When you stumble clumsily into the world of writing, you soon realise that out there are a lot of people who want to help you. Thank you one and all…
That said, I am guilty 90% of the time of a great deal of naivety. “Ooh yes,” thinks I to myself, “writing’s the career for me. I’ll write a book and we’ll see how that goes.” Common sense reasserts itself on many occasions – ‘better have a plan B Ms B, don’t unsubscribe to those email job alerts just yet and remember just how many people attempt to write a book every year…’
100 hundred million? More? 200 million Americans?
Just to clear up some areas of naivety, I’d like to borrow some wise words of wisdom about the costs of publishing. I’m borrowing them from the excellent resources section of Comely Bank Publishing and its founder/owner Gordon Lawrie: just how much money can you expect to make on a book? (Or rather, just how much money can you expect to lose.)
The Finances of Books
Many authors don’t realise that it’s extremely hard to make a profit from “conventional” books, especially in the modern economic climate. Until around 1996, books in the UK – nowhere else, though – were protected by the Net Book Agreement, stipulating that books had to be sold at their cover price and not discounted.
This protected many small book shops, but it also made it possible to make large profits on best-selling titles and use the proceeds to cross-subsidise newcomers. The Net Book Agreement collapsed in the mid 1990s, under pressure from supermarkets and Waterstones.
So, good for picking up three for two bargains and £3 books with your groceries, but what did it mean for publishers and writers?
Take a 350-page fiction paperback novel, for instance, which is priced at £7.99 (rounded up to £8 for ease)…
Large chains such as Waterstones insist on buying only through one of the big wholesalers/distributors (Gardners). Every book on their shelves has to go to Eastbourne first, then to Waterstones hub and then to the individual stores. Gardners ask for a 60% cut of the book’s total costs, 40% goes to the shop and they keep the other 20% which pays for their costs of storing, distributing and profit. The remaining 40% goes to the publisher, which in the case of an £8 book is £3.20.
The £3.20 pays for:
The cost of printing, which can be anything from £6 per copy for a small print run, to 20-50p for a mass market paperback. The publisher has to guess how many books they are going to sell.
Storing the books. If you want them looked after properly (and who wouldn’t?), then storage costs are not cheap. A local example in Scotland is Booksource in Cambuslang, which stores books for £49 per month, plus 16% per copy of the cover price.
Getting books to their destination. Hold a book in your hand – is it really light and slim? No? Unsurprisingly, if Gardners will take them, doing it in bulk is good, but more often than not they’ll only order books one at a time. The current postage by Royal Mail is £2.60.
Publicity. People don’t buy books that they haven’t heard of, so that means advertising, leaflets etc or sending authors to do events all over the country.
The costs of giving books away. As many as half of your first print run might go for free – review copies, complementary copies and proof copies to check for errors.
The publishing company and their staff.
Oops, we’ve missed out the author’s cut… Ah, no we haven’t. Honestly, for a first book you will be very, very lucky indeed to get £500 in advance. And advances are just that – you are entitled to a percentage of each sale, but if the book doesn’t sell enough copies then you do have to return the advance. (Although in practice that doesn’t happen often as it is easier for the publisher just to cut its losses and run miles from your book flop.) And of course, as the author has been obliged to go through an agent in the first place, his/her gross earnings have to go there too.
So the likelihood of making money as an author who writes one or two books? Slim indeed. The real money is made on the extras – the film and TV rights, toys of your book’s characters, perhaps additional work as a journalist/reviewer, or making author appearances for fees and selling signed copies.
Ian Rankin, Edinburgh’s second best-selling author (after JK Rowling) famously sold about 250 copies of his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, and not many of the next one either. It was only once he’d written a few more that his popularity took off and people wanted to read the earlier books.
This means that commercial publishers need to be very, very convinced of a book’s selling potential. They want to be able to sell 30,000 copies at least. If the book gets poor reviews, they might pull it and decide not to sell (this happens far more often than people think). In such a situation, the author is allowed to keep the advance, but the book is gone for ever because the publisher has the rights.
Can you imagine how awful that situation must feel?
Even if they decide not to withdraw it, the publisher can opt not to spend money on promoting/advertising the book – which amounts to the same thing.
This is why anyone in the business will tell you that there are three stages to any book:
1. Writing the book
2. Getting it published
3. Getting the book properly promoted.
Take a guess what the hardest bit is? Yup, number three. No matter how good you think your book is (and your lovely family and friends are sure to back you up with this), there are millions and millions of other good books out there too. Your book doesn’t just need to be good – and you could argue that there are plenty of turkeys out there which have still managed amazing sales – it needs to persuade plenty of people to buy it.
Are you filled with despair? Do remember that modern technology has opened up new routes. The first is ebooks, which generates good profits if you get lucky. 50 Shades of Grey is one of the better-known versions, but Amanda Hocking was a multi-millionaire at the age of 22 publishing her horror books as ebooks only. And you shouldn’t sneer at self-publishing, which isn’t the same as vanity publishing – you are in control. You pay for the costs*, admittedly, but you keep all the profits.
The whole publishing business changes almost weekly. It’s 2014, but who knows what publishing will look like in 2018? Close your mind to nothing at all.
It is very unlikely that the first thing you write will make you a fortune. Making a living from writing requires hard work, a willingness to keep going back to try again after repeated rejections but if you are good enough, you try hard enough and you are lucky enough. Your time will come.
*Comely Bank Publishing helps people minimise the costs of doing this, but the work has to be up to its standards.