Marsha Canham's Blog

May 8, 2012

Twenty years later, there’s an echo.

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 7:45 pm

Ever stand on the side of a mountain and yodel like a fool then wait, grinning, for the echo to come back?  That’s sort of how I feel today, though it’s taken over twenty years for the echo to come back to me.

I refer to a post today on Joe Konrath’s blog wherein a Harlequin author, Ann Voss Peterson takes the big H to task for lousy royalty rates, lousy payments, ugly contract practices etc etc etc.

I basically wrote that same article, decrying the same immoral practices by the same company twenty years ago. I wrote it for the RWA magazine back when I thought that shedding light on a company’s shady practices might stir up a little outrage in the writing community. After all, the big H was the BIG H back then, with hundreds if not thousands of authors dutifully writing two and three books a year for them, taking 4 or 5K advances and quietly accepting what they thought was going to be 6% royalties, but in fact turned out to be less than 2% and in some cases, less than 1%. The exact numbers by example are laid out on the Konrath blog but in case you don’t want to flick back and forth, I’ll repeat them here, direct quote:

“Let me share with you the numbers of a book I wrote that was first published in January, 2002, still one of my favorites. My life-to-date statement says this book has sold 179,057 copies so far, and it has earned $20,375.22. (bold text by Joe) That means the average I’ve earned is a whopping 11 cents per copy. If you use the cover price to calculate (the number used in the contract), which was $4.50 at the time of release, I’ve earned an AVERAGE of 2.4 % per copy.
Why is this?
First, while most of my books are sold in the US, many are sold under lower royalty rates in other countries. In this particular contract, some foreign rights and -ALL ebook royalties- are figured in a way that artificially reduces net by licensing the book to a “related licensee,” in other words, a company owned by Harlequin itself.
Harlequin uses the Wholesale Model (not the Agency Model) with retailers, including Amazon. So the money Harlequin receives is determined by the list price, and retailers can set any price for the consumer that they want. This is how the numbers break down when Retailer X lists the ebook for $4.00 (doesn’t matter what they sell it for).
Retailer – $2.00 (any discounts are taken from this amount)
Harlequin’s related licensee – $1.88
Harlequin – $.06
Author – $.06
So Harlequin makes a total of 1.94, and I make .06.
Six cents is 1.5% of the list price of $4.00. “
Those numbers are cut almost in half when the sale is to a “foreign” country like, say, Canada, where I happen to live and where the big H has headquarters. I think at the time, if the memory of a dinosaur serves, I worked it out to .68% royalites on a book I might buy at my corner store.
To really smear icing on the cake, they also had (and likely still have) a contract the likes of which I had never seen before, with a bazillion clauses, each with a bazillion subsections and sub sub sections, literally causing your eyes to spin around hard enough to pop out of your head if you tried to read it in one sitting.  At the time, I had no agent so I had to read through it with great care. Nothing…and I do mean nothing…was negotiable. I was told that flat out before I even saw the contract…which would almost make a contract a moot point, would it not? It was more a bill of sale because as soon as you signed it, they owned you. Or tried to. They certainly made it quite clear that they wanted to own my name for that and any future contemporaries I might write. Who the hell signs their name away? I saw that clause and refused to sign it. The editor was a close friend and we had a few discussions about what the big H could do to my then-budding career. It could get my name out there. (yeah, but its MY name and I want to keep it) It could broaden the distribution, sending books into Europe and England and Australia and remote little African villages. It could increase readership, name recognition etc etc, and yes, everyone has to admit that the big H knows how to distribute, how to market, how to sell 100,000 books for a relatively unknown author. Me. But…what about the $5.12 royalty cheque for those 100K books? Well, of course you have to keep writing more and more and more books and your name will build and fans will flock to you for more and even more books! And over time, that $5.12 will grow into $10.24!!!!!! and after that…the sky is the limit!  Or at least a good meal at MacDonalds!
I learned my lesson, had the stars scrubbed out of my eyes. I tried to pass along my razor-sharp insights to the flocks of writers at RWA who were eager and willing to sign away everything, even their firstborns, for a contract with a “real” publisher. For my troubles, I got slammed in print, got called a liar, was pontificated to by “older and wiser” authors who extolled the virtues of writing for a company that was willing to take new writers and open the world of publishing to them. Yeah. As long as they didn’t get too greedy and actually want to make a living as a writer.
A lot of people these days are calling Amazon the big bad monster who wants to devour the little publishing houses. Hmmm. Okay, the big H isn’t so little, but lemme think about that for a minute. If I sell 100K books at the big H, and end up with an average 2% royalty on a $4.00 book…that would give me …(trog math here, I have to stop typing and use my fingers and toes to count) $8000!  Woo Hoo! Hot tub for the back yard!  Amazon, selling the same book at the same price, gives me 70% royalties, which works out to….$280,000. Woo farking Hoo….a house to put the hot tub behind!!!!!!!
I say sharpen your teeth Amazon and have at them!
And all of you Harlequin authors out there…I hope you listen to the shouting  this time around and it doesn’t take another 20 years for the echo to be heard.
Man, am I going to be unpopular…again *chuckling as I hit “publish”*


  1. Good one, Marsha! H couldn’t get away with that without agents who let their clients sign those contracts & writers who signed them. I understand there are reasons a beginning writer would take what she could get but after that? There’s plenty of blame to go around…not just Big Bad H.

    I wrote a blog the other week about Writer Masochism & the writers who were trashing you are perfect examples. It’s a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome.

    What happened when you refused to sign?

    Comment by Ruth Harris — May 8, 2012 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

  2. Ruth….Hah. The editor at the time was a good friend and made one small concession. She let me put a middle initial in my name, which basically let them own the name Marsha M. Canham for any future contemps. Since it was a one time deal, and I’ve never used the middle initial for anything else, and never written another contemp I took the 10K advance and ran straight to the hot tub store.

    Comment by marshacanham — May 8, 2012 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

  3. I’m just wondering if all the traditionally pubbed authors pubbing backlist titles would all be selling as much if they hadn’t been trad. pubbed in the first place? I don’t disagree with you, but I think many readers still value the “names” of the trad. publishers.

    Comment by Celia — May 11, 2012 @ 2:51 am | Reply

  4. Popularity is overrated anyway. Keep on shouting from the rooftops!

    Comment by Liane Spicer — May 12, 2012 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

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