Not entirely sure what to think about this piece, Publish and be damned, from Kenilworth Books (a bookstore in England’s green and pleasant Midlands) abbreviated and commented upon at The Passive Voice. I’d like to think I’m as much in favor of authors’ prospering as the next guy, and while some of what’s said here is correct, especially about bookstore discounts, overall I think it misses the target.

Publishers do not cavalierly divide their lists up into books they’ll promote, and books they’ll just let sink or swim. The raw reality is that a book’s marketing budget is (must be) a function of its sales. Books that sell lots of copies get lots of promotion; books that don’t don’t. Publishers make judgements, occasionally wrong — but god knows they’ve got a lot more experience at doing this than commentators or authors — as to which books are likely to sell in which quantities. The marketing and promotion budget will be a fixed proportion of expected sales revenue. Books with good prospects get lots of promotion money; those with less good, less — and theoretically (though no publisher seeks out this type of book) those with no prospects, none. None will of course never be $0. If you weren’t an optimist you’d never be a publisher.

Stop thinking of authors as employees of a publishing company. They are not (though over the course of history a few publishing companies have employed writers for specific tasks — usually rather boring reference-type writing). The truth of the matter is nearer the opposite. Publishers exist to serve their authors: it would be less misleading to say the publisher is employed by the author than the reverse. Publishers originate nothing: they provide services to authors to enable them to reach readers. To compare earnings for clothes designers to those of authors is pretty irrelevant. Not too many designers of clothing are creating their designs on spec and then looking for a manufacturer to make them up. They work for the clothing company, and design what that company wants to see designed. They are on a salary track. Authorship, for better or worse just doesn’t work like that. Sure, one could say that, in a sense, the author does assume some of the risk of publication: if books don’t sell their authors can be said to have wasted their time writing them. But that’s not really what people mean when the assert that the publisher assumes the risk of publication: that’s a financial statement. The publisher invests money in turning the manuscript into a book and bringing it to market. If the book fails, the publisher loses money. If the book fails the author doesn’t earn any royalties. The publisher’s bank account will be smaller: the author’s just won’t have gotten larger. A potential loss rather than a real one. (This leaves to the side the matter of advances against royalties, functionally a mechanism for financing the author while the book is being written.)

Classic cart-before-horse-ism is displayed in the claim “And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained.” Authors are not producers for the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to take such manuscripts as have been written and bring them to the people who’ll pay to read them. True, publishers will often attempt to direct writers towards certain projects, and try to bind authors to them in order to be able to benefit from their future offerings, but the author always has the choice of not signing a contract with an option clause, or of changing publisher. By choosing a publisher authors are choosing the company they want to design, edit, produce, market and sell their book. One hesitates to cite supply and demand: but in a market economy what publishers pay authors is bound to be “the going rate”. If that weren’t so we’d find the big houses running out of stuff to publish as authors rejected their terms. Have you noticed a drop-off in output of publications? The Kenilworth Books writer even takes time to complain that there are too many books being published.

“If the net revenue by the publisher then is only 30% of cover price, the author will get 30p of a £10 book, not the 60p they would have got had it been sold at a standard 40% trade discount.” True, true; but what will the publisher be getting? Maybe 10p of net profit. Don’t forget the printer must be paid, as must salaries, interest on borrowed money, rent and so on.

Bookstores do have legitimate beefs with the question of discounted bulk sales, especially to non-trade outlets. Such deals are clearly not in the interest of the corner bookstore. Publishers used to be reluctant to do such deals in the days when there were bookstores on every corner (well, on at least one corner in most towns). But, as the big chains and online retailers grew in importance, publishers’ sales management became less motivated by the wishes of independent booksellers, and these bulk sales became rather sexy. We should perhaps not forget to set against this effect the crash in book club sales. Sales to Book-of-the-Month Club, which in their heyday could be huge, were less visible to the carping commentariat than the skids of books confronting you as you go into Costco. But from an accounting point of view, they were rather analogous. I’m not sure how common the sliding scale of reduced royalty implied in the article is. In the simpler world I remember the contract would allow for a reduced royalty in the case of sales at greater than X% discount. This is theoretically justifiable in that a cheap sale is valuable not just for the lump sum it brings in, but because of it’s potential promotional effect in generating word of mouth. When you see those skids at your superstore, do you not assume that this is a popular book? Still, one might agree that agreement from authors before a steeply discounted sale was agreed might be justifiable, though this would surely best be taken care of by an additional clause in that freely-negotiated contract.

The Bookseller article referenced at The Passive Voice can be found here. I’m slightly leery of this sort of discussion. What god-given level of profit for publishing companies did Moses bring down from Mount Sinai? Is 9% really too high? Is the fact that profits have generally been rising a bad thing? Authors are not by and large making profit sharing agreements with their publishers.* If their publisher doesn’t make enough profit they won’t be around too long, and the books they publish will become unavailable. If only all our eggs were really golden — but be careful when you consider wringing the goose’s neck.


* In a profit sharing contract the author will agree to receive not a royalty (fixed percentage of sales) on every copy sold, but a proportion of the profits the book makes. Here the author is really sharing in the risk of publication, and in some instances may also be financing some or all of the manufacturing cost. Such contracts are rare nowadays.