Authors Can Be Stupid: Please Feed the Authors!

A number of authors who have books published by Macmillan have opined on their blogs that the authors whose books are no longer available on Amazon really need our support. We really need to go out to brick-and-mortar stores or to other websites and order their books. We need to do this because these authors are taking a major hit to their income since Amazon has removed Macmillan books from their website.

I certainly have sympathy for the authors whose work is caught in this catfight, but this call for readers to go out and buy their books right now is nonsense. The appeals make it appear that if we don’t buy now, these authors will starve. If you believe this, you also believe that publishers want to break Amazon’s non-existant monopoly on ebooks to protect choice for readers.

You’d be a lot better off trusting that the tooth fairy will leave you money when you put teeth under your pillow.

This is how the economics of the industry works. If you buy a book today, right this very second, from any retail outlet, the author will get, on average, 10% of that cover price.

In October.

Yep, eight months from now.

And that’s if their advance has been earned out. See, authors work on “advances against royalties.” The publisher fronts us money to work on the book, and then the royalties pay off that debt first, before we see anything. Books can take years to “earn out,” or repay that debt. Plus, since books are sold into stores on a returnable basis (consignment), the publishers always hold back a “reserve against returns.” So, even if your book has earned out, the publisher doesn’t have to pay you money if they believe some of your books will be returned.

In addition to that, we have to factor in pay periods. Royalties are accounted semi-annuallly. So, sales in the January through June period are lumped into one basket, and then the publishers have three months to check their figures, figure out their reserves, and cut a check. Checks should arrive on the first of October. The seldom do. Within my career there have been several periods where publishers—none of them affiliated with Macmillan—have taken until the end of October or into November to cut checks. One even seems to have a penchant for delaying the payment until I call to complain.

So, in reality, a book sold today—a book that came out this month—won’t generate income for the author, at best, until October. And, given the rate at which books earn out, that’s probably October of 2012.

If an author right now is facing so dire a set of economic circumstances that he’s pinning his hopes on money he might get in October, he’s got far bigger problems than Amazon not selling his books.

But I don’t want to be hard-hearted here. What could these authors do to get more income for their writing?

They could take all the stories for which they own the ebook rights, prep them for publication on the Kindle, and set them up for sale on their own websites. Sales of material from their own websites will pay them today. Kindle sales will pay them in sixty days. Between now and October, an author could easily and fairly effortlessly, pull in $1000 to $3000 via such digital sales. If they work at it, even more.

Sure, the tiff between Amazon and Macmillan is going to cost some people some money. But any author who ignores the larger import of this battle—the collapse of the current economic model for publishing—is an author who has already decided he no longer wants to write for money.

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11 Responses to “Authors Can Be Stupid: Please Feed the Authors!”

  1. Hey Mike, I like what you’re saying but I also wanted to see what you think about another side of it. I thought the reasoning behind supporting those authors at brick and mortar stores was that the life of a book can live or die by its initial sales figures. I know there are exceptions, but how does that figure into all of this for those McMillan authors who’s books were released during this Amazon/McMillan thing; they’re missing a lot of Amazon sales. You know a lot more about this than I do, and I always enjoy gleaning wisdom about writing and the industry from you. Thanks for all your great fiction, podcasting and posts!

  2. Dan, it’s true that the first couple weeks of sales of a book can make a big difference in its life; but people who were disposed to buying that book would have bought it no matter what. If it was not available from Amazon, they would have gotten it elsewhere regardless.

    What I don’t like about these appeals is that they make it sound like authors are starving. If they ARE, it has nothing to do with this battle. To suggest that Amazon wants to starve authors is nonsense. Moreover, it is up to Macmillan to take this sales failure on their part into consideration when deciding the future of any author’s career. Their inability or unwillingness to do this would be more my concern than anything Amazon does.

    At least we know WHY Amazon drew a line in the sand. The strategies for publishers are so byzantine that Dan Brown couldn’t make sense of them.

  3. I knew you would have a great answer, thanks Mike. Very good point, I agree – and you made me laugh pretty hard with that Dan Brown comment 🙂

  4. Yeah, hysteria is all the rage these days, so I would expect no less from authors trying to make it during a recession. I can understand this knee-jerk reaction, but I hope they eventually learn to think things through. If the authors of our time do not promote critical thinking, how can we expect the general populace to do so? Our digital age is amplifying our ability to instantly inflict mass hysteria.

  5. Mike, Thanks for the dose of sanity on this issue. Most authors seem ready to string Amazon up. It puzzles me a bit; I mean it takes two to tango. Either one of them could end this now. I think they are both behaving badly.

    I am also puzzled by the energy authors put into defending the current publishing model and how eBooks can’t really be much cheaper to create. The times are changing, and the publishers and authors better get with it (present company excepted, you seem to have the eBook thing figured out).

  6. And the war continues:

    Oddly enough I thought that the prizes would drop now that there is an alternative to Kindle. I mean, Amazon has/had somewhat a monopoly on the ebook market. Now there’s a real competitor with iPad and the prices go up? Btw.: Amazon caved and now its flat $9.99 changed for some books to $13 – $15.

    Another odd thing: Ebooks are sometimes(?) more expensive than paper books (look up e.g. “When Dragons Rage” on Amazon). I would never buy an ebook it the real book was cheaper.

  7. Mike I wanted to get your thoughts on what other authors like L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and Tobias Buckell have said. I actually lean towards your side of things, but they bring up what seem to be good points, BUT I’m still a rookie here so I don’t know.

    Any insight you could offer would be appreciated.



  8. This situation demonstrates how authors who seemingly might think they are “independent” are really not. Those of us in the corporate world are beholden to the companies who we are employed with. Unfair things happen that are completely beyond our control (think layoffs, salary reductions, etc.). On the same hand, writers are beholden to their publishers. Again, unfair things happen beyond a writer’s control (Amazon decides to remove ‘buy’ buttons, for ex.).

    Now, if there were a way for writers to maintain multiple projects going to different publishers they’d have some security and protection from this sort of thing. I know–writing takes time. But it still makes sense regardless. I hope this whole incident serves as a wake-up call to authors.

    Freelancers are really not that different from the rest of us. They just get to work at home more. 🙂

  9. I couldn’t agree more. Mike. The way writers (and some writer’s organizations) have responded to the Amazon/Macmillian dust-up both during and after, is at best silly, and at worst shameful. It was all over before anyone knew it, and this week’s snow-storms are going to hurt sales far more than this little incident did.

    They were far too quick to side, loudly and publicly, with Macmillian. (Neither party here is on the writer’s “side.” Both companies are acting in what they see as they own best interest, and the writer be damned.) And now they’re celebrating their “victory.”

    (Never mind that this is only an opening shot in what promises to be a long and difficult war, and that it isn’t even clear that Amazon “lost.” They’ve now made a show of standing up to Macmillian to satisfy the vocal contingent of price-protesting Kindle owners, and can pass blame to the publishers — and possibly the writers as well. By doing this on a weekend when on-line activity is off anyway, Amazon probably didn’t loose much in sales, and avoided much mainstream media coverage.)

    I’m especially amused (and a little disgusted) that SFWA has made a big show of moving all the affiliate links on their sites away from Amazon, and resetting many to “,” a site which announces front-and-center on its front page that it now features Google’s “search-inside-the-book,” another one of those things that writers are supposed to be upset about for somewhat dubious reasons. (I keep hearing about how SFWA has changed for the better, but by running off half-cocked with another ill-considered response to a minor incident, they’ve proved they’re still the same as the bad-old-days.)

    Calm down, people! This is nothing! Its way early to be choosing up sides, especially with such a dubious list of allies to chose from. The side we should be on is our OWN.

    The changes in publishing represent the best opportunity in 50 years to get a better deal on how and how much we’re paid for out work. Are we working on that? No. We’re busy fighting for a status-quo that just can’t stand, no matter what anyone does.

    Times, they-are-a-changin’, and while some people will get hurt, there are new opportunities for everyone out there with the vision to see them.


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