Marsha Canham's Blog

May 10, 2012

I swore I wouldn’t talk numbers again, but here I go…

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 2:26 pm

I wonder if readers wonder as often as authors wonder what the F**k is going on out there these days?  More and more stories and posts come out that make me shake my head so much that some days I feel like one of those bobble-head dogs that used to sit on the dashboard of a car. Just yesterday I read an email from a well known author who said she received a royalty check for $.34 . It would have been $.40 but her agent took his .06 commission. I won’t mention which publishing house that was because I gave it enough free publicity on Monday *snort*

Another author had steam coming out of her ears because she was informed by Avon that they were going to be reissuing her 8 backlist books that had been out of print for a few years. Now, normally, this would be cause for opening a bottle of wine and celebrating. However. The generous announcement came a few short weeks after her agent sent them a letter asking for the rights to those long out of print books, none of which were earning enough royalties to fulfill any part of the contract terms. Her intent, of course, was to self publish them as so many of us have done since Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble opened up their doors to us.

I was lucky enough to get those rights reversion letters in to my former publishers before the ebook wave really started to build. At the time…only a mere year ago…publishers didn’t know what was happening and certainly couldn’t see what was coming, so they granted those reversions to most of the authors who asked.  About six months ago they started putting on the brakes and saying whoa….what’s going on here? A few million Kindles  iPads, Nooks, and eReaders under the Christmas tree and stuffed in birthday bags? People reading books on their phones? Who was Amanda Hocking and how did she sell a million self-pubbed books on Amazon?

The brakes went on and the reversion letters stopped. Publishers started taking a second look at ebooks and suddenly novels that had never been digitized before were being reissued as ebooks, and those that were already in ebook form magically saw the price boosted by a few bucks. I can use the example of my own three Scotland books, the rights for which I applied after the brakes went on, to my lasting regret. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t include them in the letter with all the other books I was asking for and got back. A senior moment. A brain fart. Anyway…I’ve watched the pricing on those ebook versions jump from 4.99-5.99 to 10.99-11.99. Pure gravy for the publisher. I’ve seen posts where they’ve tried to defend themselves saying it costs as much to prepare and present an ebook as it does a print book but not even my deaf dumb and blind Aunt Farklefanny would buy into that.

On a reissue, the publisher already has the file, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say its a new file. Okay, you hire a copy editor to go through the book and catch errors…say $1/page on a 400 page book=$400.00 (now that’s the kind of math I like where I don’t need fingers or toes to count)(I must write a blog one day about my highschool years, most notably the 11th grade math teacher who told me he would give me a passing grade if I promised never to take math again)(I mean really, who uses logarithms these days, and why did *I* have to know how they worked????)(and don’t even mention the word calculus)

Get back on track, Canham. Okay. So we have an initial expenditure of $400 for the copyeditor. We’ll be REAL generous and allow $500. for cover art, although that’s ten times more than what I charge and I think the covers I’ve made for myself and others are pretty darn good. Cost for formatting=$100.00 Cost for shipping=$.00.  Cost for distribution=$.00. Cost for printing and warehousing=$.00. I’m sure I’m missing something so we’ll toss in another $1000.00 just for the hell of it, so at the end it might come out around the $2000. mark per book.  Okay, so suppose Bonzai Publishing has an ebook they’ve spent the $2K on…oh hell, we’ll be REAL generous and pay a portion of the President and VP’s vacation in the Caribbean  and say $3K. So they upload the file…and really, there is no vast geek mystery to doing that. You open an account at Amazon, or wherever, click “upload new book” and you upload it.  Done. The book goes on sale for, say, the super bargain price (for a traditional publisher) of $7.99.  Amazon takes 30%,($2.37) the publisher gets the rest (oh maaaaan, math again *sigh*) which works out to a cool $5.53. Supposing the book sells modestly well, say…10,000 copies…that’s $55,300. Deduct the $3000 we allowed for producing the ebook and the cream floating to the top comes to $52,300.  And that’s on a modestly priced book. Take the $10.99 they’re charging for most ebooks and…you do the math, I’m exhausted.

What does the author get out of that, you ask?  Well…remember that these are backlist books, so the author probably has an old contract that, in some cases, gives the same royalty rate for ebooks (which were just a glimmer on the horizon ten years ago, and twenty years ago not even a glimmer) as for print books, which would be between 6-8%  of the *net* price. For the sake of my sanity I’m not going to distinguish between net and retail because that’s just too damned hard. All I know is net is lower than retail, sometimes by as much as half, though on ebooks I really don’t see where any discounting from the distributor would come into play. A file is a file is a file whereas a print book is discounted to bookstores and distributors because of the labor involved, profits for the store, and all that jazz.  But a file is a file is a file. MIND YOU….that does NOT stop the publisher from playing with the percentages and *saying* there is a net price for ebooks. Has anyone ever challenged that? Contracts these days specify 25% royalties on ebooks, but somehow that gets finostigated down to 12.5% by way of a bunch of mumbo jumbo, and it just seems to be accepted without questioning it. Ebooks, people. Computers do all the work. No hands ever touch the file after it’s been uploaded. There shouldn’t be a *net* price for a cyberfile.

But I digress again. NOT counting any net mumbo jumbo, we now have $52,300 for those books. Out of that, the author *should* get 25% which would work out to $13,075. But using Publisher Math, they only get $6537. And if the contract is older, and we’re working off the 8% royalties…that number zooms  down to $4184, which, using Publisher Math, can become finostigated down to around $2K.  Even if it’s left at the 8%, the publisher still gets the lion’s share of $48,116. And if it’s left at 25%, they keep $39,225.

$39,225 for the publisher, $13,075 for the author, and that’s using rose colored glasses for the 25% royalty rate on 10,000 downloads of a $7.99 ebook without any finostigating. Take off the glasses, use the 8% and the numbers change to $48,116 for the publisher and $4184. for the author.

IF the author had the rights back, their cut becomes 70%=$55,300 and Amazon takes the lesser 30%

Can you can see where an author might get a little distraught over not getting their rights back?

Now most of us who have pubbed our backlist don’t charge anywhere near the $7.99 mark. Most cruise in between $2.99 and $4.99. At that price point, the reader is happy to be getting a bargain and the author is overjoyed with the 70%. Keep in mind the Publishing Houses only pay the authors twice a year, and because of creative finostigating, the author never actually knows how many books she has sold or how much she has earned or what magical formula was used to arrive at the number printed on the check. A lot of rumbling is starting to go around about those numbers and just how accurate they are. Again, using my own Scotland books as an example, I was just sent a *generous* royalty check for $3k and change which supposedly covered 6 months worth of downloads for The Pride of Lions, The Blood of Roses, and Midnight Honor. 3 books selling at $10.99 each for six months….do I believe those numbers? Not for one farking eyeball-spinning moment. I’m still waiting for the paper statements to arrive in my mailbox and when they do, I shall be studying them with great interest.

Publishers need to wake up.  They’ve had their archaic system in place for so long it’s like that old taped up chair Frasier’s dad had in the sitcom. They’re keeping it because it’s comfortable…for them. Its an eyesore and an insult to authors, but as long as no one says anything or heaves the damned thing out in the garbage, the chair, like the accounting system will stay in place.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it a thousand times more, I’m sure, but what other business on this planet pays their employees twice a year? What other company/business is allowed to use creative accounting to delay some of those payments for 2 and 3 years? What other company has their headquarters in huge gleaming glass buildings in New York while the people who provide the basis for their business work for pennies on the dollar? Hmmm. Why did I just get an image of a Chinese sweatshop?

Authors work damn hard. I have apologized to my son too many times to count for all those years when he was growing up and I was locked away in my office hammering away at the typewriter. Dinners were missed, baseball games were missed, simple family outings were  missed because I was trying to build a career doing something I loved to do. Seventeen hour days were not unusual. Spending a week writing one page over and over until it said what I wanted it to say, was not unusual. Spending hours in the library reading dry research material…no internet back then…compiling files thicker than the finished manuscript of events, costumes, lifestyles, habits. It took me, on average, a year to write one book, and sometimes longer. And yes, I put up with the twice yearly paychecks, the creative accounting, all the bullshit, stress, and broken promises…because I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to hold a book in my hand that had my name on it.

I still do.  I hoard my print books like a miser and I wish there was some way I could justify putting any new books I write in print, but the simple fact is: I can’t. I’m single now, I have no other income, no husband’s salary to rely on, no huge retirement fund to fall back on. I have a mortgage I have to pay every month and I can’t afford to go six months without a paycheck. I can’t afford to roll my eyes at the creative accounting or listen to bullshit explanations why I’m only getting 3K for books that have sold in the thousands. I can’t afford the luxury of being an author and having my books published by a traditional publishing house… and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

How sad is that. Really. It’s even sadder when an author who trusts her career and livelihood to a “reputable” publisher waits six months to receive a check for $.34.



  1. Marsha – have you considered going the print-on-demand route? That may be an ignorant question. I am not an author and have never published anything, but I know someone who went through the Amazon company Createspace and they had their own cover art and everything so the cost was very minimal and he has already made it up with his first 20 sales. With your fan base, you could market your own print books. Just a suggestion.

    Comment by Mel — May 10, 2012 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

  2. A comprehensive, terrific (and yes, snort-ilicious) blog post on this situation. I have found myself often frustrated trying to get a number of romance authors (in particular) I know to focus more on the business side of this business, to understand it, and make the hard decisions. It is almost as if there is some fairy like rosey hue about getting to sell for a print publisher (despite the success of digital, which I heartily embrace). And the attitude that accompanies that glorious eventuality – one of humble servitude, as though being treated fairly, and respected as a vital (if not the most vital) partner in the book publishing process. As an old actress, I can attest that a similar attitude exists there. Artists of the world unite and demand your fair share! See how riled up you got me? Good luck with all future books, and keep on swinging that claymore, Marsha.

    Comment by Lise Horton — May 10, 2012 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

    • Lise, thank you for the comment…and yes, I’ll keep swinging whether the messages get through or not, whether people agree with me or not. *s*

      Comment by marshacanham — May 11, 2012 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  3. By God girl, you say it like it is. Sort of starting to remind me of Nan Ryan!

    Comment by VirginiaJHenley (@VirginiaJHenley) — May 10, 2012 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

    • Excuse me? I don’t hear Nan chirping in on the subject, although I’m sure she’d have a lot to say LOL. WHERE ARE YOU NAN RYAN???????

      Comment by marshacanham — May 11, 2012 @ 1:36 pm | Reply

  4. And this is why I love and respect you and your craft.

    Comment by afkesler — May 11, 2012 @ 1:15 am | Reply

    • afkesler…Thank you for the comment and for taking time to read my blog *s*

      Comment by marshacanham — May 11, 2012 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  5. Great blog!

    Comment by Leslie Adams — May 11, 2012 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  6. Brilliant post – and for someone looking to get into the writing field myself, a very useful article. I wish more than anything there were more authors like you posting stuff out here, so that I know what I should to do get published myself! (Self-publishing is starting to look reeeeeeeally nice…any feedback you might have for a newbie at the keys is welcome…)

    Comment by Rachel Phillippi — May 11, 2012 @ 11:41 pm | Reply

  7. I love so many things about you, Marsha, but I think the thing I love the most is your honesty. Thank you for puttting this info out there. People need to know how it really is.

    Comment by Jacquie D'Alessandro — May 12, 2012 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  8. Thank you for this post, Marsha. I followed a link left by Deborah McGillivray and I’m so glad I did. I am one of the Dorchester Publishing casualties and the part that gets to me is that NO ONE said a word about all the author-screwing shenanigans that have been going on for years – nay, decades – until the sh** hit the fan publicly and started sticking everywhere. As a matter of fact, some authors persisted in defending them until they couldn’t any more without appearing lunatic. Now author after author is talking out, privately and publicly, and the picture of traditional publishing that’s being revealed is nothing short of criminal. What a NICE racket they’ve been running all these years! And how thankful authors used to be for the pennies they flung our way!

    Keep on doing what you do and I’ll keep reading. You just got a new follower.

    Comment by Liane Spicer — May 12, 2012 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

  9. […] Canham noted on her blog that  the backlist titles are bound by old contracts wherein the royalty rates were 6-8% of […]

    Pingback by Copyright Terms Should Be Shorter — May 13, 2012 @ 9:02 am | Reply

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