to the author.

  14. The answer for unknown authors is easy: self-publish.

    The answer for publishers
    As a rich philanthropic book-lover I would support this.

    But as a hard nosed investor viewing this as a mini-prospectus for a new publishing business I would not be very excited.

    In particular I would want to see writer rewards linked to sales and profits, so that talent is encouraged and rewarded proportionately, while minimising the drag on profit from failures.

    Publishing has to compete with many other SMEs offering excellent prospects for investors money at present as economies start to recover.

    Lexi I don't think that your proposals show any distinction in treatment between talented and mediocre writers.

    I think that most successful businesses preferentially reward the talented staff and support the innovative products that will excite customers.

  15. Great article. I is sad to hear the money aspect of it all, but good to know the reality. Thanks.

  16. Ah, but an advance is against future payments; once the author's royalty sales have reached that amount, both the publisher and the author earn more. And don't forget, publishers select books they think will sell. If they get it wrong too often (which they do, really; most books fail to earn out their advance) they don't deserve to thrive.

    For Hugh Howey's take on what publishers should do, go here:

  17. Hi Michele! Yes, I'm all for openness.

  18. I can identify, if only in a small way, with Wendy Higgins. My one conventionally-published book made me almost nothing. A number of good reviews in the national press, including a couple of headline efforts, and the profit to me was perhaps a thousand pounds. Even so, I had people thinking that a freebie or two might be expected. Readers have no idea.

    Wendy Higgins is one of many writers who are almost pathetically grateful to their agents and publishers. My guess is that, as time passes, more and more writers will see the benefit of going it alone. Those who already have a profile with a big-six publisher have all to gain.

    As for publishers, their staff may end up as freelances. What might happen to agents I don't know.

    Ya got some interesting comments here. I mean, even Q makes good points. Waydago, Q!

  19. Iain, thanks for adding your own interesting comment. My blog is fortunate in its readers.

    (Even Q? Q's points are always good!)

  20. The comment about Q is what's called ironic. Q and I have an ongoing feud, remember. I even shot him dead some months back.

  21. Iain, I don't think you've quite got the hang of shooting people dead. You can tell when you're doing it right because the person goes very quiet and stops commenting on blogs.

  22. I had an offer for my series back in September. It was for my four current books, and the fifth, which I'm working on. I know I'm not a bestseller, but I've had a couple of my books in the top 50 on Amazon, one which was in the top 20. The publisher is a new publisher, but even so, I was shocked at the meager advance offered. It was like they thought I'd be happy just to get an offer and very little was said about marketing. I turned them down and am so glad! I feel like I dodged a bullet. I think the only publisher I'd consider now would be an Amazon Imprint because I've seen the marketing push they give their books.

  23. As a hybrid author having both indie books and Amazon imprint titles, I am SO glad that my first book was turned down by trade publishers. While I can't comment on my advance numbers, I can say that my latest 3-book deal made me very happy, and even happier that I just looked at December numbers and realized I'm fairly sure I've now earned out my advance on all three books, before the 3rd one has even launched. I figured it would take me at least a year and maybe two to earn out, not 6 months. So yes, I'm thrilled to be under Amazon imprint and wish that sort of experience for every author. Maybe one day other publishers will wake up and treat their authors like Amazon Publishing does.

  24. MP, it's nice to be asked but I'm sure you were right to refuse. The top 50 on Amazon is a huge achievement, congratulations!

    Kay, I'm envious of your hybrid status and Amazon imprint. I'd be extremely interested if Amazon looked my way. Must work harder :o)