Monday, August 15, 2005

The latest RWA issue

I've been following the latest RWA issue with interest (and now I am officially a member, so I feel more entitled to talk about it). I have to admit, I'm inclined to side with the RWA on this one (and not just because I'm now a member, I swear:-). When I told DH last night about Medallion Press' letter, he said, "Aren't they automated?" Which made me stop and think. Is it really that hard to pull all this info together? Shouldn't a publisher have its sales info more or less at its fingertips? I mean, they DO have to pay royalties, right? I'm not sure it's unreasonable to expect pubs to requalify every so often-- this prevents them from qualifying on one fluke and then selling ten books per year for the rest of eternity, thus presumably protecting authors.

I was, however, struck by something Sienna said on Sylvia's blog. She wrote, "I am all for choosing multiple avenues in which to become published, BUT, the RWA was founded for writers pursuing publication with the intent on making a living at it–which firstly means selling to a major publisher. Even though in todays market, an author writing for Elloras Cave can make more than an author published by an NY publisher, selling to NY is considered to be a better stone to step on in terms of making a living. "

Okay. Let's walk through this. Sienna is saying that the market has changed, and that an EC author can make more than a NY author. And yet "major publishers" are still a better market. Um... I'm not sure I necessarily agree with that. If authors are making decent amounts of money for a publisher (and not just on a fluke, but regularly), then RWA oughtn't to have a problem recognizing the publisher. EC isn't on the "unrecognized" list, so I assume they have at least some authors selling the minimum amount of copies.

Which leads to my next thought-- who cares how many books an author sells? Is that a reliable way to estimate an author's income nowadays? (Based on Anonymous' very valid comment, I've removed references to RWA here... let's just talk about money, and if it's worth it to write for an epub.)

Let me try to clarify my thoughts. (I was up late last night, so bear with me if I'm incoherent.) The problem with comparing e-pubs and large presses is that you're comparing apples and oranges. Authors writing for epubs frequently sell smaller books, often novellas of around 30,000 words, and they generally get paid between 35 and 40% of the cover price. For New York presses, conversely, authors typically write about 100,000 words (yes, anthologies are getting more prevalent, but novellas are rarely released as standalone books from New York) and get paid about 8%. Add to this the fact that novellas are faster and easier to write, so many e-pubbed authors are able to turn out many of them a year.

Let's say that I sell 1000 units at 35%, and the NY pubbed author sells 5000 units at 8%. Both books are (for the sake of simplicity and my highly limited math ability) priced at $5.00. I get $1.75 per book, and the NY pubbed author gets .40 per book. I make $1750, and the NY author makes $2000. My earning per word is 5.83 cents per word, and the NY author's earning per word is 2 cents per word. I've made almost as much as the NY author, and my book is much shorter, so I'll be able to turn out more titles in the course of a year.

I will admit this is wildly oversimplified. NY books generally cost closer to $7.00 now, and the cost of ebook novellas can vary from $3.50 to over $5.00, depending on the publisher. I'll confess outright that I haven't yet sold 1000 units of any ebook, but I'm not a particularly good seller. There are e-authors out there selling this many units on a regular basis, so it's not an absurd number by any means. I don't know what normal sales are in New York anymore-- 5000 is doubtless low. I may well be comparing apples to oranges here myself, using an unreasonably high number of ebook units and an unreasonably low number of NY units. I don't know enough about other authors' sales figures to make a better guess, unfortunately.

But the point is, does it really matter how many units of any given book a publisher sells, or is the actual income more relevant? Going back to Sienna's comment, making a living is making a living. It doesn't really matter who I'm writing for if I can make a living doing it. I think Sienna's point is that one is more likely to make a living writing for New York. Perhaps that's true... now. I'm not sure it'll be the case a few years from now. But no one really knows for sure.

Trying to write for a living is like walking on a tightrope... you never know when you might slip and find yourself in freefall.


  1. The reason RWA emphasizes units and not dollar amounts is because it's illegal for them to require anyone to make a certain amount to qualify. This is because of the RECO act--or Anti-Trust and Free Trade Act, which are all about manipulating the market.

    They can't require certain royalty percentages, prices on books, or anything else that could be considered affecting a publisher's business model. It's ILLEGAL.

  2. Thanks for the input, Anonymous. I think I've heard that before, come to think of it.

    Hmmm. Here's a question for you. If they have to go by units, why is it legal for them to require 1500 copies of a "trade paperback" be sold but 5000 copies of a "POD trade paperback" when those books are priced exactly the same? What precisely is the rationale there?

  3. You aren't being ridiculously high for units sold in ebooks. I've sold over 1,000 units and I'm a newbie. And I seem to remember reading somewhere that 5,000 copies is the average paperback sales. So I think you picked pretty good numbers to compare. - Charlene

  4. You don't mind if I hate you, do you, Charlene?? *g*

    My first (NY) book sold over 10,000 copies, but only sold half of its print run. That was a while ago... I honestly don't know what's normal now. I do read about the midlist shrinking, and I do know a 50% sell-through is still considered okay in NY. I don't know what most midlist authors sell on average, though.

    Another thing I didn't even mention in this post is the phenomenon of "double sales." You and I both have romances which sell as ebooks, then go into paperback in the stores and sell again. This contributes to making it hard to nail down exactly how much e-pubbed authors make... it depends on a lot of factors.

  5. "Hmmm. Here's a question for you. If they have to go by units, why is it legal for them to require 1500 copies of a "trade paperback" be sold but 5000 copies of a "POD trade paperback" when those books are priced exactly the same? What precisely is the rationale there?"

    I don't think there's any legal rationale there. Then again, I haven't talked to my sources within RWA in the past several months. I did hear that they rationalized that it's how much money a publisher invests in the author that made the decision. Since they can't require that an author receive an advance, they had to figure out some way to weed publishers out, or in, as it were.

    A print run of 1500 is harder to come up with up front than it is to send to POD, even though POD books end up costing the publisher more in the long run. RWA doesn't take that into account either. Personally, this still smacks of manipulation to me, but I guess that's just my opinion.

    I really don't think the BOD is looking out for the majority of the authors. It used to be about protecting authors from getting fleeced. Now it's all about who their faves are, and who's not. I know someone who has letters documenting the BOD's prejudice against certain publishers, so a lot of this controversy isn't just a conspiracy theory. It's fact.

    Also, print runs wildly vary house to house. I've heard some historicals at Harlequin would get 80,000 run and add about 10,000 for each subsequent book if sell through was good, while at Penguin 40,000 was a good run. A Harper debut historical author used to get about 30,000. Not sure about any of them now. On the other side of the scale, most small print houses only do runs of 1000 to 2000. This would be a house like, say, Avalon. And isn't Avalon RWA approved?

  6. Darn these spammers. Can't Blogger at least let me ban these people??

  7. I think the biggest thing the BOD is afraid of is that it’s too easy to get published with a small press. And they’re right. It’s not because the small presses are less discriminating. It’s because there’s more opportunities for writers. It only seems like there’s plenty of shots in NY, but most of the houses are owned by one mega corporation. The independents, however, are not, so by the sheer number of small press out there, your chances of getting published have increased.

    The biggest flap with the RWA BOD is that these new authors cropping up haven’t “paid their dues.” Never mind the fact that many of the long time best sellers in romance got started when there was virtually NO competition, and publishers were desperately seeking the next Kathleen Woodiwiss or Rosemary Rodgers. Most of those authors can’t, or won’t, see how hard it is for aspiring authors to get published, and they don’t think they deserve to be.

    I’m sure a lot of this hoopla is because the booksellers don’t care who is RWA approved or not, and neither do the readers. They just want what’s hot right now, and what’s hot is small and independent press.

  8. These comments are all very interesting (except for the d*mn spammers) and I thank you all for your viewpoints. Meg, you're probably right that booksellers don't really care about RWA recognition-- NCP is being carried by Waldenbooks, even though they're not RWA recognized. I doubt the fact that Medallion is no longer RWA recognized is going to make any bookstores stop carrying their books, either. In short, I'm not sure it matters that much:-).

    I do find the 1500 trade paperback/5000 "POD" rule annoying, though, because it doesn't seem to be intended to protect authors as much as it seems intended to discriminate against smaller houses. If RWA's rules are really all about protecting authors, I seriously think they ought to take another look at that rule.