Monday, July 25, 2011

You Know You're An Author When You're Getting Screwed

A few days ago, I saw a blog post titled Harlequin Screws Authors. In recent months, that's been the mantra. Boycott Dorchester. MWA Delists Harlequin.

We all know I could go on and on, but that isn't the point.

To be honest, it means shit to me if a publisher gets delisted. Why? Because if I'm already in a contract with them, all the delisting does is hurt me. To break a publishing contract - even with a publisher that's fallen into disrepute - will pretty much kill your career as an author, if you're trying to get signed the traditional way.

It's not a good idea.

The reality is that if you're an author who finds your publisher suddenly falling out of favor and making some shifty moves, you're really just screwed. Like so many Dorchester authors who were first screwed out of their royalties, what followed was being screwed out of legitimacy. No longer eligible for memberships in some organizations, or eligible for award consideration.

And I don't see anyone hiring a lawyer for the authors who still don't have their rights back, or lobbying for better contract terms being mandated in the boilerplate contracts about reversion of rights to authors when publishers stop paying them.

Somehow, the books I wrote that were completely 'legitimate' award contenders and reputable at the time they were published stopped being 'legit' and reputable. And the call to boycott a publisher hurts me, because the end result is that I lose readers.

Now, I'm not saying this because I want to pick a fight with anyone. That isn't my intent. It just that sometimes, it seems like people don't comprehend that the authors aren't the ones who are being helped by these actions. They're being hurt more than anyone.

Enter Amazon, the new favored friend of authors. Particularly unpublished authors who were tired of getting rejection letter after rejection letter, and found an easy, affordable shortcut to being "published".

Don't get me wrong. I was so concerned about the stigma of self-publishing I was resistant, even when long-standing opponents of self-publishing started putting their backlists on Amazon.

And then I took the plunge myself. I got my rights to my first published novel back, and after a few tweaks, put the book up on Amazon.

And you know what? In early August, I will have sold enough copies to earn more than I did for my advance from a New York publisher for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. It's entirely possible that within the first year of being on Amazon, if the sales maintain, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES will earn more than WHAT BURNS WITHIN, THE FRAILTY OF FLESH and LULLABY FOR THE NAMELESS did from NY publishing deals.

The success of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES motivated me to put HARVEST OF RUINS on Amazon as well.

I'm thankful for Amazon and the e-publishing revolution. It's enabled me to reach a wider audience and gain new readers, while at the same time actually seeing some return for my work.

But that doesn't mean I think Amazon is perfect.

Consider this. If you price your book at 99 cents on Amazon, you get 35% royalties. Or $0.35 per book you sell.

And Amazon covers the 'delivery' charge for the book out of the $0.64 they take.

What that means is that Amazon covers their costs, including delivery, for $0.64 per book.

However, they don't allow authors to take a bigger royalty unless they price their book at $2.99. At $2.99, the 70% royalty to authors is $2.09 per copy sold.

Which means Amazon is getting $0.90 per book.

More than they got off the 99 cent book.

And they do charge a delivery charge now. So they're getting even more.

But what really gets me is the fact that all the books priced between $0.99 and $2.98 are left at the 35% royalty rate.

That means when I sell a book for $1.99, I get 70 cents. Amazon gets $1.29, which is more than double the amount they need to cover their costs.

It isn't fair to compare Amazon to a publisher, either. Publishers invest in editing, handle the formatting, printing, uploading, distribution arrangements, accounting and cover design, and theoretically should help promote your book.

All Amazon does is let your book be sold, and pay you your cut.

And when I had a publisher, I had an editor. Hell, I also had an agent in the mix. If there was a problem with a book, I had people I could contact. You know, I knew their names. I had phone numbers.

Amazon? It's a machine. I'm a number in their system, and that's all.

Authors are screwed by publishers every day. I won't deny that, and I won't downplay it, either. However, I have to admit I find it annoying when people praise Amazon like it's treating authors so wonderfully, and contrast Amazon to the publishers they're thumbing their noses at.

Amazon has enabled me to reach new readers, a much wider audience, and to earn a respectable amount of money for my books. I am grateful for that, and excited about this option, but that's all it is, and it's always been clear to me that Amazon is in business to make money, not for the love of books. If it was to their advantage to stop self-publishing authors tomorrow, I'd be back to square 1, searching for a new publisher.

We need to stop comparing apples and pancakes when we talk about publishing. And we also need to be more pragmatic, and understand the business side of the equation.

And readers? If you really want to see prices kept reasonable, you need to hope that Amazon creates a new royalty bracket, one that lets authors earn 50% royalties for e-books priced between $1.19 and $2.98. Anyone with an e-book in that price range might not be getting screwed by a publisher, but they are still being screwed by their vendor.

It isn't a perfect world, and I know that change won't happen overnight, but the organization that will push for these types of changes that actually help authors is the one worth joining.

It's easy to strike a name off a list when they don't measure up; it's much harder to actually lobby and bring about constructive change.


Dana King said...

There's a lot of room between "not getting the best deal possible" and "getting screwed." At least Amazon is up front about how much the author gets. It's not like they're paying an advance, then coming back with, "Oh, yeah, marketing is your responsibility. And editing." The author knows that going in. It's not unreasonable to figure that, if an author raises the price from $0.99 to $1.00 to make twice as much money, Amazon makes twice as much, too.

I'm no Amazon apologist. They've done despicable things to authors and publishers in the past and may well do so again. Still, their deal with authors seems to be as straight up as any I've seen, and we're not being screwed if we knew the deal going in.

John McFetridge said...

I may not be explain this very well, but to me the most depressing thing of all this is we're talking about cents - the difference between ninety-nine cents and three bucks for A BOOK!

In the past few months I've bought at least ten books from people who have self-published them and it's cost me less than one hardcover.

The whole Amazon "under ten dollar" kerfuffle actually had me thinking about not buying a book priced at $12.99 that I really wanted and two years ago would have paid $24.99 without thinking about it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Screwed" might be a bit of an overstatement for Amazon, but authors know the deal with publishers when they sign on the bottom line, too.

It's no secret to anyone with their eyes open that authors are largely responsible for their own promotion.

If you read a typical boilerplate, nowhere in there does the publisher promise to market you or to edit you. Those are things we've inferred they're responsible for. We feel comfortable claiming some moral highground there and pointing our fingers at them with accusations, but they never actually promised us those things.

So why is it okay to accuse publishers and then suggest that Amazon's been more upfront with us?

Now, I think Amazon has been straight up, by and large. But there is still a question of whether the terms are fair. Think of it this way. Amazon is a delivery and collection service. They collect money for a product that's delivered. WIth e-books, that's all technology - it doesn't involve any person actually hand-delivering the book. It's an automated system for the most part.

So Amazon is really not much different than FedEx or UPS. They're paid to deliver a product. Sometimes they're paid to pick something up at the delivery point and take that somewhere else. Should it matter if the product they're delivering costs $1 or $200? They're still doing the same job. FexEx isn't going to ask when they set the rate. If you declare value you have a choice to pay for insurance - but it's a choice.

The only variables are size and weight and distance - which Amazon claims back at the higher royalty level with a delivery charge to the authors.

Amazon doesn't do anything extra at any point along the way, so why should they earn double? I'm not even suggesting that they should only cover costs and never get more - but I am questioning why there isn't a fairer middle ground for authors.

At 1.99, I get 70 cents for SC. At 2.29, a 30 cent increase, I get 80 cents for Harvest, and the rest is all just gravy to Amazon.

The reality is, these rates will almost ensure an overwhelming flood of crap prematurely published unedited and with poor art because of the upfront costs to authors.

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, it's funny just how much that price point matters, but it does. And a big part of the reason is that we only talk about the price tag on the e-book, but the reality is that people buying e-books have to buy e-readers, and make a huge upfront investment in their reading.

There's a really valid question about paying $150 upfront, and then paying $15 for an e-book. The e-reader costs take a lot longer to justify themselves.

Now that e-reader prices are coming down - a further point about this, because as costs decline with technology the savings are passed on to consumers, but this doesn't apply to sales of actual e-books - people may have more tolerance.

I played around with the pricing a lot, when I started out, and there really is a threshold for generating sales. Harvest is professionally edited, with professional artwork, and I wouldn't dream of listing it for $3.99 - never mind $9.99 or more.

John McFetridge said...

Amazon doesn't do anything extra at any point along the way, so why should they earn double?

I don't want to flippant here, but that's capitalism. The cost of production is a small factor in pricing in a free market (or close to free market) economy.

(this is why I only spent one year as an economics major ;)

The only answer to "Why should Amazon..." is because they think they can make more profit that way. The only answer to any question in capitalism is, "Profit."

We could debate the effects of that endlessly (again, one year of econimics was enough for me ;) but that's what it is.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yep, you're right.

And the funny thing is, when publishers want a bigger slice of the pie or don't automatically pass on the extra revenue to authors, we cry foul. When Amazon does it, it's just business.

I really debated this post a bit, but ultimately decided to try to generate at least a discussion. Because the real issue here is why we have such a double standard.

I suspect it is because our earnings are higher upfront. I mean, even at the 99 cent price point, getting 35 cents per copy is higher than the royalty return for a mmpb. Especially if you factor paying an agent out of that.

But I do think that publishers are bearing the brunt of a lot of criticism about how they treat authors, but it really isn't a case of everything coming up roses elsewhere. Better terms, maybe. But it's still all business, and it's never been more about the bottom line.

Al Guthrie said...

Hmm. I wonder. I'd be very surprised if Amazon were making very much at all on a 99 cent book once you take into account the costs involved in downloads, whispernet, returns, etc., all of which charges they cover in total and the author pays nothing for. It's hard to say how much profit they're making without knowing how much a typical book costs them to deliver. But a distribution service such as the one they offer won't come cheap.

Sandra Ruttan said...

So Al, do you think that authors selling their books between $1.19 and $2.98 should receive a higher royalty rate?