To Self-Publish Own Backlist as E-Books or Not to Self-Publish Own Backlist as E-Books?

23 November 2011 in Future of Publishing

For ages now I’ve followed the debate about the level of royalties publishers offer writers when it comes to ebooks.  About every six months I found myself getting VERY AGITATED about it all, usually when I come across an article that does the math, crunches the numbers, and shows, exactly, precisely, and in great detail what a LOUSY deal a 25% net royalty is for writers.  The last time this happened was when I came across a blog post from the Author’s Guild in the US, ‘E-Book Royalty Math:  The House Always Wins’.   It happened again this morning when I came across this lengthy piece by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, ‘The Business Rusch: How Traditional Publishers are Making Money’.

A couple of weeks ago I received my first royalty statement from my US publisher; this was the first statement I’d received where I could see a volume of ebook sales set against those of hardcover sales (in the period covered, 25% of units sold were ebooks).  The book, The Mistress of Nothing, sold fairly well (for me!) in hardcover and got up into the top of the escalating royalty rate for hardcovers, 15%.  A hardcover copy of my novel at a 15% royalty gives me $3.31 per copy, whereas the ebook at the decent sounding, but actually lousy, royalty of 25% net, gives me $1.92 per copy.  There we have it.  That is the math.  These figures don’t take into consideration the fact that the ebook might have reached readers who would never buy a hardcover, indeed, might have reached readers who no longer frequent bookshops and only read in digital formats.  But even so, it was interesting to see the figures laid out plainly. 

For several years now, publishers have been banging on about how the move to digital costs them money, how there are many extra steps added to the workload when it comes to publishing ebooks alongside bound books.  But publishers are rarely transparent about these extra costs.  S&S’s statement, quoted in Rusch’s article, “Strong growth in the sales of more profitable digital content was offset by lower book sales” is revealing:  more profitable digital content tells writers all we need to know about actual production costs when it comes to ebooks.  Looks like it’s time to get agitated, again.


Mike Jecks, 24 November 2011, 11:45 AM

A good piece on writing. In the UK writers have routinely been forced onto “net receipts” contracts for the last ten years or so. This means all incomes have been progressively squeezed. For example, my old publishers negotiated a brilliant deal with a US importer whereby there would be no returns. The fact that the importer wanted an 80% discount gave my publishers no concerns - but it means that my paperbacks earn me somewhere around 8 pennies, and hardbacks about 15 pennies. It’s impossible to live on such income.

Now that there are ebooks, the publishers are trying to force all to accept net receipts at 25%. While it is a great deal better than the royalty of 7% of net receipts for a paperback, clearly there is no guarantee that the publishers will do more than before in marketing. So the books are likely to sit withering in perpetuity. A miserable prospect.

The way things are, it is difficult to see how any author can actually afford to go through a mainstream publisher in the future.

Kate, 24 November 2011, 01:21 PM

Dear Mike Jecks -

Yes, my UK contracts are the same terms as my US one, but it was only with this book, published in the US, that I saw such a big increase of ebook sales that I could make a meaningful comparison of the figures.  We really need to support the Society of Authors and their ongoing arguments aimed at setting the standard ebook royality rate at 50%. 

I do value what publishers can do for me but the whole discussion could do with more transparency. 


Mike Jecks, 24 November 2011, 01:46 PM

I value publishers too - I need editors and copyeditors - but I’m already being offered 50% royalties on ebooks from smaller epublishing firms. And if I go with them, I can be sure that they’ll try to market the books too. Which I have to say is not something I am convinced of with my old dead tree publisher!

Kate, 24 November 2011, 01:49 PM

One further note - I see, with dismay, that there are no writers speaking at the Bookseller’s upcoming FutureBook conference.  Not one.

Mike Jecks, 24 November 2011, 01:51 PM

That’s really crazy - was no one invited? Probably not. Who is going to be speaking, then? I’ll go check.

Incidentally, I cannot see a “follow this blog” link anywhere, much though I would like to. Have I missed it, and if not, could you add one?

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