Janice Jacobson asks: “In this new world of mixed publishing – print or ebook or whatever combination thereof – how do authors get paid? Do they get paid more promptly? Are they getting as much as they might have received in the print-only days? How do they track all this stuff? Is it enough to make a living?”
Given that this is tax season and writing income is on all wenchly minds, this was a timely question, Janice, thank you! For the historical perspective of publishing and how writers got paid, I cannot do better than this in-depth article on Victorian publishing. Or Anne Gracie’s lovely article on Victorian publishing in the digital age.
Basically, in the 1700s and early 1800s, there were few readers, so there was little need for expensive books, and publishing was an industry for the elite. As the number of readers grew, serialized fiction—the cheap comic book kind for the lower classes, the more Dickensian serials for the middle class—created more popular prices and expanded the audience. Pickwick Papers was Dickens first venture into serialization, and that was essentially a form of comic book with the illustrators leading the way—until Dickens took over and changed the market for good. And that’s very much what seems to be happening today—authors are now leading the publishers.
Current publishing is in a state of flux much like the Victorian era, except seemingly in reverse. We went from the heyday of inexpensive mass market paperbacks in the late 20th century to hideously expensive print books in the 21st. We are starting to add advertising to our books to cover costs, just as they did in Dickens time. Worse yet, the number of authors writing traditional print books have rapidly declined—the reason you see shelves of the same names in the stores.
Make no mistake—the number of authors has not declined. As in the Victorian era, authors have jumped on a cheaper means of selling books through digital and print-on-demand publications. There are even authors currently doing serializations, although not everyone calls them that. There is a huge industry of authors producing a short book a month in a continuing series. . . Not quite the same as leaving Polly tied to the railroad tracks each week but occasionally close enough. Often, it is a group of authors creating these series because it’s not humanly possible to plot, write, produce, and market this much material by one’s self—not successfully, anyway.
In other words, authors are creative. When traditional publishing fails them, they make their own way. If you want statistics, this article has a lot of them.
But it doesn’t give us the kind of comparison I need for this blog. It does tell us that there were over 45,000 authors in 2018 and only 21% of them were earning enough to live off their writing income.
And the reason for this is shown by Bowker, the only company allowed to issue ISBNs for every book published in the US (although this article doesn’t reflect books published at Amazon without ISBNs, and there are many). Because of the digital revolution, the number of books published each year is growing at a rate of roughly 40% with no signs of declining. In 2018, “the combined total of self-published print books and e-books with registered ISBNs grew from almost 1.2 million in 2017 to more than 1.6 million in 2018.”
The US population is roughly 327 milion. Almost half of those are under the age of 18. We’re not growing at a rate of 40%. You do the math—there are fewer and fewer readers for more and more books, the reverse of the Victorian situation.
So, no, I don’t recommend writing as a full-time job unless you’re part of a consortium of self-published authors, are very good at marketing, or write in a narrow niche that appeals to traditional publishers.
Traditional publishers still pay advances, depending on the author’s reputation, skill, demand for the books, etc. A beginning author with no track record will not receive much, and only then if they have a good agent. Because the market is shrinking for individual books (once, a single mass market paperback could expect to sell 100,000 copies. Now midlist authors are lucky if they can sell 10k, if only because there are fewer outlets for print), even long-time authors with proven track records cannot demand the advances they once expected. In fact, the world’s richest author, James Patterson, has announced he’s going to Amazon, presumably because they could offer him more money. So, yes, we still have the traditional model of advances and royalties based on sales, but that money is shrinking.
And it isn’t just the shrinking money and the fewer number of traditional titles causing the explosion of self-publishing. Today, traditional publishers still use the old methods to reach readers, and expect authors to pick up the slack. Authors now have to have websites and social media accounts and do advertising on their own. (I’m here to say that even as a former accountant, the formula for advertising on Amazon and Facebook is so bizarre that you need to be math-obsessed to conquer it.)
So if authors are now doing what publishers used to do—promote books—why should we enslave ourselves to contracts that tie up our books for a lifetime?
Well, those advances were nice. <G> Self-publishing doesn’t have advances. In fact, there are substantial costs to publishing that marvelous book you’ve just finished. Professional editing is essential and not cheap. A cover is needed and depending on how fancy you want to get, not cheap either. The book then needs to be formatted into Kindle and Nook and print and so forth, requiring special software and knowledge. And then the whole mess needs to be proofed. That’s just the beginning, and it can cost into thousands of dollars.
That’s the point where it becomes impossible to explain how self-published authors are paid. Some hire companies to do all the non-writing work. These companies will pay the authors a better percentage of sales than traditional ever did—after subtracting the initial expenses. Royalties (not advances) are paid every six months just as in traditional. But they still can’t do the promotion an author can, so marketing is still a very large part of the equation. Without marketing, there will be no income. We don’t have traditional bookstores or drugstore shelves for print-on-demand books, so word of mouth is all we have to sell books.
There are brave souls who can write and produce and market books. They are paid by the on-line retailers (aka Amazon) based on sales—again, a far better percentage than traditional, close to 60% difference. The money is directly deposited into bank accounts on a monthly basis, which is lovely. If you have the ability to produce books regularly, or have an enormous backlist and well-known name like many of the wenches, it is possible to make a living this way—if you market your books. Without new books and constant promotion, even a known name will languish. With a name and a lot of books, it’s possible to pay people to do the non-writing work and not go through any company.
As you can see, there is no one answer to your questions. E-publication does pay much faster than traditional. There is still a three-month delay in payment, but those payments are received monthly—if you’re doing it yourself. There are authors making far more than they ever would have in traditional publishing simply because they can write faster than publishers can produce, and they’re more savvy about selling their books than publishers are.
The future I’m really waiting on is true print-on-demand, when a customer can walk into any store, punch a few buttons on a machine, and fifteen minutes later, hold the book in their hands. We can order print books now, online and in stores, but it takes days, if not weeks, for the books to arrive. Delayed gratification in this day and age is not a viable system. So traditional print publishers still have that market cornered.
For your question, Janice, you have earned a free Patricia Rice book of your choice. (as long as it’s an e-book, since my print copies didn’t traverse the country with me)
Thank you for asking about a subject I feel deeply about. Does anyone else have a question I might answer? How do you feel about this day and age of e-book publication? Do you still go to the store and browse for print books?