An author phoned us recently with good news. We had worked with him last year to self-publish his book. Now, he was very excited to tell us, a New York publishing house (not one of the big 5, but a New York publisher, nevertheless) had offered him a contract to purchase the rights to his book and publish it. He wanted to know if it was a good deal.
I explained that his question was one for a literary agent or an intellectual property attorney. My advice to him was to talk to his attorney, then consider the publisher’s offer without emotion, strictly as a business proposition.
I know that’s easier said than done. There are two things about getting an offer from a traditional publisher that are likely to turn an author’s head:
Prestige – Despite the growing success of self-published books, for many authors there remains a stigma about self-publishing. A contract from a traditional publisher confers a certain legitimacy on the publication of their book. It’s a sort of pat on the back that says you have made the grade. Having that contract in hand gives them bragging rights. I get it.
A cash advance – Self-publishing cost an author money up front. There’s no denying that. When somebody says we will write you a check, instead of you having to write a check, that sounds pretty good. Again, I get it.
Let’s put those two very good things aside and, as they say on NPR’s Market Place, “Let’s do the numbers.”
Our author’s self-published book, a 6” X 9”, B&W, nonfiction, trade paperback, was printed by IngramSpark. He set his retail price at $14.95. His agreement with Spark called for a 40% retail discount. (He knew he wouldn’t get bookstore sales, but was happy with a higher return on widespread online distribution.)
The New York Publisher’s Offer
The publisher offered an 8% royalty on the publisher’s net with a $1,000 advance.
We should note, that’s less than is usually paid by the major houses. In his blog Chip MacGregor, a prominent literary agent, says the big publishers usually offer first time nonfiction authors advances of between $5,000 and $20,000.
The $1,000 is an advance payment to be repaid to the publisher by royalties from the book’s sales. The author will receive no additional compensation until royalties repay the advance, or as they say in the trade, the book earns out. At that point, the author will begin to receive an 8% royalty on each book sold.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the publisher agrees that the author’s self-published book was correctly priced and sets the retail version at the same $14.95.
MacGregor indicates that major houses usually offer a 7.5% royalty based on the retail price of the book for trade paperbacks. So here’s the royalty, $14.95 X 75% = $1.12 per book. The author must sell 893 books to earn out his $1,000 advance.
The offer our author received was for 8% of the publisher’s net. MacGregor explains, “Many newer publishers don’t pay on the retail price of the book — they pay on the net price, which is the amount of money the publisher actually receives from the bookstore.” Publishers usually sell to bookstores at a55% retail discount. That works out to $14.95 X 55% = $8.22 discount. The publisher’s net on the deal is $14.95 - $8.22 = $6.73. So the 8% royalty is calculated on the $6.73. $6.73 X 8% = $0.53 per book. The author will not begin collecting that royalty until the $1,000 advance is repaid. It will take 1,887 sales for the book to earn out.
Using the Publisher Compensation Calculator on IngramSpark’s website we find that our author will earn a $4.34 royalty on every sale. If he sold 1,887 (the number required to earn out under the publisher’s offer) he would earn 1,887 X $4.34 = $8,189.58.
Okay, let’s say the author couldn’t match that 1,887 sales with his self-published version. How many books would he have to sell to earn $1,000 (the amount of the advance offered by the publisher)? $1,000 divided by $4.34 = 231 sales.
231 sales seems very possible if the author makes any reasonable attempt to market the book, even if he spends nothing to do it.
The significant difference in the earnings per book between the New York publisher’s offer and the author’s self-published book make promotion and marketing a key consideration in evaluating what’s a better deal. If you can sell a lot more books working with a traditional publisher, then the smaller per sale return is worth it.
It’s essential to realize that the quality of your book will play a big part in determining its success.
Rachelle Gardner, literary agent for the Books and Such agency examined what you might expect from a publisher in a post on her blog titled Do Publishers Market Books? Her short answer was, “Yes, they do. But not as much as they used to. And they’re not very effective without the author’s involvement.” She offered a further caveat which is important for first time authors, “…the “bigger” the author (i.e. the more money they expect to make on you), the more they’ll spend on marketing.”
Some of the things marketing departments may do to promote your book include:
- Prepare promotional materials
- Trade advertising, print and retail
- Internet marketing
- Internet advertising
- Specialized promotions
- Trade publicity
- Consumer publicity
These things, says Gardner, “…represent tasks that would take you dozens or hundreds of hours AND be prohibitively expensive. And many of them, you wouldn’t be able to do at all because you don’t have the access, the experience, or the contacts.”
In addition, a major benefit in working with a publisher is that publishers “…have a sales team (or rep group) who proactively sells titles to retailers.”
However, the author plays a major role in promoting and marketing the book.
As author and book promotion expert Valerie Peterson explained in a post on The Balance, “… the reality of the book marketplace dictates that, in order to be successful, most writers need to work hard at promoting their own books and do as much, if not more than, the in-house book marketing and publicity staff (who, by the way, will be each be working on probably a dozen books at the same time as they are working on yours).
That means, as The Writer’s Edit put it, “…much of the book marketing grunt work now falls to the author, as budgets for promotion are increasingly limited. Authors are expected to build an author platform where they can share and promote their work with a target readership they’ve built online. They are also expected to manage social media pages and attend promotional events.”
Our client’s contract offer made that explicit, “The author agrees to use his or her best efforts in promoting the Work through social media…”
So, an important question to answer in evaluating a publisher’s offer is, what can I expect specifically from the publisher as far as publicity and marketing and what will be expected of me? The more you know that goes beyond generalities to the details of what the publisher will do, the better evaluation you can make.
Our client’s draft contract contained few specifics in this regarding marketing and publicity. We advised him that this was an important area to explore before making a decision.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
What would you recommend our client do?