Saw this today, thought people might be interested:

Realities of a Bestseller.

"If I published only one book a year, and it did as well as this one, my net would be only around $2500.00 over the income level considered to be the US poverty threshhold."

The article has plenty of details.

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writers need to understand they should play the lottery if they want to make money, and treat their writing as a calling.

This is exactly what I'd want you to think, if I was a publisher. If the publishers are making money, we should be, too.
I'm having a hard time wading through all the numbers (English major, what can I say?), but the thing that jumps out at me as that the author says her net so far is around $24k (though how she figures that after taking a $50k advance I couldn't tell you), and estimates the publisher's net at around $250k; so roughly ten-to-one. If this is even close to being accurate, my initial response is "what a rotten deal for the author, without whom the publisher has nothing to sell." We need a union, if you ask me--and I'm not talking about the bullshit Author's Guild, which took it upon itself to sell us down the river to Google.
The way $50K became $24K involves taxes, agent commission, and expenses. It's not clear what % of the missing $26K went to each, but assuming a 15% agent commission ($7.5K) and a 28% nominal tax rate ($14K), that leaves $4.5K for expenses.

The money is only one issue here. The other is RISK. The publisher is taking more risk than the author in this case. The author has no risk -- no money out of pocket, no ongoing costs, etc. The money is given up-front, then more might come if the advance earns out.

I do think it's a shame that authors are devalued. This should be more equitable.
The author's risk is measured in time--every book you write equals another book you didn't write, and won't write, because that time is gone forever. If I put eighteen months into writing a mystery, that's eighteen months I'm not spending on my memoir, or the literary novel I've been thinking about, or the book of poems my tenure committee wants me to finish. It's also eighteen months I'm not spending with my kids, or wasting playing golf, or jamming with my blues band. In my case there's also the necessity of taking time off work in order to write--so there's financial risk there: if I don't make enough from the books to replace my lost income, I could be out thousands of dollars. It's just wrong to say there's no risk for authors--there's plenty. I take considerable exception to the notion that my time is essentially worthless.
love this comment, jon.
My taxes are considerably higher than that, since I'm self-employed. I put almost 40 % toward taxes.
The author bears large opportunity costs as well as the risk of not finding a publisher. I think Jon's suggestion for a union is appropriate but I wonder how feasible it would be, given the high potential for scabs.
Couldn't agree more. (In reference to Jon's earlier post) On the other hand, the guys who have clout make their own deals, and the rest of us have competition from the thousands who'd like to be published at any cost.
Jon,
I can feel your frustration. I don't know if a union would work though. Perhaps publishing coops would be more effective. Needs some thought from some smart and energetic people and some money. Probably a lot less than one would think. It would have to be run with a tight fist. A creative distribution system would have to be developed. Hmmmm.
Tom
The more I read about traditional publishing, the better self-publishing looks...
The revolution is at the gates, methinks.
Eric,
The revolution has been at the gates for a while now. It just needs some young energetic and entrepreneurial hot heads to kick it off.
Tom

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