M.J. Rose: Publishers Must Change the Way Authors Get Paid

On Publishing Perspectives's website, author M. J. Rose calls for some drastic changes in author compensation. What do you think?

"Shout it from the rooftops, or better yet, hashtag it on Twitter. It’s time to turn the page on how authors get paid.

Times have changed, and with them, every aspect of the publishing landscape is morphing. And from my vantage point, nowhere is it changing more than in marketing. Authors aren’t waiting and watching to see what publishers aren’t doing for their books — they are jumping in feet first and months ahead of their houses to make sure there’s a serious marketing and publicity effort.

And publishers aren’t gnashing their teeth over the author’s involvement anymore — they are encouraging it. Co-op is more costly than ever and eating up marketing dollars. In almost all cases, publishers are making it clear that they expect authors to supplement their marketing/PR effort in various ways and, in some cases, even soliciting the author’s help with both time and yes, money.

As a result, today the author’s marketing/PR effort is often equal to or even greater than what the house is doing.

The good news is it works. No wonder really — people do buy more of something when they know it exists, and in general, book marketing is so low-key that people don’t know what books are even out there. I have dozens of case histories of authors who have pushed their sales into reprints when none were expected, created enough velocity to generate free co-op when none was anticipated, and achieve bestseller listings when none were dreamed of.

But whenever there’s good news…

We now have a situation where publishers are financially benefiting from the author’s efforts but the author is still getting paid the old way, without regard to how much we personally invest.

There’s just no consideration for the checks we’re writing out of our own pockets for marketing or PR services.

Accordingly, it’s blatantly and patently unfair for us to invest in our own books and then wait for our advances to earn out based on the same royalties rates we’ve always gotten.

Be it $2,000 or $20,000, the money we invest should be discounted from the advances we’re paid, allowing us to earn royalties faster based on an honest up-front expenditure by the publisher.

And, it goes without saying, we should be be getting a higher royalty rate. After all, we’re doing more than writing our books, we’re business partners as well.

Times have changed since 1999 when I went to my first marketing meeting as a debut author. I’d been the creative director of a top NYC ad agency, and was startled by the paucity of the marketing budget the publisher presented. I’d known not to expect the millions I worked with at the agency, but I did expect a real ad budget. When I found out it wasn’t there, I offered to give my publisher back my advance if they would spend it on advertising.

The publishing team not only refused… they were horrified.

So was I.

I wanted to supplement their efforts to give my novel a better shot and they were turning down my money?

How times have changed. And how contracts now need to change.

Over the last ten years I’ve spoken out a lot about authors needing to get involved in more than just the writing of the book, and how we can benefit by investing in our books and becoming marketing partners with our publishers.

At first I was a pariah — publishers were aghast. Education can be a dangerous thing when it causes conflict and requires extra conversations and explanations.

By 2005 when I started AuthorBuzz.com (to offer authors and publishers viable and affordable marketing solutions) authors were still a little nervous about getting involved in marketing and often asked me how best to broach the subject with their publishers.

By 2007 that trepidation was gone. Publishers were welcoming the help.

And now, in 2009, publishers not only expect the author to do a certain amount of marketing, I now hear weekly from authors approached by their house asking if he or she wants to foot an ad bill or share some costs.

This pendulum has swung a bit further than I ever thought it would.

We should be involved in marketing and PR — in every aspect of our careers. And if we want to pay for extra marketing or publicity, as long as we do it right, it’s a smart investment. But it is not now and should never be our obligation. And if we are going to make these investments, publishers need to acknowledge that commitment. And not just with a nod and smile and a thanks.

“Because so many contracts don’t earn out,” publishers will argue, “the author makes far more than the we do — so why shouldn’t we ask them to invest? It’s their career, after all.”

The answer is: because it’s wrong. The system and the contracts were set up at a different time under different circumstances and set up in the publisher’s favor.

It used to be that the author wrote and the publisher published. Publishing meant everything from editing to distribution to marketing. Now, more and more books are not being published, but instead are merely being printed.

No one walks into a bookstore and says to the clerk — “I’d like to buy a book that I never heard of and that you never heard of.” Someone has to do the marketing and get the word out. And if that’s going to be a shared responsibility, so be it. We all have the same goal in the end.

But our contracts and the way we get paid can’t remain the same. It’s time to start a new chapter."

M.J. Rose is the bestselling author of several novels including, most recently, The Memoirist. She is also the founder of Authorbuzz.com and one of the founding board members of International Thriller Writers (ITW). Her next novel, The Hypnotist, will be published in May 2010.

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I have yet to see a clear sign that anything beyond awards, national advertising, preferably on TV, and reviews in major papers works. Unfortunately, we usually cannot access those avenues of publicity.

As for Authorbuzz: any information on that? It costs, but does it pay off? And how many readers does it reach? Who goes anywhere to read ads? Most of us are sick of the barrage of advertising that enters our consciousness via mails, papers, TV, and phone lines.

The problem is always that if everyone does it, nobody gets noticed.

Today I received the Penguin advertising issue of their Mysteries from Around the Globe. I got it because my books are listed. But there were also other authors, and I ended up making a list of books I wanted to read. That worked for me because I am interested in mysteries set in foreign countries. But I doubt it was sent to anyone but bookstores and the authors listed.
I've seen AuthorBuzz ads in the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter, which seems to target booksellers. It would be interesting to know if the response to the ads is worth the cost of them.
"“Because so many contracts don’t earn out,” publishers will argue, “the author makes far more than the we do."

The definition of "earn out" is sibject to question here. (Possibly only due to my ignorance.) Does a book "earn out" when total sales meet total expenses, or when the royalties that would have been paid exceed the advance and additional royalties are due?

I really don't know, and it makes a huge difference.
I've always thought it was the second thing: you earn sufficient royalties to pay back your advance. If a contract doesn't earn out, it's generally considered the author's fault--even though the acquiring editor and the money boys upstairs determine the amount of the the advance, the size of the print run, and the marketing budget, if any.
Exactly right!
That's what I thought, and it's stupid. There's no other way to put it. The author has no real control, and too much of the actual figures are open to interpretation. Based on this model, publishers could still turn a profit on books that don't "earn out" --since paying the author is only one component of their expenses--and cry all the way to the bank by pocketing the money that could have been spent on marketing and (more and more) proofreading..
Well, it has struck me how many midlist authors continue even with relatively low sales. My personal choice, however, would be a modest advance plus serious marketing. Alas, contracts are made between agents and publishers.
I've seen comments that the profit margin is larger for publishers than we assume. In other words, they aren't necessarily taking a loss when a book hasn't quite earned out.

Proofreading is healthy with major houses. At least I can testify that both SMP and Penguin have very thorough copy editors.

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