Marsha Canham's Blog

November 4, 2011

Deja Vu and the Evil Empire

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 5:26 pm

About 20 years ago I wrote an article for the RWA (Romance Writers of America) magazine because I was pissed off. Normally not a wise time to write anything at all, and to write something that would appear in a national magazine…well…nuff said.

Anyway, the reason why I was livid was that I had just received a royalty statement for a contemporary book that I had written for a well-known publishing house, hereafter known as the Evil Empire. I had negotiated 8% royalties, because that was what I was getting for my big historicals. Those statements, at the best of times, are filled with so much gobbledegook that you need a degree in code deciphering in order to even come close to figuring out how they compute their earnings. In my article, I used all my own figures, quoting number of sales in the US, for which I think it worked out to 6% of net price, not the cover price of course (gobbledegook accounting #1) and less than 1% for foreign sales, which included my own country, Canada, which has, admittedly, been called a melting pot of nationalities, but really…foreign?  The Evil Empire’s North American headquarters were located in this same country at the time, so were they calling themselves a foreign publisher? Not.

At the time the article got a lot of mail, some authors were miffed that I should take such a lowly view of a such a huge publisher who gave unknown authors such great opportunities to be published.  There were authors who wrote more gobbledegook justifying the percentages and trying to tell me that my figures were wrong.  Seriously.  I took the numbers right off the royalty statement, but someone a thousand miles away was telling me my figures were wrong and my math was all skewed and that other authors shouldn’t pay attention to my ramblings.

Granted, I do ramble at times, but I usually make a point or two eventually.

Fast forward twenty years to the dawn of the digital revolution. Most traditional publishers were getting away with charging the same price for an ebook as they were for a print book, for basically doing nothing but uploading a file.  They used the same artwork, same blurb, same edited files, and most were paying the authors the same royalty rates, between 6-8% of the net price, not even the cover price.  Can anyone say: Pure gravy?

Over the last year or so, a lot of authors, myself included, started waking up to the fact that they could self publish their backlist, giving those books a second life by going directly through Smashwords, Amazon, and Pubit.  There are a few drawbacks…we can’t use the same covers or the same blurbs, so that incurs a cost to most indie authors, as does scanning the book and proofing it for errors. Alternately, if the book is new, never been seen before, there is the added cost of a copyeditor… a step that is absolutely crucial and one that not many authors would even think of avoiding (I know I  wouldn’t, just read some of the creative grammar in my blogs if you doubt me. LOL)

I was lucky early on in the process. Noting how slow the traditional publishing companies were in recognizing the potential effects of this ebook revolution, I wrote away for the rights to most of my backlist.  I owned the rights to four already, China Rose, The Wind and the Sea, Bound by the Heart, and Swept Away, but having 12 books is always better than having 4, so I sent off my letters and sat back with my fingers crossed.  Sure enough, the letters came back in short order officially reverting the rights, which meant I was free to reissue them myself… which I did, pricing most between $2.99 and $3.99 (reduced from what the publisher was charging at $7.99) I had also sent a letter away to the Evil Empire, who printed my one and only contemporary tome…the same publisher I had taken to task in the aforementioned article to RWA.  It took them three emails and 9 months before they agreed to give me those rights back, and again, it was all in the timing.  Several authors who wrote away even a month after I did, were turned down flat and told their books were being reissued! AND they were going to be getting *gasps and applause* 25% royalties!  Woot! On the net price, of course, not the cover price. But Woot! 25%! An astonishing number of authors thought this was a good deal, a good sign that the Evil Empire was going to do right by their bazillions of authors.

I had the distinct sensation of déjà vu, remembering back to the RWA article and all the authors who said they were being treated fairly and that we who dared to complain had it all wrong and were likely going to spoil it for everyone and how dare someone tell people not to sign with the Evil Empire just because that someone MAY have had a bad experience.

Hmmmm.

June marked the end of a royalty period, but as any good and creative accountant for a good and creative publisher knows, there is always a 90 day delay (even in this age of instant computer technology) before they are obligated to pass along the numbers to the authors. (Did I mention that publishing houses only pay twice a year? That means an author has to wait 6 months between pay cheques;  they have no idea how much that pay cheque will be, and in some instances, aren’t even told how many books they’ve sold. God forbid we should ever know the math formulae they use for computing.)

One of the authors on a mail loop I’m on wrote a rather startling account of the statement she received recently from the Evil Empire.  In it she said: OnJuly 1, 2010they put up four [themed] ebooks I wrote in the late 90’s.  Today’s statement gives NO number of sales, no individual breakdown page for each of the books, but did have a payout cumulative statement of $132 total of all four books.  In September of 2010 I put up 3 [similarly themed] books originally released by [another publisher] and have sold thousands of copies, and made thousands of dollars.  The discrepancy among these [themed] book sales is outrageous!  What’s more, one of my 2009 books DOES have a breakdown sheet. I sold 563 ebooks and received $29.71.  Self-pubbing this book at 3.99, which they sold it for, I WOULD have made $1,576.40.

Sooooo all the authors who think this publisher is doing them a great favour by upping the royalty rate from 6% to 25% of the net price, of course, not the cover price I’m curious to know if they still believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

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11 Comments »

  1. Marsha, you continue to provide great justification for self-publishing. The publishers’ behavior is only fueling this industry and that is good for all of us writers, though the new ones (like me) will have more trouble getting their works marketed I suspect. Still, I like this option and thank you for your service in bringing these practices to light. It should make loyal readers happy to know their money is going directly to their favorite authors.

    Comment by Regan — November 4, 2011 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  2. Hey Marsha, the Evil Empire isn’t the only one pulling such CRAP!

    I recently received my semi-annual bad joke — I mean royalty statement. By their own admission (which I trust about as far as I can toss a rhino), I sold over 10,000 ebook downloads during the reporting period. These were print books that my publisher sold for $5+ per download,and as you point out had NO extra investment or overhead. Even a 4th grader can figure out they brought in OVER 50 grand. My 8% net worked out to a whopping $1,900. Yes, roughly 18 cents per download. Their generosity was truly underwhelming. 😛 And don’t even get me started on what I would have made if I’d self-published.

    Comment by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy — November 4, 2011 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  3. Gee,

    I’m a new author–in general but more specifically the romance genre. Now I’m nervous at looking at publishers and thinking that self-publishing might be better for me.

    Comment by Lou Gagliardi — November 4, 2011 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

    • Me, too. I don’t feel like I know enough about the publishing industry to make it on my own, to start… but this is unsettling. Thanks for the article.

      Comment by Judy — November 4, 2011 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  4. Boy does this sound familiar! Back in the day, Marsha and I were offered a two-book contract, as a writing team, by The Evil Empire. I was a newby…Marsha was very well established (yes, we’ve been friends for a million years). I was under no illusions…the contract was being offered because of Marsha’s proven success with them. I was keen to do these books, of course. But The Evil Empire would not negotiate on that 1% royalty. Marsha said no. I said I wanted to sleep on it…the next morning, I said no because I wanted to support my friend. I didn’t know all the pitfalls of the business back then. I still don’t. LOL Thank God I said no! Too many authors are being deprived of what is, in many cases, their livelihood. Based on the comments posted above; have your contracts reviewed by someone with knowledge of publishing…eg another author or a lawyer. And DO NOT give up your digital rights. I, too, was lucky and received the rights back to my 6 stories. For that, I am grateful. Great blog, Marsha!

    Comment by JILLMETCALF — November 4, 2011 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  5. Another excellent blog post, Marsha. Thanks for continuing to tell the truth as only you can!

    Comment by Cynthia Wright — November 5, 2011 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  6. Marcia, thanks for your articulate courage. It’s good to see the mask coming off the dark side of publishing.

    Comment by sibella giorello — November 5, 2011 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

  7. Book publishers, music publishers, and record labels all seem to be gorging themselves at the buffet on board the Titanic. There’s no way this level of greed can sustain itself, but what the hell, the senior executives of the companies bought the expensive staterooms, so they’ll be afloat when the ship goes down–unless karma somehow decides to sink their lifeboat due to the extra weight of their gluttony.

    Comment by George Beckingham — November 7, 2011 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  8. Great blog. We live in unsettled times (it’s the modern medieval of publishing! LOL!) and any and all information gathered by the masses is key to survival. Thank you for your chutzpah!

    Comment by Kimberly Van Meter — November 7, 2011 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  9. Well said! Eventually the truth will out.

    Comment by vickietaylor — November 7, 2011 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  10. As a reader, I’m glad authors are starting to get their rights back and self-publishing older books. It’s good for the readers as in much less expensive books and better for the authors in that they are getting the majority of the sales. Since it is the AUTHORS who provide us with hours and hours of respite from a troubling world, it’s only right that AUTHORS are the ones who should benefit the most.

    Comment by KristieJ — November 20, 2011 @ 4:30 pm | Reply


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