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Revised Essay
So, I read through that essay I wrote about hardbacks, and was a little displeased with it. First, it felt too whiny. I really didn't want people to feel guilty for buying paperbacks--I just wanted to give them some of the numbers, so they'd know that if they were inclined to buy hardbacks, why it helps.

Also, it felt a little to long and rambly. So, I've done some cuts and rewritten the tone. I post it here--though not on my official BS.com blog--because you guys had so much interesting to say about it. What do you think? Did the original sound too much like I was begging? Is this one any better? Can I figure out how to use LJ tags?



EUOLogy: Why We Publish Hardbacks

I was a little bit hesitant to write this essay, as I didn’t want to sound. . .well, too much like a salesman. As an author, it’s strange to try to walk the line between business person and artist.

On one hand, you simply want people to experience your art and hear what you have to say. On the other hand, you want to make a living. You want to be able to support yourself and your family with your writing, and not have to worry about the looming specter of a ‘Day Job’ taking you away from your art. To avoid that fate, you have to sell your books and become, at least in part, a salesman.

So, I decided that I’d sit down and pen an essay on some of the realities of publishing, as I see them. This isn’t an attempt to make you, the reader, feel guilty in any way. Heck, part of me doesn’t care how you read my books. If you download them, borrow them from a friend, check them out from a library--in a way, it doesn’t matter. (That’s why I’m releasing a book for free here on the website.) I’m honored that you gave me a chance to tell you a story.

I just want to talk about something interesting I’ve seen in publishing. People are always curious about how the numbers work. How much does an author make off of their writing? What are the percentages like? Is it better to buy hardbacks or paperbacks, when it comes to the author’s preferences?
I was one who asked that last question. I know it sounds odd, but it was one I wondered at when I was a kid buying lots of books. If I can afford one hardback or four paperbacks from a given author, which should I buy? What would they rather I spend my money on?

So, for your amusement, here are the numbers.

From what I’ve been able to see, most authors get between 6% and 8% on a paperback sale. Usually, the percentage is scaled--authors earn 6% off of the first group of paperbacks sold, 7% off of the next group, then 8% off the next group. These ‘break points’ tend to be rather high, in my experience. For instance, on Elantris, my break point is 75,000 books. (Meaning I get 6% off the first 75k, 7% off the next 75k, and 8% after that.) But, since the print run for Elantris was well below 75k, it will be a long, long time before I hit a break point. (However, I’m sure other authors have lower break points--and, Elantris might make it if it stays in print long enough.)

Let’s look at that a little more closely, then. Let’s say an author’s book sells for eight bucks (average for a big fantasy paperback) and they get 6%. That gives them around 48 cents per copy sold. Let’s say that author does fairly well with the paperback and sells around 20,000 copies in the first couple years of release. That makes them a little under 10,000 dollars.

That’s not bad, to be honest. Sure, 10k isn’t enough to live on, but these sales will continue over years and years. Paperbacks have a long shelf life, and people buy them for a long time. The author will make residuals over quite a long time.

However, my point here is to show something else. People often ask why hardbacks cost so much. Well, it’s because the hardbacks are really what it takes to support an author. Let’s look at a hardback, then.

Hardback royalties are much better than paperback ones. I’ve seen an average royalty being 10% on the first five thousand hardbacks, 12.5% on the next five, and 15% there after. And, since the book costs far more, those percentages deliver a lot more in return.

So, here’s the thought exercise I’m offering in this essay. If everything is even to you, the reader, why not buy hardbacks? On Amazon, a hardback book costs between seventeen bucks (for one regularly $25) and twenty bucks (for one regularly around $30), depending on on the book you’re buying. The discount offered by Amazon comes out of their pocket, not that of the author, so authors and publishers make the same amount off of a $17 Amazon book as they do off of a $25 bookstore sale.

That means you can buy many hardbacks for roughly what it for two paperbacks. (Amazon does have shipping you have to pay, but if you’re not in a rush, you can wait and buy two books at once--because if you spend at least twenty five bucks, they give you free shipping.)

So, what if--instead of buying two paperbacks--you were to check one book out from the library, then order the other one from Amazon? You still get two books to read, and when you’re done, you own a hardback. I think you’re better off, personally. And the authors?

Well, lets look at the 20,000 people up above who bought that paperback book. If half of them checked it out at the library, and the other half bought the book from Amazon in hardback, the hardback would sell 10,000 copies. (And libraries would order more, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, assuming the royalty for that hardback jumps up at 5000, those same twenty thousand readers have spent roughly the same amount of money as they otherwise would have, yet they would have paid the author $28,000 instead of $10,000. Plus, instead of two worn paperbacks, they have a very nice hardback that will last them for a while. 28k isn’t a huge amount of money, particularly once agent fees and taxes come out, but it’s the beginning of a livable income. Add on some foreign sales, and things start to look bright--particularly for a writer, who is likely doing what he or she loves to do.

Now, I realize there are some problems with these numbers. First off, I’m not a super huge fan of Amazon; I like it when people support their local bookstores, particularly independents. However, even if you pay full price for books, you still give the authors and publishers more money by spending the same amount if you buy one hardback instead of three paperbacks. (By about double.) This means that even you poor students--who can’t afford hardbacks but can buy paperbacks--could help out independent bookstores, authors, libraries, and publishers all at the same time by spending no more money than you already do!

I would like to note that I do know that paperbacks serve a lot of purposes. It’s hard to lug around hardbacks, and sometimes you just don’t want something that big. Plus, with the strategy outlined above, it’s harder to split the money you devote around to lots of authors. This is really just a thought exercise--a way of offering some numbers to readers, so that they’re more informed. There are a lot of authors who, despite being excellent writers, don’t get hardback releases. Those authors need to be supported by selling lots and lots of paperbacks, and I heartily suggest you buy their works.

However, if you’re thinking of buying four paperbacks by the same author--or four paperbacks each from four different authors each over a number of months--then you might be interested to know that you can give the same amount of money to the artist by spending less money on books through hardbacks. Just a thought.

Oh, and there’s one other thing I’d like to talk about. Perhaps you are looking at these numbers and thinking “Only ten percent for the author! Those publishers are ripping writers off.” That’s actually not true. Let’s break down the 25 bucks that you spend on a hardback. First off, roughly half goes to the bookstores. (Little bit less, but it depends on the book.) So, let’s say there’s around 14 bucks going to the publisher out of every sale. Three of that (on average, with the break points) goes to the author. 11 bucks left.

The publisher has to pay shipping on the book when they send it to the bookstores, and they also have to pay printing on the book. That eleven bucks is shrinking to something more like eight. From that, they pay the editor, the typesetters, the proofreaders and copyeditor, the cover artist, the interior artist, the designer, and a fleet of assistant editors and office staff, not to mention publicists, accountants, sales reps, and a legal department. Cut out the costs, and I’ll bet the publisher nets less than the author does on a given sale of a given copy of the book.

I just mention that so that you know we’re not trying to rip you off. We aren’t like the film industry where we make millions and billions per story--particularly not with a publisher like Tor, who prefers to publish books that it likes, rather than books by celebrities. Hardbacks aren’t a scheme we use to make you pay twenty bucks too much for something that should be eight. If anything, the eight dollar paperback is a free promotion given away by the publisher to maybe entice you to pay for the product that actually makes us a living.

Anyway, that’s how I see things. Maybe the numbers I have are skewed some way. I have only my own experience to go on, and I honestly don’t know much about the industry at large (though I’m learning as much as I can.) Don’t feel bad if you can’t pay much for books. We love that you’re reading our works. In a way, we are, much like the street musician on the corner with his guitar. Give us what money you feel we deserve; we just want to enjoy our music.


Comments
zeliot From: zeliot Date: January 9th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Woo hoo! You learned how to use lj-cut! I'm so proud I could cry. ;)

And I see you were much kinder toward Amazon this time. That's good, since it's how us cheapstakes afford hardbacks and put more $ in your pocket.
mistborn From: mistborn Date: January 9th, 2007 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, and I see that I didn't paragraph the right way. Fixed.
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Yes, that does look better.
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All the big corporations depreciate their possessions, and you can, too,
provided you use them for business purposes. For example, if you subscribe
to the Wall Street Journal, a business-related newspaper, you can deduct the
cost of your house, because, in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Chief
Justice Warren Burger in a landmark 1979 tax decision: "Where else are you
going to read the paper? Outside? What if it rains?"
-- Dave Barry, "Sweating Out Taxes"


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Brandon Sanderson writes epic fantasy novels for Tor Books. Find his novels, MISTBORN and ELANTRIS in any fine bookstore. More information on his website.
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