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24 September 2016
Rolling in Royalties

It’s been more than 10 years since my first book was published and I’m still somewhat mystified by the economics of book publishing. Even though thousands of books with my name on are out there, I’m not getting rich, that much is certain. I am quite frequently asked how lucrative being an author is, and get surprised looks when I laugh out loud. I have realised that most people have even less of an idea than I do how book sales work.

As the author, I (should) get a royalty payment from the publisher for each sale. This is a percentage, usually 10 or 15%, of either the published price or the price received by the publisher.  Unfortunately, the price received can be a small fraction of what you would expect. Book retailers, particularly the big supermarkets and Amazon, demand huge discounts, as much as 60%. So for a book with a £10 cover price that can mean only £4 is actually paid to the publisher,  out of which in addition to paying royalties, they have to pay warehousing and distribution costs, all the fees for marketing, printing, paper, design and layout, editing, ISBN numbers etc.  There certainly isn’t a lot of room for publishers to make a profit.

Here’s an example of royalties. My book Paper Trails, which was published by Virgin Books in 2008, sells only a few copies each year these days. I was given an ‘advance’ when the publisher took it on, which is, as the name suggests, a sum of money up front. It is not a fee for the writing, rather an advance payment on royalties, and until the book sells enough for the royalties due to me to equal that advance, I won’t see another penny. From the few statements I’ve received, I see that book sales earn a maximum royalty of £1.30 (when the full cover price of £12.99 is paid direct to the publisher), down to as little as 34 pence. My royalties due will never pay back that advance.

The best situation by far for me is when people buy books directly from me. I can usually buy my books for between 50% and 60% of the cover price (depending on shipping costs), so even if I have to pay postage to send it out to someone I can usually make a pound. Selling directly at a reading or a stall, for example, I can sometimes be making as much as £2.50 per copy. It's also lovely to actually have human contact with a reader of course! (You can buy Bear Witness here)

Those shipping costs bear reflection. When I buy 10 copies of my own book, I pay at least £5 shipping fee. So the person driving the van can be getting more per copy of my book than my royalty would be. When I post a book out at £2.80 a shot, well, I can only scratch my head and wonder.

Eventually all books seem to go out of print. Currently only Paper Trails and Bear Witness are available as books, and I can’t get any copies of my other four books as they have all been sold.

Except they haven’t! They are out there, in the second hand book economy, the pricing systems of which are an even greater mystery to me than those of in-print books. Into the Forest, for example, is currently selling ‘used and new’ for £56.91 on Amazon, even though its cover price is only £20. Currently the cheapest copy of The Last Bear, which only cost £8.99 when it was in print, is  a second hand copy at £16.88 and if you want to you can pay £158.75! Well worn copies of my poetry collection, Castings, start at a mere £65.86!

Is anyone actually buying at these prices? And if they are, does it matter that none of those exorbitantly-priced sales will generate a penny for me? I only wrote them, after all...

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