28 September 10 | Chad W. Post

OK, so typically I like—or at least highly respect—Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal articles about publishing. He’s one of the better book reporters out there, and it’s nice that the WSJ covers our little industry. But his new piece, Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books, is a bit troubling.

There are two main points in here, both of which are valid and will play out over the ensuing years: 1) advances for literary novelists (especially debut writers) are down from the “golden days,” and 2) ebook sales are increasing while hardcover sales are decreasing, and the economics of this seem disadvantageous to everyone.

One of the interesting assumptions in here lies in that “golden age” crack above. As Trachtenberg points out, a lot of literary novelists receive “small” advances from their publishers:

In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.

Let me try and break this down a bit: First off, within the past decade, the number of fiction titles being published has skyrocketed. Click on the top press release on this page to download a pdf of publishing stats from 2002 to 2009. As you can see, fiction has basically doubled, from 25,102 books published in 2002 to 53,058 in 2008, and a projected total of 45,181 in 2009.

In terms of opening the doors to more writers and making more forms of literary expression available to readers, this is a great thing. But unfortunately, book sales (regardless of format), don’t really keep pace with this. Apples to oranges here, admittedly, but the most recent stats from AAP indicate a decrease in net sales for publishers of $.4 billion.

It doesn’t take a MBA to see that with slow growth in sales and rapid expansion in offerings, something has to give.

For anyone who doesn’t know how advances works, here’s a brief overview: in the traditional publishing scheme, authors are offered an advance for the rights to their books. Although certain behavioral economics-based stuff comes into play here (reputation of the author, perceived bidding wars, friendships and loyalties), in the most pure economic sense, advances should be based on what an author is expected to earn back through sales. So, if you expect to sell 3,000 copies of a $15 book, and are planning on offering a 8% royalty rate, a $3,600 advance would be appropriate. Other things can figure into this, such as foreign rights or film sales, or whatever, but generally speaking, this is how this should work.

Just going with those numbers for a minute, in this case, the publisher would receive $45,000 in total revenue from these sales, which has to cover the author’s advance ($3,600), the printing costs (~$6,000), bookseller discounts ($22,500) and marketing expenses ($3,000). (Typical Digression: I’m taking a pricing class now in which one of the main tenets is that you don’t include fixed costs—salaries for salaried employees, sunk costs of overhead, etc.—when figuring out whether to take on a “project” or not. Most publishers will include these costs in order to demonstrate just how fucked they are when it comes to publishing books. I’m going to let these go for now, because it is impossible to figure fixed costs when analyzing what it costs to make a book. We operate with low overhead and next to no employees. Random House does things a bit differently.)

To pull this back to the article at hand, this is where I think Trachtenberg ends up focusing on the wrong thing. His main beef seems to be that it’s totally screwed that publishers aren’t keeping food on the plates of literary authors. And as someone who loves, loves, loves, writers and their books, I agree that this situation sucks. Do I wish all my writerly friends could get $200K every four years in order to live well (enough) and have the opportunity to write a genius work during this period? Absolutely. But for that to happen, from a semi-sane economic perspective, they’d have to sell 167,000 copies of each of their books. That’s quite possible if your name ends in Larsson or Franzen, but for most literary writers? Fuck. And. No. Five figure sales are decent for the majority of writers, with quite a few of those 50,000 works of fiction selling far, far fewer copies.

One could (has? will?) write a series of articles about why these sales are so low (blockbuster model, crappy distribution schemes, more attention paid to nonfiction than literary fiction, the Internet, etc., etc.), but the main point is that there’s a fairly direct correlation between sales and an author’s earnings.

And here’s the weird leap in the article: As Trachtenberg points out, royalties for hardcover sales are much higher than those for ebooks. (According to the graph, an author get $4.20 on the sales of a hardcover, $2.27 on an ebook.) This is absolutely true, but the thrust of the article seems to make this some sort of zero-sum game in which the growth of the ebook market will eventually overtake the sales of hardcovers, and suddenly everyone will be twice as poor as they used to be. (Not to sidetrack this already rambling post, but these royalties—15% for hardcover, 25% for ebooks—aren’t standard throughout the industry. Just saying.)

What he doesn’t mention is that a) this has been the case since the existence of paperbacks (numbers I work with: 10% royalties on hardcovers listing for around $25, 7.5% on paperbacks selling for $15, which means an author earns $2.50 for a hardcover sale, and $1.13 for each paperback unit), and that b) this is simply price discrimination with different customers buying different forms of the products at different prices. It’s really not all that uncommon or as catastrophic as it’s being portrayed.

The nagging assumption here is that no one will buy the hardcover if a cheaper ebook is available, thus screwing the entire payment system. That ebooks cannibalize sales. But there’s not a lot of evidence for this yet. I’ve heard a number of anecdotes contradicting this and stating that people who wouldn’t buy the hardcover are buying ebooks (thus expanding the audience), or more disruptive to the WSJ argument, that giving away free ebooks has led to increased sales of the title overall.

If anyone has hard data, send it along. The only thing cited in this piece is that “sales of consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and is expected to decline to 1.47 this year and 1.43 billion by 2012.” Is the decrease in sales of hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Mass market titles? And the insane growth in ebooks (estimates that these will make up 20-25% of total unit sales by 2012), is that reflecting only a decrease in sales of hardcovers? Or are these replacing the mass market romances people used to buy? All the data here seems weak and speculative.

I know this is longer than Clarrisa, but quickly, there are two final things I want to say . . . First off, rather than focus on ebook pricing and the backwards slow-to-adapt struggling publishing industry, we should instead focus on audience development. We simply do not live in a culture that can support 50,000 works of fiction a year on sales alone. Period. If we all paid full price for 100+ novels a year, well then, maybe. [Insert witty joke about the total impossibility of that happening in a culture that still supports American Idol.]

Check this quote from Nan Talese:

“We aren’t seeing a generation of readers coming along that supports writers today the way that young people supported J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth when they were starting out.”

Yep. We aren’t. And probably won’t.

Also, this whole “author’s deserve $50K advances for simply putting words on paper” argument is weird to me. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, but seriously, of the 50,000 works of fiction published in 2008, how many deserved to be? 20,000? 100? Somewhere in between, surely, but the point is, some books are simply printed, others are works of art that won’t appeal to everyone, and a select few are picked up by the mainstream culture and make tons of money.

I’m a bit touchy about this article because it seems to be attacking indie presses (“they only offered a $3,500 advance! Cheap bastards!”), which is misguided, and because it’s reinforcing a publishing system that is failing. And next week, there will probably be a piece about how Random House’s advances are way too high and that the blockbuster model is ruining our culture. There’s just nothing sane here.

To counteract the latent vituperative bent of this post, I think everyone should check out OR Books. Incredibly innovative, great authors, zero advances, quick turn around time for books, and only selling through their website. This is a different option. It runs counter to everything talked about above, and, if successful, could provide some ideas that other publishers could learn from. Learn and adapt. The answer isn’t always to freak out; sometimes topics deserve reflection and thought, and sometimes there’s a third way to do business.


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