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A peek inside the cashflow of writing books

I was poking around on Quora and came across an interesting juxtaposition of questions:

Quora questions screen capture

Neither of these is an unusual question. Quora is filled with people asking how to make money as an author, and other people asking how to download books without paying for them. Seeing those two questions together, though, made me realize that the two questions only need one answer:

If you want to make money writing books, then people have to pay you for them; if you want to get books for free, you have to find some non-monetary motivation for the author to create those books.

There are certainly authors who write just for the sheer pleasure of writing, and others who write for the pleasure of being published. Money is not their primary motivation. But let’s look at the rest of the authors for a moment. Where do we get our money? There are five answers to that question.

  1. The traditional publishing model
  2. Work for hire
  3. Self-publishing
  4. Vanity presses
  5. E-book only

Traditional Publishing

Central Park front cover draft

My Who Pooped books were all traditionally published.

All cash flows to the author (although the agent takes a cut). The publisher pays the author an advance prior to publication and a royalty on each book sold. Think of the advance as a loan against future royalties. The royalty can be calculated a number of different ways: a flat amount, a percentage of the cover price, a percentage of the wholesale price, or a sliding scale. Under this model, the publisher pays for cover design, layout, editing, proofreading, copyediting, printing, marketing, and all of those other expenses required to put out a book. The e-book and print book are handled exactly the same. Most of my books were published traditionally.

Traditional publishing is hard to break into. The ease of self-publishing and its relatively low cost means a lot of authors don’t even try the traditional approach. The ones that do need a breakout success on their first book, or there will never be a second one. Low initial sales are a career-killer.

This is the pay model that non-writers find hardest to understand. I’ve had people tell me, “gee, it must be nice getting paid over and over again with royalties, even years after you wrote the book.” They don’t understand that in traditional publishing royalties are the only money the author will get. Even the advance is just royalty money that’s paid early. If someone hires a carpenter to build a shed, the carpenter gets paid when the shed is built. If an author’s book flops, the author doesn’t get paid.

An author shares risk with a publisher. A carpenter doesn’t. If an author and a carpenter put in six months of work on a project, the author may get ten times what the carpenter gets, or may get a tenth.

Work for Hire

The author is paid an hourly wage (or annual salary) to write the book. There are no royalties. This is common in business writing and textbooks, among other markets. As with traditional publishing, all money flows to the author and the author takes no risk. This model is identical for print books and e-books.

Work for hire is as hard (or as easy) as finding any other job. The author puts in the hours, delivers the product, and collects the checks.

The flip side of this is that there’s no reward for a breakout bestseller. A work-for-hire author gets paid the same whether the book sells ten copies or ten million copies.


Inside CaptioningThe author is the publisher. The author pays for everything, and keeps all of the profit. It’s a lot of work, but it can pay off well with a successful book. I did this with my first two books. I had to pay up front for the whole print run, store all of the books, and handle all of the marketing and fulfillment. With Inside Captioning, I spent well over $10,000 before I made back my first penny, but my profit per book was an order of magnitude higher than my traditionally-published books. These days, with PoD (print on demand) presses, you don’t have to order thousands of copies up front, but your cost per book is significantly higher.

Self-publishing is easy to get into. The author just needs some cash (a couple of grand should do it). Unlike traditional publishing, the risk isn’t shared: the author takes all risk.

If that person who asked the first Quora question gets his or her way, that risk won’t pay off. Most authors will never recover the money they spent on self-publishing the book, and illegal e-book downloads may make the difference between making a few bucks and losing money.

Vanity Presses

Kind of like traditional publishing, except the royalty is bigger, there’s no advance, and the author pays for things up front. Depending on the vanity press you deal with, they may charge you anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, and then present you with extra charges for “set up,” cover design, layout, format conversions, ISBN/EAN assignment, proofreading, copyediting, and more. As with self-publishing, the author takes all risk.

Vanity presses are ideal for the author who just wants to write up the family history and print a few dozen to give out to the grandkids and cousins.

E-book only

Myths and Legends of Tea Vol 1 coverThere is no print edition, so nobody has to pay for things like printing, shipping, and storage. The amount of work you are willing to do yourself determines how much it costs up front, because there’s no advance. I did this with the first volume of Myths and Legends of TeaI handled the book design, cover design, format conversions, uploading, and account setup myself, and arranged for my own proofreading and editing. This meant no up-front fees to Amazon and Apple. The royalties are substantially higher than any of the other options. There are also services that will do many of those things for you, either for a fee up front or a percentage of your royalties.

The author bears all of the risk, but with such low up-front costs, there isn’t all that much risk to bear. The upside isn’t as big as with the combo print/e-book approaches, but it’s incredibly easy to do.

In this pay model, bootleg downloads really impact the author. There are no hard-copy sales, so royalties on the e-books are the only way the author can make money.


We’re living in an interesting world. There are authors and artists using websites like Patreon to earn a pretty decent living. People are willing to make donations to their favorite author just to keep getting new books. At the same time, sites like Quora are full of people trying to figure out how to stiff authors out of a six buck e-book sale.

As authors, we’re not fooling ourselves. No matter what DRM (digital rights management, a.k.a. copyright protection) those Kindle, Nook, iPad, and Kobo files have, it will be broken in no time flat. If our books aren’t available on some pirate website, it’s not because Amazon prevented it from happening, it’s because nobody cared enough to bootleg our books.

It’s no longer enough for an author to write a book, send it to the publisher, and get started writing the next one. We have to be actively involved in marketing, and we have to figure out alternate ways to make money from the book if sales aren’t high enough. It can be frustrating, but it’s today’s reality. There are over 50,000 new books published every month, and that doesn’t even count the e-books with no print edition. It’s tough to break out from the pack, but it can be done, and new authors do it every month.

This whole blog post really boils down to one thing:

If you want your favorite authors to write more books, buy copies of their other books.

Lest you think these feelings are self-serving, most of my books aren’t even available in e-book form, and I doubt that I’ve lost much income due to theft or bootlegging. But I believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. I confess: I played with someone else’s copy of Minecraft for a while. Then I realized I enjoyed it and wanted to see it improved and maintained, so I bought my own copy — and then bought a copy for my grandson.

Please, go to a library and read books for free. That’s what libraries are for. If you prefer, borrow books from friends. And when you find authors you like, buy copies of their books. New copies, since they don’t get paid for used copies. When it comes right down to it, the best way to support the arts is with your wallet.

An open letter to Hachette r.e. Amazon

As an Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) author, I received an email today from their KDP team. It laid out their side of the Amazon-Hachette dispute and encouraged authors to write a letter directly to Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch supporting Amazon’s position. They drew a faulty parallel between changes in book format (hardback -> paperback -> ebook) and Amazon’s attempt to completely control the e-publishing world. I wrote the letter, but it’s not what Amazon asked me to write. I stand with Douglas Preston and the other writers at Authors United, not with Amazon. I want what’s best for the book business, including readers, not what’s best for Amazon to everyone else’s detriment. Here’s what I sent:

Dear Mr. Pietsch;

I’m sure you’ve seen Amazon’s plea to its authors to back them in the Hachette dispute. You are probably getting a lot of emails, mostly from authors who have thrown together an ebook and tossed it on the Kindle store unedited. Yes, I’ve self-published, and I hired editors and proofreaders when I did it. I’ve also been published by one of the big houses (Elsevier), a regional press (FarCountry), a trade association press, and a historical society press. I haven’t been published with Hachette, but I’d be honored to be one of your authors someday.

My opinion isn’t what Amazon wants to read.

I believe that publishers have the right to price their own products. My last book with Elsevier went through a cover design team, an editor, a proofreader, a fact-checker, a book designer, an indexer, and a peer review team. These things cost money. If you decide that Hachette needs to sell a book — paperback, hardback, audio, or electronic — to wholesalers or retailers for $10.00, that is your decision to make. Amazon has become the 500 pound gorilla in this industry, and they believe that it gives them the right to run your business for you.

Amazon is not after lower prices for consumers. They are after control. They wish to push the profits out of ebooks for everyone but themselves, killing as many publishers and competing stores as they can to solidify their market, so that they may raise prices once they have a monopoly as secure as their monopsony is now. They have hurt the book trade badly, and I applaud you for standing your ground.

I support Hachette in this battle, just as I support the the agency model that Apple used. It’s good for publishers, good for authors, and ultimately produces higher quality products for readers as well. I hope that more publishers will have the guts to stand up to Amazon’s bullying, and that we will return to a free market on books instead of a “whatever Amazon says” market.

Thank you for your time.

Gary Robson

I hope that authors who have only looked at Amazon’s side of the story will step back and look at what Amazon has actually done to publishers, writers, and competing stores. Online book sales are great. Ebooks are great. Having both of those completely controlled by a single company — especially a predatory company like Amazon — is not great.

Treadmills, books, e-books, magazines, and apps

We have a treadmill at home. A fine treadmill, but with a major design flaw (from my perspective): the book holder. I’m a pretty big guy, and at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, my eyes are a long way from the book holder when I’m on the treadmill. My eyes aren’t great, but I can read a book with standard print from that distance. It’s a little jiggly when I’m moving, but I can manage. The holder itself is fine for a small book, but won’t easily hold a thick book. It will hold a magazine, but most magazines have pretty small print.

It’s also deucedly awkward turning pages. I have to just about take the book or magazine out of the holder, turn the page, and slide it back in. A real pain in the neck. I want something with large text that fits easily in the rack and has easy-to-turn pages, even when walking or jogging on the treadmill.

Wired Magazine on an iPadEnter the iPad.

I can enlarge the text as I please, it’s backlit so I don’t have to worry about positioning a light on the treadmill, and turning a page is as easy as swiping my finger across the screen — a piece of cake even at a jog. I like the feel of “real” books, and I like buying and selling used books, which makes reading less expensive, but the iPad is the perfect treadmill solution.

Then came Apple’s new release of iOS, which I loaded this week. It has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook. Big chunks of text disappear between virtual pages. I have to keep changing the text size up and down to try and fit more or less text per page and hope I can read those missing lines. A pain in any circumstances; completely untenable on a treadmill.

“iOS 5 has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook.”

Apple’s been trumpeting their new “Newsstand” on iOS 5, which allows you to group all of your magazines in one place and read them on the iPad. I figured I’d give it a shot. I can usually count on Wired magazine being ahead of the curve on tech, and they have a free issue when you load the app, so I loaded it up and gave it a try.

I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app. It’s almost like a group of designers sat down in a room and said, “How can we make this as awkward as possible for a 50-year-old dude on a treadmill?” It’s pretty; I’ll give them that. It’s an immersive experience that’s better than a magazine and better than a web site. But it has a few problems.

“I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app.”

  • You can’t adjust the text size. This is a huge step backwards in both ergonomics and accessibility.
  • Navigation is inconsistent. Sometimes you have to swipe down (for the next page in an article) and sometimes you swipe sideways (for the next article), but you can’t skip to the next article without either going through all of the pages or activating the scroll bar on the bottom and delicately scrolling sideways.
  • Navigation requires precise movements. Turning a page while moving at a jog is easy with the iPad’s e-reader for books. Just tap the right margin or swipe from the right. In the Wired app, you have to have the motion exactly correct. If your swipe isn’t exactly horizontal, it will try to scroll down, even if you’re on a page where downward swipes don’t work. If your swipe is too short, it treats it as a tap and shows the scroll bar. Many of the pages have active spots, and if you accidentally hit one of those, you end up playing an audio clip or showing a graphic instead of moving to the next page.
  • As a combination of my first and third point, some of the features require hitting fairly small buttons with fairly high precision (just a tap, not a swipe), which is quite a challenge on the treadmill.
  • There’s no onscreen indication of how to navigate. When I first loaded it up, I got to the first page of an article I didn’t want to read, and couldn’t figure out how to move on. I kept swiping sideways, and the image would flick sideways and come back. It took several minutes to figure out I had to go through all of the pages to the end of the article, and then flick sideways.

Beautiful app, guys. Looks great. Tons of data. Nice interactive features. But your ergonomics stink.

Until Apple fixes their ebook reader, it looks like I’m back to podcasts on the treadmill. Oh, well. I’ve been missing Science Friday lately. Hey, Ira! I’m back!

Mixed feelings on ISP’s new anti-piracy agreement

Pirate skullAs a writer and bookseller, I depend on copyrights and their enforcement to make a living. I believe that people should be able to profit from their creative labors, and that a properly-constructed copyright system encourages people to create. I also believe that our current system isn’t properly-constructed, but that’s another topic entirely.

Last Wednesday, July 6, a group of major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) entered a voluntary agreement with the music and movie industries (MPAA and RIAA) to enforce copyrights on their customers’ websites. When someone (most likely the RIAA or MPAA) notifies your ISP of a potential copyright violation on your website or through P2P usage, you will receive a warning. The first four warnings are “educational” in nature, with no penalty and no appeal. As you move up to the fifth and sixth warning, the “mitigation” stage kicks in, and you could find your access speed throttled back or a landing page that comes up every time you try to access the Internet.

This bothers me on several levels. Even though the ISPs won’t be monitoring your Internet traffic, and disconnection isn’t one of the possible punishments, it puts Big Daddy right in your office or living room. And the penalty phase seems misguided to me. Once you’ve reached the fifth or sixth warning, and the ISP has applied a penalty, you have the option to appeal. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the appeal ($35.00), and your reasons for appeal are highly limited.

The memorandum of understanding lists six possible grounds for appeal (the misnumbering is theirs, not mine):

(i) Misidentification of Account–that the ISP account has been incorrectly identified as one through which acts of alleged copyright infringement have occurred.
(ii) Unauthorized Use of Account–that the alleged activity was the result of the unauthorized use of the Subscriber’s account of which the Subscriber was unaware and that the Subscriber could not reasonably have prevented.
(iii) Authorization–that the use of the work made by the Subscriber was authorized by its Copyright Owner.
(iv) Fair Use–that the Subscriber’s reproducing the copyrighted work(s) and distributing it/them over a P2P network is defensible as a fair use.
(vi) Misidentification of File–that the file in question does not consist primarily of the alleged copyrighted work at issue.
(vii) Work Published Before 1923–that the alleged copyrighted work was published prior to 1923.

Does anyone else notice a glaring omission on that list? If someone reports you for copyright infringement, you can’t say “Piss off; I own that!” I suppose you could go for clause iii and say that you had given yourself permission, but remember you can’t appeal the first four warnings at all, and if someone reports you for placing your own copyrighted content on your website or blog, it will cost you $35 and some unknown amount of time to make the penalties go away.

I am interested in how this will affect writers. I have found copies of my work scattered all over the Internet, and found that most website operators ignore my requests to take it down. Although the RIAA and MPAA started the process that led to this memorandum of understanding (MOI), it opens with the following words:

Copyright infringement (under Title 17 of the United States Code) on the Internet (“Online Infringement”) — including the illegal distribution of copyrighted works such as music, movies, computer software, gaming software, e-books and the like via Peer-to-Peer (“P2P”) file exchanges and other illegal distribution via Internet file hosting, streaming or other technologies — imposes substantial costs on copyright holders and the economy each year.

Notice the inclusion of ebooks? This seems to imply that writers can contact an ISP and report violations under the terms of the MOI. Would this also include our articles, stories, poems, and audio books? How about digital copies of artists’ work? Well, apparently not. According to the MOI, notices of infringement may only be given by the “Content Owner Representatives,” which they define as the RIAA and MPAA. If your content is pirated, you can’t do a thing about it unless the RIAA or MPAA choose to respond.

If, however, those organizations do choose to pass through notices generated by individuals, it would create a whole new form of harassment. If you don’t like someone, report them for copyright infringement over and over and over. Even if they’ve done nothing wrong, it will cost them $35 each time to remove the mitigation measures.

This could be a very far-ranging contract, and there could be consequences unforeseen by the signers of the MOI.

Incidentally, the ISPs that signed the agreement — as listed in Attachment A of the MOI — are SBC Internet Services, Inc., BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc., Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, Pacific Bell Telephone Company, Illinois Bell Telephone Company, Indiana Bell Telephone Company, Incorporated, Michigan Bell Telephone Company, Nevada Bell Telephone Company, The Ohio Bell Telephone Company, Wisconsin Bell, Inc., The Southern New England Telephone Company, and BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc. (the AT&T Inc. companies); Verizon Online LLC, VerizonOnline LLC –Maryland, and Verizon Online Pennsylvania Partnership (the Verizoncompanies); Comcast Cable Communications Management, LLC; CSC Holdings, LLC (solely with respect to its cable systems operating in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut)(the Cablevision systems); and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Kindle store vs. Apple iBookstore – An author’s perspective

Darkest Hour eBook CoverIn 2003, I created a booklet based on a pamphlet written by Fay Kuhlman. Entitled The Darkest Hour: A Comprehensive Account of the Smith Mine Disaster of 1943, it sold pretty well both at my bookstore and at the Carbon County (Montana) Historical Society. When 2010 rolled around, it seemed like time to update the book a bit, so I went to work on building a 3rd edition.

I had monkeyed around with eBooks back in the 90s, but that was well before their time. Delivery mechanisms were limited, there was no copy protection, and few devices that would qualify as readers. I decided this would be a fine time to see what’s involved in becoming a Kindle author and an iPad author.

I must confess that I went into the experiment with a bias. I’m not your typical Apple fanboy, in that I definitely recognize the flaws in Apple’s products and I use a wide variety of competing products. I have, however, done consulting for Apple, owned many of their different products, and currently use an iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, AppleTV, and more.

On the flipside, I own a bookstore. That means I deeply resent some of the things Amazon has done to the book business. That hasn’t stopped me from selling used books on their site and promoting my own books there, but I’m certainly not an Amazon fan.

Nonetheless, I resolved to do both at the same time and compare the processes with as little bias as possible.

Getting Started

I began the process by applying to be a publisher on Kindle Direct and on Apple’s iTunes Store. I filled in the forms, submitted them, and set out reading whatever information was available on preferred formats. The Kindle application went through fast. I was up and ready to publish in a day. The Apple application took well over a week, and I couldn’t find any way to speed things up. It was far more complex and the agreement far more restrictive than Amazons. This is definitely Advantage: Amazon.

As for file formats, Amazon uses a format called MOBI. You can use color in your cover image, but the inside of the book is black & white. Amazon didn’t have any tools of their own for doing the conversion, but recommended a product called Calibre. Once I stripped out tables, removed all color, and generally took the book back to text-only format, I could reformat the illustrations, build a table of contents, add in the cover art, and convert it using Calibre. It took several iterations, but I finally got what I wanted.

Apple, on the other hand, uses the open ePub format. Since Calibre does ePub, I did a quick reformat of what I’d done for MOBI, swapped the color pictures back in, and did the conversion on Calibre. Looked smooth and easy, but wouldn’t upload. I wrestled with it through several iterations, and finally resorted to reading the help files on Apple’s website. As it turns out, they specifically tell authors to avoid Calibre, as it creates incorrectly-formatted ePub files. Argh! However, the “Pages” word processor on the Macintosh outputs beautifully-formatted ePub, and everything went smoothly from there.

Since I don’t own a Kindle, I had to download a “Kindle Preview” app from Amazon to see how the book would look. On Apple, I simply dragged it to iTunes and synced the iPad. In both cases, I saw what I expected.

Given the formatting capabilities, availability of color, and openness of the format, I’d have to call this Advantage: Apple.

Making the books available for sale

Once your contracts are in place, uploading books is easy with both companies. Again, Amazon’s is faster, but that wasn’t a big deal. Setting prices and royalties was similar. Amazon made the book available in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. Apple gave me all three of those, plus Australia, Canada, and France. One rather significant difference is that Apple requires an ISBN for each eBook. I bought a block of ISBNs when I self published a couple of books years ago, so that wasn’t an issue for me. If you’re a first-time self-publisher, however, that could be a problem. Amazon, on the other hand, makes up a code themselves (they call it an ASIN rather than an ISBN), and you’re ready to go.

You can see what the book looks like in Amazon’s store and Apple’s store and compare for yourself. The Apple iBookstore looks quite different in a web browser than it looks on an iPad, but you’ll get the idea.

Both companies offer online sales and royalty reports and trend charts, and both make it easy to remove or update your book. It’s a close race here, but not requiring an ISBN probably makes this Advantage: Amazon.

The bottom line: Sales

The Darkest Hour, 3rd edition went on sale through both venues in March. Aside from a quick announcement on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve done no promotion whatsoever. It’s a highly-specialized booklet about a mine explosion that took place over 65 years ago. How has it done? According to the royalty reports, 25 copies on Kindle and 1 copy on iPad.

I’ll probably come back and update this after doing some promotion and giving it more time, but for the moment I have to declare Kindle the winner from the author’s perspective. I still like my iPad much better for many reasons, but as I release eBooks, I know where I’m putting my priority for first release!

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