Goodbye to Traditional Publishing?

by Steve Laube

Recently Ann Voss Peterson wrote of her decision to never sign another contract with Harlequin. One major statistic from the article is that she sold 170,000 copies of a book but earned only $20,000.

Multiple clients sent me Peterson’s “Harlequin Fail” article and wanted my opinion. My first thought is that this was the typical “a publisher is ripping me off” fodder. But that would be a simplistic and knee-jerk reaction and unfair to both Peterson and Harlequin.

Yes, Harlequin pays a modest royalty that is less than some publishers. Since when is that news? That has always been their business model because it is the only way to create and maintain an aggressive Direct-to-Consumer and Trade publishing program. Their publishing machine is huge and they are a “for profit” company. For Profit. If they are unprofitable, they go away.

If an author is uncomfortable with the terms, then don’t sign the contract (which is Peterson’s decision going forward). I urge each of you to be careful not to sign a contract and then complain about it later. Unless you were completely hoodwinked you agreed to those terms and should abide by them.

Understand that I am not being critical of this lady’s decision. It is her choice to do so.

But my issue is not with the money (although it is important) it is a larger question. She says she has sold 170,000 books but not made that much money. For the record Peterson has signed with Thomas Mercer which is one of the publishing divisions of Amazon.com…a traditional publisher of sorts, so she may still reach a 100,000 plus audience. So is it all about the money and not about number of readers? If Peterson had chosen to go Indie (solo) and published using the e-book option (like the Kindle Direct Program) and sold 10,000 copies she would make the same amount of money. BUT she would have 160,000 fewer readers! One Hundred and Sixty Thousand.

Consider the stadium where the Arizona Cardinals (NFL) plays seats 63,000. So, in essence this author’s choice could mean walking away from three stadium sized audiences for her stories.

In Peterson’s case it does not appear to be a dollars vs. readers issue because she has signed with another publisher. But for many who are frustrated with their publishing experience it is a good question to ask.

Reaching 170,000 readers is a rare place in this busy industry. And don’t forget that the success of those numbers made her an attractive acquisition for Amazon.com . That is not the case for most writers whose midlist numbers can be depressing. (Read CBA fiction author Eric Wilson who laid out his income while publishing with traditional publishers over a ten year period and has chosen to go a different route with his new books.)

If you wish to wave goodbye to traditional publisher and go Indie (independent) I believe the first question to ask is whether or not you want to start a small business. Just like an entrepreneur.  Those authors who are entrepreneurs are ideally suited for the self-publishing route. The understand the energy it takes and pitfalls ahead.

The second question is whether they can sell enough copies to make it all worthwhile. And are also are willing to take responsibility if a book fails.

But not all artists are entrepreneurs. I know of many authors who have gone this route. One sold 1,000 copies of their e-book in a year. Another is averaging about $1,000 in revenue each month…but had to self-publish ten books to reach that threshold. Another has sold about 2,500 e-copies in a few months but the numbers are slowing considerably. Each of these writers can get much more guaranteed income from going the traditional route. Their indie effort is nice income (in this business any income is nice) but it is not a replacement.

P.S. In my opinion it is wrong to compare Amazon’s traditional publishing divisions (like Thomas Mercer) with other publishers. Amazon is so incredibly large and diversified that they could lose money on publishing for five years and still be profitable elsewhere. For a company like Harlequin they are solely vested in publishing (not Zappos shoes, or used books, or electronics). Thus their cost structure is different. Amazon has brilliantly used their economic model and created one that takes advantage of their infrastructure without having to build from scratch.

Is that a defense of traditional publishing? It could be seen that way. But it is more a reminder not to compare oranges with apples. They are not identical.

Your Turn

What is your take on this issue?

Is there a question on this topic you would like to have answered in a future blog?

79 Responses to Goodbye to Traditional Publishing?

  1. Jessica Nelson May 14, 2012 at 3:51 am #

    I’m happy to see this post because I saw that other HQfail one and wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t find the royalties depressing but maybe that’s because as a new published author, I’ve been repeatedly warned about income. Also, the contract was signed and maybe that book didn’t make much, but from what I understand, royalties can continue to roll in years later. All those peeps she reached will probably read her other books.
    Anyway, it’s great to see another post about this and I agree that different kinds of publishing demand and reward in different ways.

    • B. S. Simon May 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

      “but from what I understand, royalties can continue to roll in years later”

      That is of coarse true as long as the book is still in print. However if the book has not earned out the advance within a certain period of time, which could be six months or less, then the publisher will consider it a failure and may not offer another contract to the author. Even if they do offer a new contract the advance will be much less, and they may require the author to use a new pen name.

      Also as long as a self publishing author has the book up for sale the “royalties can continue to roll in years later”
      its called the Long Tail.

  2. Diana Harkness May 14, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    Eric Wilson’s move to a different publisher resulted in a sub-standard novel. (I blogged about it here: http://solitruthwriting.blogspot.com/2011/09/authors-that-disappoint-review-of-two.html I want to be published by a traditional publisher not only for the number of readers that they can provide, but also for quality control. I once heard someone say not to go the indie route until your work was rejected by a publisher only because the work did not fit their current needs. As an indie, you will never know if your work is fit to be published.

    • Steve May 15, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      As an indie, you will never know if your work is fit to be published.

      Of course you do. Publish it, distribute it, and it succeeds or fails. The readers, the ones who matter here, will let you know with their dollars and reviews.

      The mistake is thinking that because someone else, say a publisher, has decided to invest in your product (your book) that it’s unequivocally worthy or fit. They can be wrong. Horribly. They often are.

      And the bigger mistake is thinking these investors will definitely and inevitably treat you and your product with care, and worse, that they’ll absolutely provide some sort of quality control for it.

  3. Timothy Fish May 14, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Here I’m thinking: she made $20,000 on a romance novel. What’s she complaining about? I figure, if you count just the time an author is actually writing or doing work on the book, it should take one to two months to write a romance novel. Let’s say that is 320 hours. That works out to be $62.50 per hour. I know a lot of people who would love to make that kind of money.

    • Nicole May 14, 2012 at 7:01 am #

      Um, Timothy, why should it be “one to two months to write a romance novel”? Really? It’s okay that they’re not attractive to you, but writing a romance novel “should” take as long or as little as any other novel to write. Sure, some romance authors trot them out seemingly in no time, but making it sound like they’re all just trivial pursuits with no consideration to the plot or prose is hardly a fair evaluation.

      As far as any publishing goes, the options have increased, the entrepreneurial authors can make the most of indie publishing, and it’s all a good thing for the industry because competition spurs a long term better product.

      Diana, this sentence can be true but not always: “I want to be published by a traditional publisher not only for the number of readers that they can provide, but also for quality control.” From the quality standpoint (in fiction) I’ve seen just as much poor quality in recent years from traditional publishers as from indie ebooks. That includes writing, editing, proofing, and copy-editing. And marketing still proves to be a black hole as far as what’s successful for lesser known authors.

      • Tiffany Amber Stockton May 14, 2012 at 8:01 am #

        Nicole, I don’t believe Timothy was stating romance novelists don’t give thought to the plot or prose. In fact, he never said anything at all about the quality. He merely stated the time factor in writing one. 320 hours is quite a lot of time, and I believe it’s a fair estimation when you put all writing time together.

        If any author did nothing but write a book for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 8 weeks, that author would have a strong book, whether it’s typical romance-length or not. Timothy was comparing the time to money ratio, and nothing more.

      • Timothy Fish May 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

        Nicole,

        It was not my intention to say anything against romance novels. I would’ve said the same thing no matter what genre the author was writing in. The “one to two months” figure comes from Agatha Christie’s claim that one month is plenty of time to write a novel. From experience, I know that, while writing a novel in a month is doable, it is a very hard month, so I doubled the time. Even if you double it again, $32.25 an hour still isn’t bad.

    • Steve Laube May 14, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      Timothy,

      There are very few authors (of romance or otherwise) that can crank out a quality novel in eight weeks. That is a six book per year pace.

      Writers write at a varying degree of speed. I have one client that can take three years to write a novel. And others that can keep up the pace you describe. Neither is right or wrong…it is just the way they are wired.

      At a recent event the main speaker was a novelist who said she made the mistake of calculating her hourly wage. She said it was about 15 cents an hour. Everyone laughed. But there was truth in that statement.

      Always be careful about making assumptions about other writers work practices.

      • Timothy Fish May 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

        Steve,

        That’s why it isn’t a good idea for publishers to pay authors by the hour. However, it still doesn’t change the fact that $20,000 for a novel is nothing to complain about.

        The thing is, I’m working on a novel that I started back in January and I’m only 10,000 words into it. Depending on how you count it, that is more than four months and it could be three years before I finish. But I happen to know that when I am focused on writing, I can crank out as many as 10,000 words per day. At that rate, I could have a first draft before the month is out.

        It comes down to “billable hours.” I very much doubt any writer who takes three years to write a novel is spending 6,000 hours writing the book, but rather he is spending short periods of time writing with large gaps between. Some non-fiction books might take that long. With my last book, I spent three months doing nothing but writing computer code, with no thought of writing the text of the book. But few novels require that degree of research.

    • Rolando May 15, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

      I think the scandal is that that amount of money is effectively 2.4% per copy. This is a dismal amount to pay a writer. Before the self-publishing revolution she had no choice but now she does. She has left Harlequin, and others will do the same in the future.

  4. Brad Huebert May 14, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    I self published a book with iUniverse and sold a few hundred copies—mostly because I didn’t understand how to break the friends and family barrier in a substantive way. I also didn’t grasp the fact that to break that barrier, I had to view that title as a small business (like you mentioned).

    Oddly enough, the title got picked up by a traditional publisher in Germany and is going into a third printing there.

  5. Debby Mayne May 14, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all in the publishing industry. I prefer traditional publishing, but I’m not opposed to self-publishing under the right circumstances. I do believe it’s more difficult for someone who hasn’t built a fan base to get started in indie e-publishing, so it will probably take more time and effort to gain momentum. However, if someone writes a wonderful, well edited book and can’t find a traditional publisher, self publishing might be the way to go. Just make sure you’re realistic about the prospects.

  6. Magdalen May 14, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    There are many reasons to sign with one of Harlequin’s series lines, built-in readership one of the best.

    But it’s important to keep in mind that building a fan base loyal to specific authors isn’t in Harlequin’s business model. They package and market books to enhance the “Harlequin reading experience,” not, for example, the “Ann Voss Peterson” reading experience.

    So, while it’s true that she had 160,000 readers, it doesn’t follow that all 160,000 of those readers even noticed her name or made a point of looking for her books going forward. Some did, sure, but possibly only a few thousand.

    Mind you, Harlequin is happy to up the ante for their authors who have established a solid fan base through their own efforts. Harlequin’s Mira imprint does give their authors more name-specific promotion. But Mira is quite selective who they publish.

    For a beginning author, one strategy might be to live with the small royalties and built-in readership, use social media to build name recognition, then go independent and parlay the name recognition into more money and, perhaps even more name recognition, then go mainstream again to combine better royalty rates and larger numbers.

    There’s one wrinkle to this plan that new authors need to keep in mind: Harlequin can take a very long time to decide about manuscripts. In the two years it can take from submission to acceptance, an indie-published author could be building her fan base and cutting out that first step.

    There’s no “right” way to plot a course as a romance writer. New authors, even agented ones, need to consider all options and see what works best for them.

    • Steve Laube May 14, 2012 at 8:36 am #

      Magdalen,

      You wrote, “Harlequin can take a very long time to decide about manuscripts. In the two years it can take from submission to acceptance…”

      We work mostly with the Love Inspired and Heartwarming divisions of Harlequin. We have never felt they were tardy in their replies to our proposals. And we have never had it take more than six months at the most for a reply.

      But not everyone’s experience is the same. As they say, “Your mileage may vary.”

  7. James Scott Bell May 14, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    A couple of notes. It’s quite true, as Brother Steve asserts, that one needs to go into self-publishing with a business mindset. It’s true that some aren’t wired this way. But we CAN change that wiring, and it’s not that hard to do.

    And I will cavil with this comment:

    Each of these writers can get much more guaranteed income from going the traditional route.

    That needs to be unpackaged a bit. “Guaranteed income” here refers, presumably, to an advance. That’s really the only part of a contract that can be guaranteed.

    But advances for new and mid-list writers are now ridiculously low (ridiculous form the authors’ standpoint, not from the publishers’ standpoint, for they have to use bottom line practices as the bottom is dropping out of the traditional market).

    So I question whether the advance for a book that a publisher might publish is going to be better than that same book, self-published, over a period of time (if the author is doing some things, like writing more books and marketing, which, BTW, the publisher is going to expect the author to do most of, while keeping the lion’s share of the proceeds). PLUS, the self-published author is not giving up all the rights the publisher demands. Such as: no competing works (defined broadly); no realistic OOP clause (meaning the author will never get rights back even if the print book fails).

    So I don’t think we can use terms like “guaranteed” in a financial sense, no matter where we pitch our publishing tent. However, we can guarantee more freedom as a self-published writer. Maybe what we need is a new definition of success. I offered one here.

    I am not a jump-on-the-grave-of-traditional-publishing guys. I still have trad publishers. Going forward, it’s all about the contracts and the terms. At the same time, I am enjoying steady monthly income from self-publishing as well. The latter keep going up. I can guarantee, therefore, I shall continue.

    • Steve Laube May 14, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      Always good to hear from you Jim! The challenge of writing this post, and is what nearly kept me from writing it, is that it is heavily nuanced topic.

      You picked up on my phrase “guaranteed income” and correctly guessed that I meant advances. In the three cases I cited, each of them has earned more in their one-book advances than they have from their e-book ventures. That is not to say they were right or wrong to go that route, only that if it were “all about the money” then the remuneration is not a replacement for their past publishing experiences with traditional publishers.

      To our other readers: Jim’s case is fascinating because he is one of the best teachers of writing fiction in the industry. Thus when he put together an e-book of his various blog posts and articles into an e-book he had a built-in audience for that material. That is the PERFECT example of how to do it right. (click here http://amzn.to/JPsKRG for this Kindle book).

      He has also released some short stories in e-book form. And has begun to release some out-of-print backlist historical fiction.

      This is combined with his continued presence in the traditional market.

      Now. If Jim were only to work on being a nice guy he would be a juggernaut.

      • James Scott Bell May 14, 2012 at 9:03 am #

        Not going to happen, Steve. Law school took care of that.

      • JennyM May 14, 2012 at 11:14 am #

        As far as I’m concerned Mr Bell could re-write the English alphabet and change the names of half the colours. I’d even eat cauliflower if he recommended it… but please don’t, my sucking up only goes so far.

  8. Tiffany Amber Stockton May 14, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Steve, thank you for posting this. As a traditionally-published author, I am asked often about indie publishing and encounter a lot of authors who have chosen that route. Granted, most of these have not made much off their book sales, but they also jumped in head first without looking to see if there was even water in the pool.

    I like hearing there are viable defenses for both forms, and each author needs to be aware of all options and all responsibilities with each before choosing. It’s great to see the publishing world opening up to so many writers, but in the past where writers would work hard to study the craft and make their writing the best it can be, more and more today are throwing their writing out there without the legwork then complaining when it doesn’t pan out.

    It all comes down to we are responsible for our own writing and our own success. We still need to work hard and stay committed and do our best. “Get rich quick” promises never last.

  9. Jeanne May 14, 2012 at 8:13 am #

    It seems to me that there are many issues to consider for authors, and this topic. Is building a broad reader base the goal? Is it making money? Considering all the options for publishing today is another thing to think about.

    You bring up a number of good points. Thinking about the diffrent business models between Amazon and Harlequin, or even between different publishing companies, there will be differences in each. How important is it for an author to know the subtleties before signing with a publishing company (i.e. like Magdalena said above about Harlequin not focusing on author recognition so much as Harlequin recognition).

    You leave me with lots to think about today. Thanks. I think. :)

  10. Lee Carver May 14, 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Ann Voss Peterson was possibly thinking that if she had put this book up for Kindle sales at a mere $0.99 each and sold 170,000 copies, she would make $168,300. True, but not likely. Most writers would rather write than market, and you just don’t normally sell 170,000 copies on Kindle or any other e-book or self-pub avenue. If it were so, my two books would have bought more than lunch at the mustard-covered arches. I know, we have to market even if we’re traditionally published. But Harlequin has a ready market, a system in place for selling books by the thousands.

    • Steve Laube May 14, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      Lee,
      You’ve made an assumption in your comment that should be corrected, so that there is not any misunderstandings. If you publish a Kindle e-book and sell it for $0.99 you would be getting a royalty of $0.35 per book. The author does not keep all the money.

      Also, if you read her article, you’ll find that she has not gone the indie e-book route. She has signed a new co-author deal with Thomas Mercer, a division of Amazon.

  11. Lindsay Harrel May 14, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    This was really eye-opening, Steve. I like what you said about not signing a contract and then complain about it later. I think that’s one reason to have an agent; an agent can fully explain what a contract means and what it could mean for your future. Then, you’re not going in blind.

    I’d love to see a blog post about what happens to a submission to an acquisitions editor. What steps does the ms go through to actually get published? I’ve heard about pub boards, etc., but don’t really know what it all means. (If you already have such an article, please let me know!)

  12. Nikole Hahn May 14, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Writing is a calling no matter how much money I make. I connect with my readers, and would be thrilled at reaching 170,000 people. The money is nice, but I consider any money I make supplemental to my day job. My day job pays the bills. I write because I enjoy it.

  13. Chris Fabry May 14, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Cavil? Did James Scott Bell use the word “cavil?”
    1. to raise irritating and trivial objections; find fault with unnecessarily (usually followed by at or about ): He finds something to cavil at in everything I say.

    I say we should all purchase his e-book for surreptitiously expanding our vocabulary.

    • Steve Laube May 14, 2012 at 9:52 am #

      Did you use the word “surreptitiously”?
      (Defined as “obtained by subreption.”)

      I say we should all support Chris Fabry for making this blog sound intellectual!

  14. Chris Fabry May 14, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    One good word deserves another, Steve.

  15. Rachel Muller May 14, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    I enjoyed reading this post and the numerous comments added by other authors.
    I am not published yet and have found this site incredibly eye-opening today.
    In my research I have found most, if not all, publishing houses have their OWN way of doing things. I agree-it’s all in the contract.
    So, as authors we need to ask: 1)Am I just getting my foot in the door? 2) Am I writing to share my stories of faith and hope with others? (hooking readers and creating a fan base) or 3) Is it truly all about the money?
    Ann Voss Peterson claimed she made $20,000.00 on 170,000 copies. You can look at it two ways, she made very, very little on each copy sold OR she sold her ONE book for $20,000.00. If she publishes and sells two books per year, she doubles that income. It’s a ‘glass half empty/glass half full’ scenario.
    Obviously, each person is set apart and has their own opinions. Thus, everyone will have a different answer as to why they write in the first place. In my opinion, I feel an agent is the best route. Since I am not published, and am looking to be, getting my foot in the door is very important, and building a fan base is crucial. If my first experience with a publisher does not go well, I can always try somewhere else. However, I also agree it is not fair to go back and complain over a contract that was already agreed to-UNLESS there really was a breech of contract.
    I’m not too sure about self publishing since the author has to take responsibility for more than just writing, and I do not know enough about e-books to have formed an opinion. For now, I’ll stick with traditional publishing.
    Thanks for the post today and all the insightful information!

    • Renee May 15, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      I read the original post on Konrath’s blog and while I may be wrong I believe she was commenting that the earnings (that I believe are being mentioned here) are from a book published in 2002 to the present which meant the average earned was 11 cents per copy and that at 2.99, self publishing, she would only have to sell 10,000 copies to make the same 20k.

  16. Jennifer Dyer May 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Steve,
    Thanks for this post. It is certainly on so many people’s minds. After reading and listening to the many debates, I think there are pros and cons to each model. On the indie side, I hope authors going that route make certain their book is the same quality that a traditional publishing house would put out. I’m not simply referring to a good copy edit, although that is important too. The longer I study the craft of writing, the more I learn I have much to learn, er… so to speak:-). I am always sad when I read an indie book (or any book) that is a good idea, but could be great with some more work. I have seen some indie authors rush into publishing a project that is still too raw for the average reader to devour. Is this something you see as well?
    Anyway, yes, indie authors must be masters of marketing, but it does seem like all authors benefit from learning that side of the business.
    Thanks again!

  17. Deb Kinnard May 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Many more of us, also, are taking the time to do a quality job on a novel and find the publishers cannot abide this theme, that setting, that type of character–it goes on and on. No two writers’ paths are exactly the same. One author would never self pub and another might think it’s better than having 18 months’ worth of work languishing on the old C drive.

  18. Peter DeHaan May 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    It’s true that you need to be an entrepreneur to self-publish, but I feel like I already am one as a writer!

  19. Laurie Alice Eakes May 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Excellent post here, Steve.

    A few comments from someone who knows manypeople who have gone the independent route…

    I ahve friends who have done quite well with publishing their own books. Every one of them had a name already known in the industry. Few of the others did well.

    I prefer an advance myself. For one thing, building name recognition takes money, as social media doesn’t do it all for you, and without that advance or being independently wealthy, promotion is difficult. The advance helps with that a great deal. Besides that, the publisher does do advertisement, even if it is not author specific.

    That brings me to the point of another commentor:

    She is quite, quite wrong that Harlequin readers don’t know specific authors and just the Harlequin brand. Long before I joined writing communities, I knew specific Harlequin authors and which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t. Once I joined mailing lists, I learned that readers–not other writers–are exactly the same way. They will pick up a Love Inspired by Author X, but not Author Y. Author Z is a maybe sometimes, and Author W is a never, etc.

    AVP has a huge fan base. Out of 176k readers, I’ll bet 150k of them know exactly who she is.

    One thing about indy authors who go the Kindle route, too: They do well when they sell their e-books cheaply. I mean $2.99 maximum. Frankly, I think this is much smarter pricing than traditional publishers. That e-books are as much as 9.99 is absurd. I wish all my books were 2.99 on Kindle. Lower royalties, yes, and I’d rather have the readership because, as someone else pointed out, those readers pick up other books and other books and… Yes, you end up making more in the long run.

    Finally, to those commenting on writing a romance novel: I think the riticism of Tim’s remark is justified. Why, if he did not consider romance novels are easiest, did he specifically say romance?

    I am one of those annoying authors who can write a 50k novel in 15 days. I’d like to get paid that much every 15 days. :-) It was due to necessity and external factors why I only had that much time, and I did it and the edits were, in the end, minimal. But I have no children and no day job and a fairly low maintenance spouse. For authors like Tif Stockton, with two small children and a business, it takes her a lot longer to write a book of the same length. She probably has a tenth of my time to write.

    Hour per hour, it really depends on the book. I also took seven months to write a 100k book.

    I’m going to say somethiing really controversial here: Christians walk a fine line between being called to write and being called to be published, and going the indy route may not be what the Lord wants for your writing and taking control out of the Lord’s hands.

    And, frankly, now that I say that, so can going the traditional route. :-)

    • Lexi Revellian May 15, 2012 at 12:39 am #

      I am an indie author who has sold over 57,000 books, never having been traditionally published. From going on forums such as KindleBoards I know I am far from unique, and many self-publishers have done much better than I have.

      (Re the Lord and publishing, I have always believed God does not concern Himself with commerce. I doubt He has a view on whether one self-publishes or attempts to go the trad route. I think you are confusing God with agents and publishers, who certainly want to maintain control of authors.)

      • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 4:27 am #

        Lexi,

        What a sad thought to believe that God doesn’t concern himself with commerce. Fortunately, I don’t find grounds for that belief. If God isn’t concerned with commerce, one has to wonder why the Bible talks so much about it.

    • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 4:23 am #

      I agree that readers do pay attention to more than just the publisher. My mother reads every Love Inspired Suspense that Harlequin puts out, so it might seem that she isn’t paying any attention to the author. But for some of those authors she has purchased copies of all their previous books as well. Most are out of print, since Harlequin books don’t stay in print long, so she orders used copies to complete her collection of those authors.

  20. Bobbi May 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    I’d like to comment on this post as a) a friend of AVP’s, b) a friend of many traditionally and self e-pubbed authors, and c) an aspiring author.

    First of all, if you read her words, Ann is not complaining about her contract. She is stating the facts as to what her contract afforded her, and why she chose not to sign another contract. She knew what she was getting into, and she chose to go there. At the time, there weren’t really any other choices. Now there are.

    Of course, being friends with Konrath, and co-writing with Konrath, give you certain value-added factors that are likely going to increase your sales. So for Ann, this truly is a business decision — especially if she needs to get braces for her son. Having seen higher sales with a higher dollar amount for the books she’s publishing online with Konrath, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to stick with Harlequin, does it?

    She basically introduced the article with this line:

    “There’s one more thing that I find valuable and enjoyable that I can no longer afford to do, and that is write for Harlequin.”

    Ann has always been gracious and clear-eyed about what writing for Harlequin means. And now she is being gracious and clear-eyed about what NOT writing for Harlequin can mean:
    more financial gain.

    If you had the opportunity to make 3-5x more (or more) for your book than you can under your current circumstances, wouldn’t you?

    Again, Ann’s situation is a “best-case scenario” – she’s a great writer, a friend of and co-writer with JA Konrath (basically the internet rallying cry for indie publishing), and she does have her own healthy following. So taking this step is only good — for her.

    I agree — this may not be the best step for many people. But I think her story is worth considering as a piece of the whole question on publishing. There’s a lot going on, and it’s good to get as much information as possible from lots of different sources. Hers is one, and a valuable, interesting one.

  21. Tracy Krauss May 14, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    I read the article referred to yesterday and was shocked by the huge sales numbers vs the relatively small income. However, I’m glad I read this take on it, too. It presents another side to the issue and raises some concerns worth thinking about. (Decreased readership for instance.) I suppose in this day and age, it is up to the individual author to make the choices that best benefit them. In the case of Ms. Peterson, she has established a name and a readership so she should be okay, but lets not forget the wonderful ‘service’ harlequin did by helping her establish those sales in the first place…

  22. Deb Kinnard May 14, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    @Tim: of course $20k is not bad for a romance novel. It only gets bad if that $20k should have been $40k per the terms of the contract. Nothing is bad if both parties to a contract perform adequately and according to the contract’s intent. Where it gets bad is when one party treats the other in an abusive fashion. If I understand Ms. Peterson’s original post correctly, there were a lot of questionable numbers.

  23. Valerie Bowman May 15, 2012 at 4:11 am #

    @Tim By your logic $20k is good for any book then depending solely on how long it took to write it? So if J.K. Rowling’s publishers had tossed $20K her way she should have shut up and been happy? Really?

    And for those of you commenting here who obviously didn’t read Ann Voss Peterson’s original post, she spelled out how Harlequin actually created a separate entity to ensure that they took a bigger cut from their authors. And she took full responsibility for the fact that she originally signed the contract. She was simply stating why she wouldn’t be signing more contracts in the future. (btw, I am not friends with Ann, never met her, and have actually never read her work.)

    @Nikole Don’t devalue yourself. Writing is a lot of hard work. You should be paid decently for your efforts. It’s not a hobby it’s a profession.

    • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 4:53 am #

      Valerie,

      In point of fact, I suppose I would have to say yes. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great that J. K. Rowling made a lot more than the original £1000 she received from the publisher. But here’s the thing: anything we receive that exceeds what it takes for us to survive is an overflow of the blessings of God. My point is that $20,000 is more than enough for Ann Voss Peterson to live on during the time she was writing the novel. Outside of that, she can either write another book or get another job.

      • Lexi Revellian May 15, 2012 at 5:19 am #

        Harlequin, by paying its authors so meanly, is earning itself rather an unwarranted overflow of blessings from God, I would say.

        Being grateful to God is one thing; being grateful to the big corporation that is using every means to cheat and underpay the authors without whom it would have no business is quite another.

      • Livia Blackburne May 15, 2012 at 9:36 am #

        Tim – I agree with you that we should be grateful for our blessings, but there’s also the issue of good stewardship. If you’ve been given a gift of writing, and you have several different options for publishing, you could argue that it’s a Christian’s responsibility to find the best option. It might be Harlequin — they pay less, but they reach more readers, if you think that’s where God’s leading you. But on the other hand, I doubt they’re really taking the profits and using it to advance the Kingdom either. An author might be led to self publish — still reaching a large number of readers, and the increased writing income might free her time up to serve in different ways as well. I guess what I’m saying is that the simple act of evaluating what Harlequin offers and deciding not to take future offers from them is not in itself an ungrateful act. On the contrary, I think it’s a wise and responsible one.

      • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 9:44 am #

        Lexi,

        If Harlequin is not honoring the contract, that would be cheating, but if they are, how can we make the claim that they are underpaying their authors, no matter how much of a “big corporation” they may be? I’ve never seen a definitive guide that can tell us how much a manuscript is worth. Harlequin is looking for a lower quality manuscript than some of the other publishers are, so it should come as no surprise that they are paying less. But at the same time, they don’t want the lowest quality stuff either, so they pay enough to keep serious authors interested. That’s just good business. I don’t see how it is cheating or underpaying.

      • Steve Laube May 15, 2012 at 9:55 am #

        Tim,

        Please be careful with your evident dismissal of the quality of writing found in romance novels. You wrote “Harlequin is looking for a lower quality manuscript than some of the other publishers are, so it should come as no surprise that they are paying less.”

        I have a number of writers who would find that highly insulting.

        No publisher seeks lower quality manuscripts just so they can pay less money. At least not the publishers our clients write for.

      • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 9:56 am #

        Livia,

        That is true. If you have several options, you should pick the best one. All I’m saying is that making $20,000 from writing a novel isn’t such a bad deal. Are there better options? There may well be, but $20,000 for writing a novel is a sweet deal as it is.

      • Karl El-Koura May 15, 2012 at 10:23 am #

        @Tim – I believe you are confusing two things: income and what we do with our income. I agree that “anything we receive that exceeds what it takes for us to survive is an overflow of the blessings of God”; in fact, I would take it a step further and say that every good thing we receive is an overflow of the blessings of God. But what does that have to do with negotiating a fair rate for your work? Haven’t you read that a worker is worthy of his wages?

        If the writer in question earned $20k on a book that sold a few copies (perhaps because of an unreasonable advance she somehow forced out of the publisher), then you may consider that a sweet deal (one that is very unfair to the publisher, who would likely never want to work with her again). But she’s claiming she earned $20k on a book that sold almost 200k copies. That’s $0.11 copy for the writer, as she points out. That’s no sweet deal. Do you believe the publisher is only making that $0.11 per book? It’s unfair wages for work that has brought the publisher lots of success, and I’m not surprised that the author doesn’t want to work with the publisher now that she has other viable options.

        Don’t forget something else Christ said: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Harmless as doves, in this context, I’d take to mean that a writer shouldn’t try to screw the publisher in a business deal (though I can’t see how that could happen); but wise as serpents would mean figuring out what your work is worth and demanding to be paid fairly for it or finding another venue, which is exactly what this writer did. Good on her!

      • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 10:49 am #

        Steve,

        That isn’t quite what I meant. First, I wasn’t saying anything against romance. (Why is it that everyone seems to think I am?) For that matter, I wasn’t saying anything against Harlequin, simply that they have set their offers at a level at which they can acquire the quality of manuscript their readers are willing to accept.

        That is somewhat backwards from what you accused me of saying. Rather than looking for lower quality to save money, they do not have need for as high of quality, so they are able to set their offer accordingly.

      • Steve Laube May 15, 2012 at 10:54 am #

        Tim,

        Agreed. You did not mention romance specifically. But there have been comments on other posts where the genre was mentioned by you.

        Still, to imply that Harlequin is taking a lower quality manuscript, for whatever reason, is not a complimentary thing to say. Either to the authors who write for them or to the publishing company as a whole.

      • Timothy Fish May 15, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        Karl,
        I look at it like this: He promised to fill the cup; anything beyond what he promised is an overflow. I’ve got nothing against negotiating a “fair wage.” But what is a fair wage? I would love to see someone try to define a “fair wage” without defining it in terms of what other authors are making.

        Steve,
        I agree, it isn’t a complimentary thing to say. However, when you posted the list of Christian book award winners a couple of weeks ago, I don’t recall seeing Harlequin anywhere on that list.

      • Livia Blackburne May 15, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

        “If Harlequin is not honoring the contract, that would be cheating, but if they are, how can we make the claim that they are underpaying their authors, no matter how much of a “big corporation” they may be? ”

        Have you read the article, Tim? Ann Voss’ argument goes beyond the contract terms. Much of her complaint has to do with Harlequin exploiting loopholes in the contract — licensing the books to a “licensee” that was actually part of the same company in order to pay lower royalties. Now, I don’t know the ins and outs, and if Steve wants to chime in, I’d be curious what he thinks of this. But this seems to be more than just an author signing a contract and regretting it. Even if it follows the letter of the contract, it doesn’t seem to honor the spirit of it.

        “” But what is a fair wage? I would love to see someone try to define a “fair wage” without defining it in terms of what other authors are making.”

        That’s exactly the point, Tim. Ann pointed out in her article that many writers make more. And thus, she left.

      • Karl El-Koura May 15, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

        Tim wrote: “I would love to see someone try to define a “fair wage” without defining it in terms of what other authors are making.”

        Tim,

        Sorry, I don’t think that’s right.

        A fair wage for a worker is like a fair price for a house – it depends on lots of factors (such as supply/demand, the state of the house, the neighbourhood, etc.). When you’re choosing a price for listing your house, the first thing you do is look at houses similar to yours and see what they sold for. Somewhere in that ball park would be a fair price for your house (assuming those sales were recent and market conditions haven’t changed). To belabour the first point I was trying to make, you wouldn’t sell your house for what you personally need to survive; you sell the house for what it’s worth (and then can donate the excess if you choose, of course). Same thing for authors – you don’t sell your work for what you personally need to survive, but for what your time is worth, given your range of experience and skills and the current demand for those experiences and skills. One good way to figure that out is to see what others in your field are making (in a job interview, the hiring manager will often ask, “What do you expect to make at this job?” A good place to start is to ask what the last person who had the job made). So it’s an unfair challenge to ask for a definition of fair wage without comparison to what other authors (similar to you) are making (with their publishers or on their own). However, looking at the numbers objectively, it’s hard to defend that an author making $0.11 a copy on a book is a fair wage when there’s a reasonable expectation that the publisher will sell several hundred thousand copies (and so easily recoup their initial investment of advance, editing, cover art, formatting, etc.)

        By the way, and not to derail this discussion onto theological matters, but where does Christ promise to fill your cup? I’m genuinely curious because that isn’t ringing bells with me. (Some translations of the Bible have Him promising to fill your cup of joy until it overflows, but I don’t think that’s what you’re referring to.)

  24. PatriciaW May 15, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    There seems to be a bit of implication that this author should be pleased with reaching 170,000 readers versus earning more money. Why is it an either-or? What author wouldn’t want both? She has made a decision that works for her. Don’t think that it should be couched as if she took the less noble route.

    • Steve Laube May 15, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Patricia,

      You are right. Ideally it should be a both-and. And note that I did not criticize Ms. Peterson for her decision. I wrote “Understand that I am not being critical of this lady’s decision. It is her choice to do so.”

      In fact she did exactly what she should have done considering the level of dissatisfaction with the business arrangement she had with her publisher. If any business relationship is no longer working then other alternatives should be considered. But her experience is not necessarily universal. It was her experience. Every author’s mileage may vary depending on the publisher, the contract, the economy, the author’s entrepreneurship, etc.

      My points in the blog should not be viewed as a criticism of Ms. Peterson. Instead I was trying to raise other questions for those considering going the Indie route.

      It is always wise to consider all options and their implications before investing time, money, and content.

      I tried to describe it the other day and ended up with the phrase, “The publishing industry is a labyrinth. Except that the walls move every day.”

      • MP McDonald May 15, 2012 at 11:59 am #

        So, if it’s just about sheer number of readers, when I query you or any agent, seeking representation, it’s okay to count approx. 86,000 free downloads of my books in addition to the 42,000 paid ones–because after all, it’s a football-sized stadium worth of readers. But wait, I’ve seen agents mock indie authors who have counted those readers. So which is more important, the readers or the paid downloads?

      • Steve Laube May 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

        MP,

        I suggest listing the sales and in parentheses list the additional free downloads. That is what we do when asked for sales history of our client’s books. Free copies are acknowledged to show total readership.

        I hope I have not mocked anyone on this issue.

  25. Lisa Marie May 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Timothy said:

    “But here’s the thing: anything we receive that exceeds what it takes for us to survive is an overflow of the blessings of God.”

    I agree. During this recession, many friends and family members have been forced to take jobs that pay little more than minimum wage. The once-lucrative salary for my own profession (I’m a paralegal) has dipped to an all new low — low, as in what I made right out of university. The world has changed, and I suspect that this is reflected in the world of publishing, too.

    I am a new writer. I have an awesome agent who I’m sure will represent my interests more than adequately. I accept any prospective good fortune that might come my way with gratitude. If I net enough from my work that makes up even a part-time income, I’m doing much better than many Americans and far better than most aspiring writers.

    Thank you, Steve, for adding your own perspective to this issue. You’ve made a lot of good points, and I do hope that any writer who’s contemplating a book contract will take heed and approach it with a hefty dose of realism.

    • Hicham December 31, 2012 at 12:53 am #

      Re Writer’s Digest. Several years ago, maybe 2005, Reed-Elsevier (the mega-company that produces BEA and intntnarioeal expos among other ventures) bought WD. WD’s focus has changed since then.At the time of the acquisition, independent free-lance judges judged the Writer’s Digest Magazine’s International Self-Publishing Book Awards. I’d judged in the literary fiction category for three years and had been asked to judge again. But when the change-over was made, I was no longer needed . I haven’t determined how the judging is done now.This could have been a cost-saving device. For each book judged, WD paid shipping to the judge, paid the judge, and WD paid return shipping for books deemed worthy of the next round. I’m sure the shipping cost more than the judging when everything was taken into account.So the writer has bottom-lined one more time.

  26. Werner May 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Tim said:

    “Here I’m thinking: she made $20,000 on a romance novel. What’s she complaining about? I figure, if you count just the time an author is actually writing or doing work on the book, it should take one to two months to write a romance novel. Let’s say that is 320 hours. That works out to be $62.50 per hour. I know a lot of people who would love to make that kind of money.”

    Hi Tim, if you read Ann’s guest post you would have seen that she earned that $20,375.22 over a period of 10 years. That averages out to just over $2K a year. Living in this country, $2K a year is not a livable wage in anyone’s estimation. I liked Ann’s open and honest post. I’m happy she made a smarter business decision for her writing career.

    • Timothy Fish May 16, 2012 at 8:25 am #

      Werner, you can’t figure wages that way, and I did read her post. In most jobs, you get paid by how much work you put in, not by how long or how many people are using something you created. It is unreasonable to think that a book written 10 years ago should be paying a living wage today. Our expectation is that an author will continue writing, producing more books.

      In fact, it appears that Ann Voss Peterson has 31 books. Or approximately 3 books per year. Multiply 3 books per year by $20,000 per book and you end up with $60,000 per year.

  27. Linda Glaz May 16, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    I promised myself I wouldn’t sit here and stew over the comment about the lower quality books at Harlequin(and hence, a lower quality writer), but how can I not? So, I guess I have to jump in. Puh-lease don’t denigrate authors who have poured sometimes months and months even years into a book that they go on to sell to Harlequin or to any other royalty-paying house that one person might deem not as worthy as another royalty-paying house. I know some very wonderful houses that are working from the ground up to build readership and reputation. And let’s face it, they are a business. They will take only what we, as authors, and others in the industry, allow them to take. If no authors sign, the rates will go up. Supply and demand. But it doesn’t mean that a house which has a huge suppy available to them necessarily cranks out an unworthy product. Romance or not, isn’t the question, but rather, a written word that touches another life. That’s what it’s all about and to sit here and insult writers, some who have considerable following by the way, who continue daily sweating blood to reach readers is disgusting. BTW, how many negative comments come from writers with an established readership? Probably not many, the real writers aren’t concerned, they’re plugging away and developing their craft instead of tearing down other writers.

    • Timothy Fish May 16, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      Linda,

      Denigrate? Don’t you think your word choice is a little strong?

      I don’t believe it denigrates authors to say that publishers have different requirements for the manuscripts they publish. I don’t think it denigrates authors to say that some publishers take on new authors more frequently than others, while some publishers seldom publish anyone who does not have an established readership and several books to their credit. I don’t think it denigrates authors to say that some of the publishers that won’t give them the time of day now may be in a bidding war for their work a few years from now. I don’t think it denigrates authors to say that some publishers focus on quality more than others. And I don’t think it denigrates authors to say that some authors wish to stay with the publisher they started with, even when other publishers have begun to take interest in their work. And I don’t think it denigrates authors for us to rank publishers by how high they’ve set the bar. I can appreciate the chauvinism of those authors who have found a publisher they like, but I believe it is beneficial for the rest of us to weigh our options.

      • Deb Kinnard May 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

        Tim, you’re on the hook for this one. Your original statement was that HQ accepts lower quality stories than other publishers that you didn’t name. This is derogatory. Would you feel comfortable hearing someone say that self published stories are invariably inferior to trade published stories? I would never go so far as to say this. Even if I thought so (and I’ve seen some pretty poor quality in both spheres), it’s disrespectful to my fellow writers, and I would never post such opinions.

      • Timothy Fish May 17, 2012 at 6:02 am #

        Deb,

        No, I would not be comfortable with that, but not for the reason you think. I would be uncomfortable with that statement because it is too broad and unspecific.

        On the other hand, if someone were to say, “Timothy Fish doesn’t write as well as some of the other authors,” I would not consider that denigration because I know it to be true. I won’t, but I could name authors who write better than I do. I would even go so far as to say that there are romance authors who write better than I do. Take Denise Hunter, for example. Granted, I’ve only read one of her books and it was one she gave me, but I have no problem with saying that she is a better writer than me. And for the record, I believe Harlequin has published some things that her current publisher, Thomas Nelson, would have rejected.

  28. Angus MacKillop May 16, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    Having read some indie and self publications, I can attest to the commonplace lack of quality often found there, because there was no competent Editor involved. Editors have to be paid for, and self publication tends to bypass them to save $1-2K (USD). As a result, they tend to produce sub-standard publications.
    For me, it is not so much the form of publishing / printing / distribution etc. in themselves which say “Goodbye to Traditional Publishing,” but the exclusion of the Editor which alone does that.

    • B. S. Simon May 17, 2012 at 8:30 am #

      Are you talking about the lack of quality of the story its self, or of the more technical editing? Technical editing being Copy editing, Proofreading, and Formating of files.

      B.S.

  29. Steve Myers May 18, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    Steve,

    First, I’d like to thank you for the original blog and topic. I am new to the ACFW with a membership now just over a year. I purchased the 2011 Conference CD/MP3 and learned a lot from your Agent Panel sessions.

    Second, after reading Margaret Daley’s post about the ‘speed date’ opportunity with Love Inspired (division of Harlequin) I began to research the publisher. I started with a trip to Mardel’s and reading Daley’s novel A LOVE REKINDLED. Loved her work and coupled with the requirements from H/LI began to study how I might get in on the ‘speed date,’ by expanding original screenplays into actual novels.

    I researched H/LI from the MP3 spotlight of Harlequin and looked at several other authors who have and continue to publish with them. Those who responded spoke positively of H/LI.

    I was surprised Mardel’s (Arlington/Texas) had such a small selection (2 shelves less than 2 dozen books) and yet just yesterday saw that my Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market had a shelf rack of 10 shelves, 10 book titles per shelf, and about 3 copies of each on hand (300 total). Then I saw the larger picture (coupled with other box retailers and online subscription/order opportunities). Harlequin is a pretty major operation.

    From Rhonda Gibson to Arlene James and Leeann Harris I was impressed to see some of the names associated with the line and those I’ve recognized from the ACFW forums (plus two I’ve met regionally). Impressed that Margaret writes for them as well as other publishers too.

    My question is more on the basics for an un/pre-published writer just starting out on this journey. I’ve been a writer in electronic media for over 35 years but new to print publishing – so in light of the others who have posted my question is more a ‘chicken or the egg,’ issue. Figuring any opportunity to pitch a major publisher with a potential novel can be a good experience, what happens if H/LI likes my proposal and pitch? Is there time given to secure an agent or is it a quick contract within a set number of days to sign? And does that present a problem later in the process towards getting representation from a good agent? Can this interest also benefit the opportunities of getting an agent?

    The main point of attending the ACFW Conference in September is to meet and interview potential agents (and they of me) in addition to putting names and faces to so many met or answering on the form posts. While I’d love to have someone interested in my work (as H/LI) I’m cautious not to sign anything until I have either an attorney and/or (preferably) an agent representing me. I also wonder if a relationship with H/LI is a help or hinderance of writing other work for potentially larger or better deals with other publishers. Does this make your work harder or is it a good thing to be already published?

    In light of the intellectual posts these questions are basic, but for un/pre-published newbies, they seem to be the right questions to ask. What is your counsel/advice how to proceed IF (and a big IF) H/LI is interested and a contract is extended? How should we proceed with this ‘speed date’ opportunity?

    Thanks in advance and look forward to meeting you at the 2012 Conference.

  30. Reub June 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    What’s that I hear?

    Sounds like a dinosaur dying.

  31. Mir July 5, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    This discusison here is old, from 2012 (I write this June 2014). But I came across it and thought an update would be pertinent for readers who visit.

    In Feb of 2013, Ann Voss Peterson revealed how sales went with the book she released May 2012 (the month of this original blog post and comment discussion). I think we must agree that $33K NETTED in 8 months soundly trounces over $22K earned out in 10 years, especially since this book will remain available, continuing to sell, continuing to trickle income into Ms. Peterson’s pocket.~~~~~

    “Let me share some numbers:

    Last May 8 through 12 using KDP Select, I gave away 75,420 copies of Pushed Too Far.

    In May and June, I sold 11,564 copies, netting me $22,316.30.

    I also had 874 borrows during this time for another $1902.30.

    So in a bit over six weeks, Pushed Too Far earned $24,218.60 and was downloaded onto 87,858 e-readers. My highest earning Harlequin Intrigue earned me $21,942.16 in the last twelve years.

    Verdict: In less than two months, Pushed Too Far became my highest earning book. EVER.

    As Joe has said many times, sales ebb and flow, and PTF has been no different. But for May through December of 2012, this one book (Pushed Too Far) has had a grand total of 15,257 (paid) sales and borrows, netting me around $31,179.03.

    I also had 874 borrows during this time for another $1902.30.”

    Her revelation was blogged over at JKonrath’s blog in Feb of 2013, for any who want to read it in context.

    • Mir July 5, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      Ooops, I added the borrows income twice (copied /pasted that part twice by mistake). 31+K net, not 33K.

      • Angus MacKillop July 20, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

        Interesting, very interesting! :)
        Thanks for sharing, Mir!

    • Steve Laube July 6, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

      And I applaud her success. Back when this post was written I was more concerned with complaining about past contracts. We don’t question the fact that contracts were not author friendly. But they were contracts that did launch this author’s career and made some of the indie success possible.

      Steve

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