Saturday, March 17, 2012

Words as numbers, and making words count.

I want to reiterate some of the issues that started this blog, and started my return to writing, because not everyone is going to read all the old stuff and because the old stuff is relevant to the new.

The three items that prompted it all were:
1.  The report of the Dorchester boycott listed at AAR.
2.  The article about Connie Brockway's adventures into self-publishing, also on AAR.
3.  The obituary of Walter Zacharius that a friend showed me from the New York Times.

It actually began maybe a year before, when the same friend who told me about Walter's death had told me about Kate Duffy's.  That kind of prompted me to slide back toward a writing hobby -- not yet a career, if it ever really was one -- that I had been seriously, seriously away from for at least five years.  But it wasn't until last spring that the ideas started to coalesce again and I began surfing the review sites and so on to see what was going on in the industry.

On reading the Brockway tale, I discovered that self-publishing, which had for so long been considered anathema for "professional" authors, now offered a legitimate means for authors to by-pass the parasitic publishers who often did more harm than good, to the individual authors, to the readers, and to the various genres as classes.  And so I began to pursue my own self-publishing ventures.

When the issue with Dorchester arose last week, I spent considerable time locating the warning letter I had written to RWA in 1993, unaware during my search that that letter also contained the cost analysis of a mass market paperback.  The two are, of course, inextricably linked.  I'm not sure that this issue was ever examined after that 1993 analysis was printed in PANdora's Box.  I do know that I followed up briefly.

In a letter I wrote to PANdora's Box sometime after the publication of the original analysis -- my file is not dated and I do not yet know for sure if it was ever sent -- I brought out additional financial facts about royalties:

If indeed the publisher makes a profit of even a modest 10% on the sale of each and every paperback romance novel sold, and the authors of those same novels are paid the slave-wage royalty of only six, perhaps a paltry four, and all too frequently an insulting mere two per cent royalty, what I failed to see was that I was still comparing apples to Nerf basketballs. For the publishers' profit of 10% is a net profit, whereas the royalty to the author is a gross (!) income.

From that income one must further deduct all the costs and expenses already deducted from the publishers' receipts. Their ten percent is what they have left after paying taxes and insurance, printers and shippers, advertisers and distributors. Authors, out of their pittances, still must come up with agents' commissions, taxes (including the full social security contribution), postage and copying, bookmarks and RT ads, conference fees and mileage to those book signings at which we sign two or three copies.

We also have no control over our "wages." If the publisher wishes to give away 1500 free copies of our book at a conference, they chalk it up to promotional expense and we get -- nothing. Fifteen hundred fans have now saved the cost of the book, money which they will probably spend on someone else's novel. They will also share that book (just as they share their others, including the ones from the used book stores) with two or three friends. Or, if they don't happen to like the type of book we've written, it goes immediately to the used book store. Unlike the baker who supplies bread for the grocery store, we can't tell the publisher, "Hey, wait, guys! I worked my ass off for that book! What gives you the right to give it away for free?"
Why does this all this matter?  Because we as writers matter.  We are human beings.  For many of us, writing is our livelihood.  For others writing is an obsession, and I don't mean that in a bad way.  But it also matters because readers matter.  Because publishers have traditionally been the means for getting written material from the author's pen or typewriter or computer into the hands of the reader. 

We who are living in the 21st century take our technology pretty much for granted, especially printing because the printing press has been around for over 500 years.  But it hasn't been all that long ago that a musician had to perform live for anyone to hear him.  We cannot watch Edmund Kean's theatrical performances, we cannot hear Paganini on the violin, but we can read the words written about them.

The recording of a theatrical or musical performance requires the coordinated effort of a lot of people: It begins with the script writer or playwright or composer, progresses to cast/performers, crew, set designers, camera operators, and finally the distribution medium, whether that is Lionsgate Films or YouTube.  Computer technology has progressed over the past few years that allows some diminution of the process, but it hasn't completely eliminated the need for a coordinated effort involving a lot of people.

Writing, on the other hand, has always been primarily a solitary endeavor and it's only the distribution process that has required the input of others.  The writer writes, and was more or less done with the project until it landed in the hands of the publisher, when all production activity took over.  The publisher did all the work, granted the writer a small cut of the revenue, and walked away with the majority of the profits.

What digital self-publishing has done, however, is to make the publisher redundant.  Publishers, obviously, don't like this, and some writers are reluctant to take on the additional responsibility that self-publishing puts on them.  But let's look at the numbers, so that we, as writers, can at least make an informed decision.

Looking at the figures I posted originally -- based on a 1993 cover price of $4.99 (rounded to $5 for ease of calculation) -- on a sale of 25,000 copies, the author earns $7,500 in royalties.

If the author digitally publishes that novel on Amazon Kindle at $2.99 -- that's a major discount from a 20-year-old price, let alone from a 2012 price of $7.99 or $9.99 or $12.99! -- at a 70% royalty rate she earns approximately $50,000.  I say approximately because there is a download cost associated with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program that's based on the size of the download file.  However, the comparison kind of makes you sick to your stomach, doesn't it?  Imagine paying for a little bit of online promotion out of that $50,000 compared to buying a print ad in Romantic Times  or having bookmarks make up to distribute at conferences?  How does $50,000 in royalties compare to $7,500?

Look at another financial scenario.  Even selling on Amazon for $.99 -- a 99-cent bargain for the reader -- and only 35% royalty, that 35-cent royalty per copy is still -- STILL -- higher than a 4% royalty on a $4.99 book, and lots higher than a 2% cut on foreign sales.

Financially, digital self-publishing is a no-brainer.  Added just to the raw numbers are the considerations that digital self-publishing can be done in a matter of days and payment usually arrives in 90 days or less after sales.  Traditional print publishing requires at least six months and often as much as 18 to 24 months before a print edition is released, and royalties are paid long after that.  While the "advance against royalties" may be paid sooner than that, it is increasingly industry standard that advances are paid in more chunks and not until the completed manuscript is delivered and approved.

There are, of course, non-financial considerations.  With a traditional publisher, along with that up-front advance, the author gets cover art (which she may or may not like), proofreading and editing services (which may or may not make the book any better), and status (like membership in a "professional" writers' organization).  Oh, yes, and the delight of actually autographing print copies.

But what if the publisher, whose primary concern is the bottom line, their profit and not yours, indulges in activities that hurt your bottom line?  Looking at those 1993 Leisure/BMI editions again, they carried a UPC bar code for a cover price of $4.99 -- or even $5.99, as on the copy I found buried in my stash last night -- but I don't know what they actually sold for.  Did they reach a discount place in Kansas, as Jaye Manus reported, to be sold for 99 cents?  How did the "cover price" affect what, if any, royalties were paid to the authors?  At least I know the "cover price" on my 27,780 copies of Touchstone was actually $1.00.

As I went through some of those old issues of PANdora's Box and read comments of published romance writers who lamented over and over the eagerness of new writers to accept any terms just so they could be published and who further lamented the acquiescence of RWA on the really shitty terms and shabby treatment offered to new writers, I was quite literally moved to tears.  It's been almost 20 years since we tried to get that stopped.  By "we" I mean those of us who advocated for a stronger, more professional RWA: Margaret Brownley, Jaye Manus, Susan Wiggs, Betty Duran, among so many others whose complaints were voiced only by "Name Withheld."

I refuse to withhold my name any longer.


  1. Hi Linda,
    I have enjoyed all your blogs--not just the ones about Dorchester. In fact--I referred someone to your blog about editing and proofreading--as they are novices, attempting to self publish (with me assisting). So your blogs are helping people!

    I'd like your opinion on my blog. I know it's a lot to ask--since it's a long blog post and unedited (as I had to throw it up ASAP to protect myself from Dorchester). If/when you have time: TRUE STORY: You Be The Judge can be read at

    Yes--you are mentioned (favorably) in the blog.

    1. Oh, dear Writer, thank you! I started reading your blog and I'm absolutely fascinated (even if morbidly so) by the nefarious goings-on inside Dorchester.

      HOWEVER, you gave me a good little chuckle, and before I finish reading your blog I wanted to post this here on mine: There's a new barista at my local independent coffee shop, Gecko Espresso in Gold Canyon, and part of her (unofficial) training is to be teased by me about my name. This morning she got the first name correct and we all congratulated her on being a fast learner. But then she stumbled over my last name, which gave me a chance to remind her that I'm Linda HILTON, not Linda HAMILTON. You would not believe how often I'm listed incorrectly under the actress's name. The barista thought that was odd, but we all got a chuckle when not ten minutes later I went to your blog and OOPS! There I was listed as Linda Hamilton!

      But hey, at least you know I've read that far! And I assure you, I'm reading on. . . . .