A lot of interesting things have been coming out in the news lately especially related to why author’s income from the big-five is in decline and it’s even harder to make a living as a writer (which has always been the case but seems to be getting worse.
There are many who are saying, “Well publishing is in the toilet, and publishers are struggling, and that being the case, it puts downward pressure on the authors.” Makes sense, right? Except the publishers are doing well, Simon & Schuster is reporting their best year ever. What are the contributing factors?
- Bob Woodward’s Fear
- Strong backlists
The first is an outlier, and we can take it off the table, but the last two are particularly important to authors right now how are thinking of going traditional.
Audiobooks are now VERY lucrative (my latest audio deal was for seven-figures for a trilogy) but the publishers are now demanding audio rights in addition to ebook/print which (a) is not increasing the advances and (b) is lowering the royalty rate paid to the author because they are getting either a % of a % (if the publisher produces the audio themselves) or a % of a % of % (if they sell the right as a subsidiary You can learn more about this from the audio rights manager at Curtis Brown
Backlists are interesting in that the publishers are (a) doing little to nothing to promote them and (b) have contracts that turn them over into the publisher’s care FOREVER. All big-five publishing contracts are for life-of-copyright (which is 70 years after your death for those who aren’t familiar with such things). Some will say, “But wait, there are reversion clauses that will give those rights back to the authors in those contracts.” Which, respectfully, makes me laugh. My agent is always telling me that I have “one of the best reversion clauses he’s seen” (btw these are on contracts that I signed before coming to him), and he wished he got as good as this for his other authors. But I think the revision criteria is a joke. Why? Well as long as a book is making $500 a year, it’s considered “in print” and the publisher keeps the rights…something they can do without further investments (they don’t have to pay more advances, nor do they have to even print any more books, the digital formats (ebook and audio) will be enough to cover that “nut.” Think about it. $500 a year is $9.62 a week. For a $9.99 ebook (which nets me $1.75 a book) that means as long as the publisher is selling 6 books a week (less than one a day). I can’t get the rights back. Also, how am I supposed to live on $9.62 a week?
Now I should note that none of my backlists is at those levels, and I’ve met only one author whose in the position to trigger his reversion (and I only met him 2 weeks ago at ConFusion) but that’s kinda the point. Those reversions are pointless and so the rights really are gone for the life of the copyright. – Well 35 years after publication for people who know about the copyright law change that happened in 1976.
So, this is a long way of saying…don’t be fooled by the publishers singing woe is me. They are doing well because they are looking out for themselves. My advice to authors…do likewise!