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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

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.

Self-Publishing

The 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

There 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.

A few book signing observations from Yellowstone


Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Yellowstone Park to sign Who Pooped in the Park? books. There are two concessionaires in the Park: Delaware North, which operates the gift shops, and Xanterra, which operates the hotels. Some years I go to the Xanterra sites and some years I go to the Delaware North sites. Some years I hit both. This year, I was invited well in advance by Xanterra and offered one of the choice sites in the Park: the lobby at the Old Faithful Inn. Since it’s a busy time of year, I decided instead of my usual routine (a few hours a day for a week in various locations around Yellowstone), I’d just do two long days in the same place.

Signing at the Old Faithful Inn in 2013

Signings at places like this are very different from bookstore events. For one thing, no bookstore is going to ask you to spend eight hours behind a signing table. For another, the foot traffic is simply amazing. For a second-tier author like me, selling 30 books at a signing is pretty good. I did that in the first hour in the Old Faithful Inn. Also, the questions you answer are quite different (I’ve talked about this here before).

This year’s top questions

  1. When is the next eruption of Old Faithful? See that thing on the wall behind me in the picture above? It’s a clock showing the estimated time of the next eruption of Old Faithful. This question was #2 last year and jumped to the top this year for some reason.
  2. Where’s the bathroom? Usually question #1. Maybe folks weren’t drinking as much water this year.
  3. I took a picture of some scat. Can you identify it? Maybe. Unless it’s a blurry picture with no context and nothing to give it a sense of scale. But what the heck? I’ll give it a try!
  4. Is that POOP? See below.
  5. Where are the animals hanging out? I try to answer this one. Really I do. But Yellowstone is over 2.2 million acres of wilderness and I just got here yesterday. This is what the interpretive staff is for.
  6. Are these free? Really, people? You think I drove down here to give away free copies of my books?

Yep, that’s poop

Props are a highly effective way to start a conversation, and starting conversations sells books. Lest that sound entirely mercenary, I’m a social animal and I do love having conversations. But back to the main point…

Signing at Old Faithful 2013 from above

Having a six-story lobby with balconies all around gives people a unique perspective on book signings.

In this picture, you can see a row of round things on the table in front of me. You can also see rows of books. Sometimes I do rows, sometimes big spiral stacks, sometimes pyramids. The round things on the table are samples of animal scat (a.k.a. “poop”) that I have cast in resin. The big one in the middle is bear scat — always a crowd pleaser. That thing in the lower left is not poop. It’s my lunch.

As a complete non-sequitor, I inscribed books to hundreds of people this week. The vast majority were children. The most common names were Emma and Wyatt. Do what you will with that information.

Something new and different

I have done a lot of book signings in my time, but every year brings something new. This year it was an evacuation.

It was about 6:15 p.m., and I had been sitting at that table since 11:00 (minus a few bathroom breaks). I was chatting with a family when an alarm sounded. I made some quip about someone opening a door they shouldn’t have opened, and then a recorded voice came on asking everyone to evacuate the hotel. The restaurant was full, with a line halfway through the lobby. The bar was full. The gift shop was packed. There were lines at registration. People were unpacking their bags in their rooms. Everyone began streaming out.

I had my handy-dandy leather satchel with me, so I swiftly stuffed my important possessions in it (signing pen, poop samples, phone) and headed outside. The books and the sign were left to fend for themselves.

Cell service at the Old Faithful Inn is spotty. Did I say “spotty”? I really meant “lousy.” In the interests of keeping Yellowstone as pristine as possible, there is one cell tower in the area, and it is utterly incapable of handling the data traffic that people attempt to use it for. When I went outside, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people all trying — with varying degrees of success — to tweet about the experience. I managed to get a tweet to go through myself, shot a text message to my wife so she could find me, and then settled in to chat with people.

“We had just gotten our dinner,” one woman lamented. “I had only had one bite of my steak!”

“There’s the difference between men and women,” I told her. “I would have brought the steak with me.”

In general, people handled the situation with grace and humor. Someone commented that a vendor with a beer cart would be making a mint. Someone else said if there was a fire in the kitchen, at least the food wouldn’t get cold.

The signing was scheduled to end at 7:00, and that’s about what time we were allowed back in. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found out what had actually happened: low water pressure in the fire sprinkler system had triggered the alarm.

Guerrilla marketing

I believe in using whatever tools lay themselves at my feet when it comes to marketing. When we checked in and went to our room, we found that there was no WiFi available in the hotel except for “Dave’s iPhone.” I don’t know who Dave is, but he had a password on his WiFi, so it didn’t do us any good.

Luckily, however, I have my iPhone set up to become a mobile WiFi hotspot, too. Using it for that does suck the juice out of the battery, so I don’t use it that often, but this situation gave me an idea. There was only one visible WiFi network in the hotel, and it would probably be going away soon. So I changed the name of my iPhone and activated the mobile hotspot app when my signing began the next morning. What did people see when they searched for a WiFi hotspot that day?

Who Pooped WiFi networkThat, my dear readers, is called free advertising.

I’m a celebrity, by golly!

Every writer should have the experience of being recognized. It’s an amazing feeling. When I was having breakfast with my wife the following morning, someone came up with a book she’d purchased in the gift shop right before the evacuation and hadn’t gotten signed. She recognized me, of course, by my ruggedly handsome face and thoughtful, intelligent demeanor. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Who Pooped in the Park t-shirt, the black cowboy hat, or the fact that I’m 6’5″ tall.

Yep, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Wrong Way to Promote Your Book


I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly back in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. I’ve placed it here on my blog because of something that happened last month that got me thinking about it. See that story at the end of the article.

Websites for writers and publications like WritersWeekly.com are filled with information about scams perpetuated upon writers. We see everything from “contests” that bilk money from aspiring writers to markets that never pay the promised compensation. One subject that’s rarely discussed is scams perpetuated by writers.

Often, a new writer will come up with innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for promoting a book without realizing that (a) they may actually hurt sales and (b) it’s been done many times before. “Scam” is probably too harsh a word for many of these ideas, but some of them are downright unethical and illegal. That’s what we’ll focus on in this article.

The book buyers at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have seen it all. It’s hard to pull anything on them that hasn’t already been tried. You may assume that owners of small, independent bookstores exist in a vacuum, but that isn’t the case, either. Over 1,200 independents are members of the American Booksellers Association, and members communicate through newsletters and online members-only message boards.

Do we really do this? Yep. There are regional book shows around the country, and owners of bookstores do sit around and share tales of scam artists and unethical book signing conduct. If you own or manage a bookstore, I’d recommend joining your regional association. My home state of Montana is claimed by two regional associations: Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA).

Some authors have placed false orders for their own books through bookstores, hoping to pump up sales. Since most POD (Print On Demand) books are non-returnable, they figure the store will be stuck holding the bag and that they can pocket the royalties on the “sales.” This is actually inaccurate. Bookstores that are the victims of this scam WILL return the books and they WILL receive credit from the distributor or publisher. If they don’t, the bookstore will alert their fellow bookstore owners and everyone else in the industry to not do business with that distributor, publisher, and author. If your book is involved in this type of scam, you can kiss your future as an author goodbye, because nobody will do business with you. There are blacklists of authors in the industry and they are shared.

Authors may also face legal consequences for scams like this, and it isn’t difficult to prove who perpetuated a scam. Despite the huge number of books published every year, the publishing industry is a small world. Bookstore owners, book buyers, and librarians communicate with each other, and are eager to press charges if it will drive unscrupulous people from the business.

I spoke to one POD publisher who found out that one of their authors had tried this stunt. They instantly canceled the author’s contract and alerted the distributor and the bookstores of the attempted fraud. Rather than building up thousands of dollars in royalties, the author ended up with nothing; no contract, no book and, of course, no royalties. Not only that, but there are now hundreds of bookstores that will never order one of that author’s books, even if they do get it republished (which they probably will not).

I don’t want to imply here that all, most, or even many POD authors behave unethically. The overwhelming majority are honest people trying to sell their books the right way. It’s a shame that scam artists make so many bookstore owners and managers nervous about POD.

Needless to say, this scam can’t be pulled off at all with returnable books. Even if the author’s timing is perfect, and a royalty check is issued before the books are returned, the returns will show up on the next royalty statement, and the author will have a serious problem and some explaining to do to the publisher and bookstores.

There are plenty of variants on this scheme, like the “I’ve been getting lots of people from your town looking for a place to buy this book” lie and the ever-common yet never-believed “I used to live near your store and I have a ton of friends and family that want to buy copies from you.” The common factor in all of them is trying to trick a bookstore into ordering a stack of non-returnable books that they may not be able to sell. And, like I said, they’ve heard it all. I got one such call and told the author if he’d send me the list of people who called him, I’d be happy to get them the books right away. As it turned out, he didn’t even know where my store was located.

One author contacted a bunch of small bookstores and organized book signing events. The stores ordered stacks of books, and the author canceled the events. Now, many stores tell authors to bring along their own books, and they don’t order anything up-front unless it’s arranged through a publishing house they know. The author who pulled of this scheme will never have another book signing.

Another trick is misrepresenting the content of a book. A store thinks they’re ordering a big fat book of local bicycle trails, and they get a 60-page book of trails (and only one of which is within 100 miles of that town). A scam like this might work once, but if it does, your name is mud.

Another dishonest “program” that’s making the rounds is authors trying to get everyone to buy their book from Amazon.com within a 24-hour period in an attempt to get on the Amazon.com best seller list. Trying to twist the outcome of the Amazon best seller list in this way is unethical and does not represent a fair and legitimate tally of daily sales for your book (meaning calling your book an Amazon.com best seller when you tricked the system is being dishonest to your future readers and to the press when using this statement on your press releases). Booklocker.com is one publisher that won’t allow its authors to scam the Amazon.com system in this manner, and other reputable publishers are following suit. The scam is now so well-known in the industry that an author that claims to have an Amazon.com Best Seller is now considered by many to be dishonest unless it can be backed up by data spread over a period of weeks or months.

It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to lie to and steal from others in this way. It hurts all of us, and makes bookstores much more wary about stocking POD books at all. When marketing your book, remember that the tried and true methods are the most successful ways to market your books and achieve an excellent reputation: pound the pavement, pay your dues, send out press releases, arrange book signings, take out ads, and arrange radio interviews. I have sold thousands of copies of my self-published books by attending trade shows, putting on seminars, and marketing through my website.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, and market your book to others as you would want other books marketed to you.


So what happened last month that got me thinking about this article? A small publishing house that my bookstore buys directly from gave me a call to tell me about a new book they had out. It’s not the kind of book I normally sell, but it is local-oriented, so I had them throw a single copy in with my next order. When the book arrived, I took a look and decided not to carry it in the store.

A few days later, someone called and asked if we carried the book. I said I had one, and the caller asked me to set it aside to pick up later that day. I set the book on the desk, and nobody showed up to get it. The following week, another call asking if we had it, and another “customer” who never showed up to get the book. This happened four times in three weeks — always people I didn’t know who never came in.

Was it the author (plus friends and family) calling me, hoping to get me to place a larger order? I’ll probably never know. But I most certainly won’t be ordering books for inventory based on phone inquiries like that, and I view that publisher with a bit of suspicion now.

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