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On the Business of Writing: Stockholm Syndrome

This week I’m talking about a series of lectures my Professional Writing professor taught on getting started in traditional publishing. In yesterday’s article I talked about the hard work and the patience that has to go into making a career out of writing (even after you’ve put in the hard work and patience to land your first book deal.

Now, my professor is no kind of fan of Kindle publishing. But nothing I’ve ever read from Konrath or Eisler or Hocking has ever done as much to convince me I don’t want a traditional deal as those two hours listening to Deborah Chester describe how it’s supposed to go.

Numbers Shipped

In fact, after Wednesday’s lecture I chatted with some of my classmates about it in the hall, and I told them there was only one point in the entire series that gave me any kind of pause at all. It was the number 72,000.

Remember yesterday when I said that, in order to get a publishing company to believe in you, they needed to sales on the order of 50,000-100,000 paperbacks sold? That was eye-opening for me. As my professor was describing her hypothetical scenario with a “decent” first novel, she casually mentioned a royalty statement that showed 72,000 paperbacks sold.

And that’s a big number.

Now, Konrath takes that number into account. Everything we’ve said about the relative value of self-publishing for authors takes that number into account. But on its own, financial matters aside, that’s a big number. I want 72,000 people to read my book!

But there’s another caveat there. Publishers don’t sell books to readers. Publishers sell books to bookstores. And I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s a big deal:

Publishers sell books to bookstores on consignment.

Those 72,000 copies sold could mostly be boxed up in a warehouse somewhere. And if they haven’t happened to sell after a certain number of weeks, the bookstores return the unsold copies for full credit–and that’s money you (the author) just don’t get.

Royalty Statements

The significance of that factor came through loud and clear when Professor Chester showed us a sample royalty statement and taught us how to read them. Or…how to decipher them. Inasmuch as it can be done at all.

Author royalty statements are complex and confusing (probably deliberately so). They are produced 90 days after the close of a 6-month sales period, so by the time you get your statement you’re learning how your books were performing nine months ago.

A statement will tell you how many hardcover copies a title sold, and how many paperbacks, and how many foreign copies, and any other sales this particular publisher has made. And then, she said, there’s going to be a deduction against returns. The sample she showed us had total earnings of $38,000, and then a deduction of $10,000.

In other words, the publisher had sold enough copies that the author was owed $38,000 (before the agent and Uncle Sam), but the publisher arbitrarily chose to withhold $10,000 of that as insurance against bookstore returns. She said it’s impossible to know how they calculate that amount. Publishers reserve roughly a third of the book’s sales amount, and there’s nothing an author can do about it.

The scariest part of it is that last bit. Publishers use a punishingly opaque accounting process, and writers just have to accept it. That’s been a common theme throughout this class, whenever we’ve discussed the relationship between the publisher and the author.

Publishers hold all the power, and authors just have to accept it. Konrath likes to call that Stockholm Syndrome–the publishers have held us writers hostage for so long that we’ve come to see them as our friends even as they abuse their power and mistreat authors.

Systematic Abuse

A week ago I would have shied away from making that last claim, but I got to see it firsthand in a week’s worth of lectures by a successful fantasy author, and then I came home from Wednesday’s class to find an email from Josh pointing me to a blog post by author Kristine Kathryn  Rusch.

Remember those deliberately unintelligible royalty statement I mentioned? Well it appears big publishers have made a habit of falsifying e-book sales numbers on them. That matters. That’s a really big deal. And it seems likely that it’s been standard business practice for years now, but it’s taken the explosion of Kindle publishing to bring the matter to light.

Writers are so dependent on publishers that publishers can casually, consistently, even openly rip them off, and there’s nothing writers can do about it. We accept corrupt and outdated business practices that directly impact our personal finances because, well, that’s the only way we’re going to get published at all.

“Making It”

But the most disturbing part of the whole process is hearing how little it actually offers. Even when you do get your publishing contract, even when you do start selling, it’s a slow climb up to real money. As I said yesterday:

What you’ve got to do is get a lot of books out there and wait 4-5 years (after signing your first contract). If you do that–and if you have a good book that ends up with a good cover image and good product description–you just might end up with a career in writing that pays your bills.

Now one more recap. I’ve made references a couple times to J. A. Konrath’s rules for self-publishing success:

  1. Start with a good book.
  2. Get an effective cover.
  3. Write a compelling product description.
  4. Get lots of stuff out there.
  5. Wait at least a year.

Of course, I structured my earlier quote deliberately to incorporate those elements, but my professor’s lecture boiled down to precisely that. It’s not that publishers get you there sooner, or give you more money, or give you a better chance. Even when you “make it,” you’re still stuck in the same patient, hopeful place you’d be if you’d just thrown the books up on Amazon yourself.

The difference is how much money ends up in the publisher’s pocket. And how much ends up in yours. And, more than anything else, the difference is control.

Deborah Chester said right up front that she doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur. She doesn’t want to be CEO of Deborah Chester, Inc. She just wants to write stories and get paid for it, and that’s happening for her.

I wouldn’t say I want to be a businessman, but I prefer that to the neglect and abuse I could expect for my stories and for my finances if I ended up with a major publisher.

Sure, I’ll have to learn how to manage my own finances and do my own performance tracking across my titles and formats…but that doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing to me. And as Kristine Rusch’s story showed, you might just end up there anyway.

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