How writers make a living....

Writers used to get, from certain publishers, 200 dollars flat for all rights forever, no royalties, not for a short story, but for an 80,000 word novel. Writers organized: things improved: then they got 4% of cover price of copies sold, not for all rights, but for a 7 year lease of rights, to put it simply. Also, writers' organizations made companies count, not estimate, the sales on which those figures were a pre-computer time when some publishers claimed to have no clear record of what they printed or sold.

The writer's percentage went to 6%, about the time I came into the field. Now the rate now hovers at 8% to 10% for 150,000 word books that now sell far fewer copies due to the high cover price, while the 80,000-worders are almost all high-volume media-related books---for which the writer gets as low as 3%, the other being paid to the franchisers.

Much as those novel cover prices have increased, 40% of cover price is the bookstore, 10% or less for the writer, and other 50% is shared by distributors, printer, paper suppliers, artists, and the publisher collectively, including advertising, if any. And the writer gives 10% or 15% of his 10% to his agent, so the writer's actual income is 7% to 9% of the cover price.

Who gets the part the writer doesn't get? The publisher has to pay his overhead: office, personnel, outside contractors like copyeditors, repro, salesmen, and so on, and has to engage the printers, who are a totally different establishment. The bookstore has its overhead: store, furnishings, utilities, payroll and taxes. The distributors have to pay warehouse expenses, employees, local delivery trucks, utilities. I'm not sure who pays the long-haul truckers who get the books from the printer to the various distributors: it probably comes under freight and is billed to the publisher by the printer. But you can see that your book purchase supports quite a wide web of jobs.

There's a big difference between copies-shipped and copies-sold. Writers are paid on copies-sold. They get an advance based on the best estimate of the sales of the initial printing. This means that they get a certain portion of that sum on signing the contract, often 33% of the total advance: then another 33% on turning in the finished manuscript; and the remaining 33-odd% on publication of the book about a year after that, if they don't further subdivide the payment as "on hardbound" and "on softbound" publication. So the advance gets paid over a two year period in small pieces.

But the writer doesn't get an advance based on the print run, but based rather on 60% of the projected print run. The publisher knows 40% of copies-shipped will almost always be 'returned', or not sold, meaning they didn't get to people who wanted them, because the system has that inefficiency built into it. If more than that come back, those returned books are deducted against any sold books before the sales are counted toward the writer's 'earning-out' his advance. [Earning-out: selling more than predicted.] If the writer actually exceeds all expectations and sells above the initial 60% of print run calculation, there will be semi-annual payments of 10% of all books sold from that point.

When a novel advertises how many are in print, that statement has only remote relationship to what sells. And remember science fiction books don't print runs of millions, but rather of tens of thousands.

More, the old system that forced the destruction of 40% of all books printed rather than ship them back for redistribution was obscenely wasteful: that's being improved now, but it's still a mess. As an example of what went on at its worst: the practice of "stripping" engendered one notorious scam that was counterfeiting bookcovers. Counting stripped covers, you see, was the way a company ascertained a book had been destroyed from inventory, that was, "returned." It cost less in freight to destroy the book and ship only the covers back to a counting-house. So certain lowlifes printed more covers to count, covers which had never been on a book: I think some publishers grew suspicious when "returns" exceeded the number of books they'd printed in the first place. Certainly writers noticed, because "returns" get deducted straight out of what writers are paid.

And now it gets even better. In the old days, writers sold all rights for enough to eat. Then we went through that golden era when a reasonably prollific writer used to be able to rely for a modest living on his backlist. But that age is past. The backlists are no longer being printed and no publisher is anxious to take on an 'old' book. So the older  books fall out of print. People take to scanning them in and passing them around and the writer is looking at less and less income from his books.

So we have now come to electronic downloads. This is the only way for some books to get to you, and like any writer, I hope you will prefer to pay a modest sum for a legitimate copy so that I can keep the lights on and power coming to my keyboard. Some book printers like will even print you a hardcopy from that long as it's a single hardcopy. One hardcopy per download, please.