It seems strange to me, but people who’ll spend ten bucks to go to the latest explosion fest at the theater gripe about the cost of a book and tout it as one of the reasons they don’t read. Maybe our special effects budget isn’t high enough or something.
So let’s look at the math, in a general way.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you spend that same ten bucks for a book. Mass media paperbacks are getting really close to that now, so it’s a semi-valid argument.
If you’re an author with a New York publisher, your cut of that ten bucks is gonna be in the range of five to ten percent. That means for that book, you’re gonna make somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Now, if you have an agent, he’s gonna get fifteen percent (based on industry standard. Some may be lower), which means you lose anywhere from eight cents (it works out to 7.5, and I’m sure the agent will round up) to fifteen cents, leaving you with forty-two to eighty-five cents.
Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
But that’s not all. Now you have to figure out how much you actually made. How long did it take to write the book? You’ll have to break it down into hours, but after you figure in the writing and multiple edits, my guess is, unless you’re someone like Stephen King, you’re not making anywhere near the national minimum wage, never mind what those, um, people in Seattle thought they’d be making with their fifteen dollar an hour minimum.
So where’s the rest of it go? To the publisher. It’s expensive to print books, and if you’re with one of the Big Five, they do print runs based on how many books they project you’ll sell. Most of the time they’re wrong, judging from everything I’ve been reading online, so if they gave you an advance—something that’s shrinking and even disappearing in today’s publishing world—you likely didn’t earn it back. Which is why the Big Five are mostly losing money and are happy to have surprise hits like Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of actual quality.
Things are a little different on the indie/small publishing side of things. For instance, at Oghma Creative Media, our standard contract is a 60/40 split, and we’re able to offer the forty percent to authors because we’re basically print-on-demand (POD). Still, to set up a book with Lightning Source, the premium way to go when it comes to POD because using them makes you look far more legit to bookstores and libraries, costs well over two hundred dollars (I can’t remember the exact figure).
Granted, it’s still not great money. You’re getting four dollars of that ten-dollar book, but since we’re still a struggling company, you’re likely not selling many books. Yet. But would you do better with one of the Big Five? Unlikely. I’ve read and heard that ten percent of Big Five authors get ninety percent of the promotional budget. Which is to say, they’re really only betting on sure things. It’s a system set up to fail, made to fulfill their prediction that new authors are money pits. It’s a closed loop that accomplishes nothing.
So the next time you feel you’re paying too much for a book, keep all this in mind. And remember that the vast majority of us writers aren’t making money hand over fist like John Grisham and Stephen King.