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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.

7 book signing tips for children’s authors

7 book signing tips for children's authorsThere are a lot of things that are different for an author who writes books for children — especially picture books. I’ve talked about some of these things before, but I’ve never specifically addressed how to actually sign the books. Most of the generic book signing tips and guidelines apply (see my 14 book signing tips for authors and 11 MORE book signing tips for authors, among others. Here are some specific things to keep in mind for children’s picture book authors:

  1. No cursive. I was born in 1958, so handwriting was a big thing in school. We learned to write beautiful cursive script, and that’s what our generation uses for formal occasions. Today’s children, however, are often not taught cursive. Schools in our area have dropped it, and many others around the country as well. If you handwrite a clever little note to the children, odds are they won’t be able to read it. This doesn’t apply to the signature itself, but…
  2. Who Pooped signatureUse a clearer signature. When I’m signing a check or a legal document, my signature is a scrawl. If you didn’t already know my name, you’d never be able to decipher the signature. As grownups, we get this. An illegible scribble is the standard for signatures. Little kids don’t necessarily get it. If the family is plopping down $11.95 for a copy of my book, I figure the least I can do is make it readable. I know kids who don’t read cursive won’t be able to read a signature, but the letters are close enough to identify if you know what you’re looking for. Speaking of which…
  3. Sign on the title page near where your name appears. When the child is looking at the book, they see your name printed in the book and your name signed close by. The younger the child, the harder time they have grasping that you’re the person who created this book. That proximity of printed name and signature helps reinforce it.
  4. If you’re the illustrator, draw something. Nothing fancy. Even a little smiley face. What you drew doesn’t matter. What matters is that you drew it just for them (anecdote below).
  5. Always include the child’s name. You probably do this anyway, but it’s doubly important for little children. One of the first things they will learn to spell and recognize is their own name, and it’s infinitely cool to them when they see their own name in the book.
  6. Always ask the spelling. Again, you probably already do this, but it’s more important with children’s books. If you are signing a book for a 60-year-old named Ellen, it’s almost a sure bet that her name is spelled E-L-L-E-N. Young parents today are much more likely to use unique (strange, odd, phonetic…) spellings than their parents or grandparents. A six-year-old with that name is much more likely than previous generations to spell it Ellyn or Elin or Ellan or Ellin or Elhen or Elen.
  7. Talk directly to the child. I see far too many authors of children’s books that speak to the parents and barely make eye contact with the kids. The book is for the kids. The experience is for the kids. Ask children what their names are and how to spell them, and look to the parents for confirmation if you can’t understand. Children are used to being ignored by grownups. Be the exception.

I promised an anecdote:

Tippi Hedren signature

The cover to Tippi Hedren’s book, The Cats of Shambala, and a closeup of her signature in the book.

At a Cheetah Conservation Fund event years ago, I met Tippi Hedren, the actress who became famous for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds. She had written a book called The Cats of Shambala, and I bought a copy. When she signed it for me, she added three simple little birds around her signature (see the picture under the book cover at right). I told her the birds were really a cute touch.

“I wish I’d never started that,” she said.

When I asked why, she told me about when she first started drawing little birds. It was a random thing. Sometimes she’d draw two, sometimes three, sometimes four. Then, when she drew two birds by her signature in a book, a fan complained.

“How come my friend got three birds in her book and I only got two in mine?”

The little birds had stopped being a cute improvisation and became a part of her signature; an expectation rather than an extra.

Be prepared, as this could happen to you, too.

When I sign Who Pooped books I always write the same thing: “Watch where you step,” unless people ask me to do something else. That makes my life easier, as I’m not scrambling to think of something clever for each book I sign, and people really seem to like it.

I’ll add a little caveat to all of this. A really good book signing for me is a hundred books in three hours. Call it an average of 30 books per hour. With two minutes per customer, I have plenty of time to chat, write my little personalized greeting, and even get pictures with fans. If you are Mo Willems (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) or Eric Litwin (Pete the Cat), then you’ll have massive lines and no time for such frivolity. Of course, if you’re Mo Willems or Eric Litwin, you’re probably not reading my blog.

Book signing

If they want a picture with you, do it! Here, I’m signing books in Yellowstone Park. Most of the time, the parents just want the kids in the picture, but sometimes they join in, too.



book signing book banner

Finding buried treasure — that you buried!

Poker odds book sampleIt’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.

Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.

Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.

The advantage of being a packrat

Packrat (Neotoma cinerea)

Go ahead. Be a packrat. Packrats are adorable!

Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!

It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.

Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.

For anyone that’s interested, you can read two of those feature articles, The Origins of Phreaking and Hacker/Phreaker BBS Stings, here on my website.

The moral of the story

It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.

Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.

Who Pooped in the Cascade Mountains?

A quick update:

We are having some illustrator issues right now, and we’re not sure what the release date will be for my 18th poop book: Who Pooped in the Cascades? Personally, I’m still hoping for this fall, but there is no official date at this point, and I’m not setting up any events yet.

Update to the update [August, 2013]:

The book is out now! I added the link to the paragraph above and a picture to this post.

Who Pooped in the Cascades?

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?

Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us. We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

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