November 9, 2011
I have a friend who’s been working on a book for a year and a half. He has something like 2000 hours invested already.
It’s a good book. He’s responded to his editor’s suggestions. He’s made modifications based on the tech reviews. He knows it could be a better book – every book can – but the book is ready to ship.
This book will sell for $40. His percentage is based on net. That is, he gets his royalty percentage based on how much the publisher gets paid. For ease of calculation, let’s assume that that’s 50%. It’s actually slightly lower.
So the publisher gets paid $20 for each book sold and keeps $18 and my friend makes $2. As a first approximation the publisher’s share is nine times what my friend’s share is.
If the book is wildly successful and sells ten thousand copies my friend will make twenty thousand dollars. This would actually be a very successful tech book. There are some that sell a lot more than this, but when I was at the Prags we considered a book to have been very successful if it sold more than four thousand copies. (By the way, this is not a story about the Prags – they pay a higher royalty than my friend is receiving and they assign costs to authors differently)
So if the book is very successful my friend will be paid about $20K which is roughly $10/hour.
The publisher is paid $180K. Now they have to pay to print the book – that’s about $2/book so the publisher’s share is reduced to $160K. The publisher also has to pay a copy editor, indexer, and typesetter. Let’s wildly overestimate these as costing another $10K – heck let’s double it for other costs like this and call it $20K.
That leaves the publisher with %140K. So the publisher’s share is really only seven times that of my friend.
The publisher has spent less than 200 hours on the book (we’ve already counted the time they hired out for copy editing, indexing, and typesetting). So the publisher’s take is approximately $700/hour. This is seventy times my friend’s share.
Of course the publisher has to pay for their offices and other staff members not really working on my friend’s book. They have to pay for books that don’t do as well as my friend’s book.
My friend has these same costs. He has to pay for his house and food and for family members not working on projects this financially successful.
What is the publisher giving my friend? They gave him editorial advice that he followed until his editor was satisfied that this was a good book and ready to go to press. They will produce and distribute the book. They don’t really do marketing anymore.
So not a whole lot. They probably have spent more like 100 hours on this book which pushes their rate up to $1400/hour spent. So the publisher gets more than one hundred times what my friend gets based on their efforts.
Granted I haven’t forgotten that his is only their reward for a successful book. They incur a lot of risk. What if the book isn’t successful? They lose the advance they paid the author, they don’t make back the money for their time spent, they lose the money on the books they’ve printed that never sell. Shouldn’t the publisher be compensated for the risk they are agreeing to take on?
On the other hand, my friend has risk too. Somewhere between the time that they told him the book was off to the printer and the time when the book actually would have gone off to the printer, the publisher decided the book wasn’t ready. They weren’t going to publish the book. This publisher has a record of canceling books very late in the process.
On the one hand, that’s great. It doesn’t help the publisher’s reputation to publish books that aren’t very good. It doesn’t serve the reading public to have a bad book out there that they might buy. But this isn’t a bad book. This is a good book. I’ve seen it.
The publisher just changed their mind on what they want.
There’s really nothing my friend can do. He has no power. He can either rewrite the book yet again or he can walk away from it. Authors, it turns out, have a fair amount of risk too.