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.
What is your take on this issue?
Is there a question on this topic you would like to have answered in a future blog?