The Writer/Publisher Financial Relationship | Inside Publishing
Revised in 2010
There’s no escaping the fact that publishers and authors are essentially in an adversarial position. Even in the very best and most supportive publisher/writer relationships there is the tension caused by the fact that authors would like to earn as much as possible from their writing and publishers to pay as little as they can get away with. Understanding this is part of working your way through the relationship so as to come out of it in the way that best suits you as the writer.
It’s fair however to say from the outset that publishers are really only middlemen. They have to work with the market and inside the bookselling environment, which has been changing rapidly in recent years. What this means, for instance, is that you can be the best writer of westerns outside the US or an author who has been published by that publisher for decades, but if there is no longer a market for your writing then your publisher will not want to publish or carry on publishing your work. Publishers are not charities and most are now run on pretty commercial lines.
Similarly, publishers are operating within the retail environment, so if bookselling is under pressure or the supermarkets and book chains are successfully negotiating ever higher discounts, then publishers will struggle to maintain their margins and will want to pass some of the pain on to authors in the shape of lower royalties. The rapid growth of online bookselling, in particular Amazon, has changed things radically for publishers, and you can be sure that they are giving a very high discount to these retailers.
Having said all that, it is very important to understand clearly the way in which writers are remunerated by publishers and what it means for you. This is quite complicated, which is why writers, who are not a very hard-nosed lot when it comes to hawking their own work, prefer to have an agent. The Inside Publishing article on Advances and Royalties will give you the framework for how these work.
The rise of ebooks is putting a new strain on the relationship between publishers and authors, as publishers try to work out a way of making money out of ebooks without undercutting their other editions. For their part, authors mostly think they should have a much higher royalty on ebooks, as the cost of delivery is so low compared to the printing and distribution costs for print editions. This view does ignore the big investment publishers have made in digital technology, and it also ignores all the other costs of producing a book, but it is easy to see why writers feel that way.
If you remember throughout your dealings that the publisher is trying to pay as little as possible, and that there is no ‘right’ figure, you will find it much easier to understand what is going on in the negotiation. If you are in a strong position and your book is thought to be in demand, then your agent might auction it to the highest bidder, although other factors such as marketing spend or promotional plans might also come into the equation.
Agents are naturally keen to get as high as possible an advance for their authors, as this impacts on their own earnings from the contract. Most agents take 10% or 15% from the primary contracts (see The Relationship between Publishers and Agents), but don’t forget that they will take whatever percentage of income is agreed on all earnings.
The very high prices paid for some new writers’ work have often made the headlines and unfortunately given many aspiring writers the idea that writing is the way to make a quick fortune. These big deals are the exception rather than the rule and, if their books haven’t performed in the market place, an author will often be dropped by their publisher, who will have lost a lot of money in terms of the unearned advance. Worse still, it will be hard for these authors to find another publisher because information about previous sales is now freely available. Not only does a potential new publisher have to convince themselves that it’s worth taking on someone who may be perceived as a failure – although they may in fact have sold quite well – but the bookshops will be unwilling to take another punt on this author.
If you can find an agent to represent you, the chances are that their efforts will help you not only to get a publishing deal but also to get a better one. However it has now become so difficult to persuade an agent to take you on, that it may well be that you are trying to go it alone, or you may be writing in an area where agents do not operate, such as educational texts. Or perhaps you have self-published and now a publisher is interested in you. In these cases it is important to have a very clear idea of what you want out of the deal and what you will accept.
I wouldn’t advise any author to belittle themselves, for instance by saying that they don’t mind not having an advance. The money is an indication of how the publisher rates you and in general authors who do not even rate an advance are not going to get much of their publishers’ attention unless they are writing in an area where advances are not the norm.
My general advice would be not to be too fixated on advances. If you think your book may have a long life, then the royalties may be the most important element. It is wonderful as a writer to be in the position of earning steady income from your backlist. If however the important thing is to get your work out there in front of readers, then maybe the deal itself is not the key thing for you and you need to consider what you think about the publisher and what they will do for you.
Either way, don’t forget that very few writers can support themselves on their writing alone, so don’t give up the day job until you are sure about your income from writing. On the positive side, remaining engaged with the world through going to work may actually benefit your writing.
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