As I came to understand the publishing world in the 1980s, moving from newspaper journalism, I encountered beliefs that over time I decided were much less the case than was widely accepted. Mainly these were about process and accounting (harrumph), not the books themselves.
A dismaying percentage of authors say their book experience is frustrating. Unless you are among the 2 percent or so of writers who are in what the Justice Department (in its successful suit to block the Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster merger) called “Anticipated Top Selling Books,” with advances of $250,000 or more, the odds seem to favor disappointment.
For all the effort in seeing a book to publication, the results can feel, if not meager, then certainly below expectations.
(1) You receive an advance, less than needed to support yourself after taxes and your agent’s commission. And when you decipher the royalty statement you receive months after the book appears, you see that your book’s sales have not earned back the advance. Hence, no additional royalties will be coming your way.
Does that mean you failed? More often than not a book does not earn back the advance – certainly not in the first year – but that doesn’t mean the book is a failure in the publisher’s accounting. Two senior financial executives at a publisher showed me how books with an unearned result on a $100,000 advance actually made money for the publisher. The advance is only one item on a balance sheet, and there are others where revenue is added. When I shared those model statements with another publishing expert he disagreed with some of the particulars, but he supported the conclusion: Books that do not ever earn back the advance the authors received can still be profitable for the publisher – and therefore, in business terms, a success.
So, the advance is really the guarantee of authors’ earnings rather than a measure of a book’s eventual outcome. Clearly, when there are more sales the possibility of meeting the advance increases. And fewer sales can mean a loss for the publisher. Calling it an advance is technically correct but tends to be misleading about the future.
That is the way the process works. It is not the author’s fault.
(2) Hardcover sales of, say, under 10,000 copies over two years may seem so small a number as to be, in the mind of the writer, embarrassing. Books are written to appeal to an audience. Sex sells. Most other topics, especially in nonfiction, are niche, as is most literary fiction. Books carry subtitles like “the untold story,” as a way to intrigue. But that usually is not enough to break out.
If the topic inspires you to write about it, it’s important to accept the narrowness of its audience. Or don’t go to the trouble.
And today’s publishing options are much greater than they were: ebooks and audio, in addition to traditional hardcover and paperback. At Random House in the 1980s, I published topical books by journalists that are still in print decades later. My line to prospective authors is: “Books are better than buildings. They have your name on them and can’t be torn down.”
(3) At the end of the publishing cycle, authors tend to conclude that the publisher “barely” supported their book with marketing and publicity time and dollars. It is very hard for editors, publishers, publicists, and salespeople to satisfy the dreams of most authors.
But in today’s densely populated marketplace for books and other media, an ambitious author needs to put reserve and dignity on hold. Do everything you can, personally, to support the book. Deploy friends, family, and social media. Spin off riffs, visit bookstores, and ignore the demeaning feeling that some booksellers will give you for asking about your own book.
Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published by Crown in 2010, a very readable true story with elements of science, biography, and race. It has sold millions of copies and Oprah Winfrey made it into a film. I don’t know Ms. Skloot and had nothing to do with the book, but I watched with fascination how assiduously she worked to spread word of the book. Months before it appeared, she sent me (a stranger by any measure) a description of it.
Few authors have that degree of energy, commitment, and ultimately luck. And it was a fine book. It was Rebecca Skloot, however, who made the difference, in my view.
John Le Carre, the nom de plume, of David Cornwell, was a great novelist. With almost every new book, coverage would suggest he was “revealing” more about himself. Having now read his collected letters in “A Private Spy” (Viking), Cornwell was prodigious in managing his persona in interviews he doled out sparingly (I did get one), feuds (occasionally public) and letters to editors, publishers and a colorful array of others. He was as masterful in getting attention as he was on the page.
Ultimately, there is only so much an author and a publisher can do to make a book as visible as we would hope it to be. Temper your expectations, not your enthusiasm.
And complaining or having your agent complain to the publisher, or to the publisher’s boss, is a strategy that makes the recipient defensive and leads to eye-rolling that can backfire. Criticism can be justified. Suggestions can be offered. The tone should be calibrated.
So, authors feel underpaid and, too often, underappreciated. Publishing staffs, particularly at the junior levels, say that is true for them as well. A strike at HarperCollins was still going on at the holiday period because a starting salary of $50,000 was deemed inadequate to live in New York. There are other issues also, such as working conditions and diversity.
There is no argument that improvements are necessary. I would argue that over time – I mean in the past forty years that I know of – progress has been made on many of these issues.
When I arrived at Random House in 1984, Derek Johns, the talented young Englishman assigned to be my assistant, told me he was being paid $12,000, which taking inflation into account would be about $34,000 today – below the current minimum. When Derek became an associate editor in 1986, his salary was $25,000, which would be about $68,000 in today’s dollars. He returned to Britain.
Up to a point, pressure can bring changes. It always has and always will.
To focus just on pay scales at entry levels, a $50,000 salary includes benefits such as health care and a 401(k) plan. Two years of working at a publisher as an assistant and then an associate in one department or another almost certainly brings raises. And the aspiring publishing professional gets what amounts to a master’s degree in the field.
An actual master’s degree in academia would cost tens of thousands of dollars, financed by loans, part-time jobs and, if they can afford it, family. Being paid is better than having to pay.
Having been involved for so long in the world of words, my instinct is to look for ways to adjust the narrative, recognizing what is wrong and what is right. Being an author or being a young person in publishing (or anyone in publishing for that matter) is a distinction, devoting time to goals of information and entertainment.
That is worth remembering, even on the tough days.
Money is not my motivation to publish. I have story that needs to be told and so be it
My particular book, of which you are familiar with the first iteration of, is far better and literally corrects history.
See you at Roosevelt House!
Now I feel even better about my publisher!