According to the New York Times, a new HarperCollins unit, yet unnamed, wants to substitute profit-sharing for author advances
. It also will try to eliminate the liberal returns policy that bookstores have, in my view, at least, unreasonably enjoyed for decades. (In what other industry do you get to hold onto goods for six months or a year, send them back at the last minute, and then reorder to effectively extend that ability to return?) This part of News Corp. will also "release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles":
Author advances and bookseller returns have long troubled the publishing industry. Best-selling authors can command advances so high that publishers often come away with slim profits, even for books that are significant successes. Publishers also sometimes offer high advances to untested authors in the hopes of creating new hits, but often those gambles do not pan out.
Ms. Friedman said the new group, which will initially publish just 25 titles a year, would offer “low or no advances.” Mr. Miller, who was most recently president of Hyperion, said he hoped to offer authors a 50-50 split of profits. Typically, authors earn royalties of 15 percent of profits after they have paid off their advances. Many authors never earn royalties.
My "headline" reaction was to think, "Cut advances? Is there anything left of them to remove?" But let's take a moment and consider the pros and cons. Relatively few books actually earn out their advances, so that lump sum - often pretty measly money - has become the only sum writers see. There is definitely a risk in dropping the up-front money.
Let's consider the other side for a moment. Advances become one of the gating factors in getting a publisher to take on a title. If your main work is writing books, then, yes, you need the advance. But if you're doing books on the side, it might be that you'd have an easier time selling a title in the first place. Also, even books that don't earn back the advance are still often profitable. Now, if you sell 10,000 copies, getting half of the cover price, and you're aiming, as the article says, at about $20 for a hardcover, that is a gross of $100,000. At 15 percent before tax profit margins, that would be $15,000, or $7,500 to the writer. Not tempting, I admit. Furthermore, you get a cut of profits
, so all the costs are going to come out first, and must get paid off for there to be
profits. You'll see your money later than before, and now you have to deduct the time-value of money - because you're waiting, you're essentially losing about 1.5 percent or more a month (what it would take in credit card interest to cover the missing sum).
A few more problems. Royalties are hard enough to follow, and that's when you get a list of the numbers sold. But profits? How can you tell when costs are actually paid off? What is the definition of profit? That is going to be an enormous problem; ask any musician or person working in Hollywood who finds that immensely well-selling properties end up never having an official profit. Chances are greater that you'd need an audit to follow along, and that is going to cost you money unless you can show that you're being shortchanged. Contracts will get a lot trickier, because the definition of profit and what can be charged to the costs of a book will become critical. Most book agents simply are not going to have the background and experience to negotiate these terms, because they don't know where the problems will be.
Those are a lot of potential problems. Is there a positive? I'm not sure. If a book sells well, you get the split of profits, not of royalties. Here's where the flip side of paying off costs comes in. As the costs are paid, more and more of the book sales are profit. Eventually, that $10, minus maybe a per-copy manufacturing expense of $1.50 and some amount of corporate overhead (call it 50 cents), leaves you with a cut of maybe $3 or $4 per copy, rather than the $1.50 you'd make with 15 percent royalties. But I suspect you'd have to sell a whole lot of volumes to hit that mark.
There's also a problem in the reporting of the Times that might make the gains turn out to be nothing. Consider this sentence:
Typically, authors earn royalties of 15 percent of profits after they have paid off their advances.
Actually, that isn't typical at all; 10 to 12 percent is more typical, and you're talking about the money coming in to the publisher, which is more than the "profits" would be. And for hardcovers, which is what they will be doing, I'd say 7.5 percent off the cover
price is more typical. That means it's really easy to figure out how much someone owes you.
The upshot is that things are changing quickly, and you're going to need really good advice - from a lawyer, and maybe even an accountant - as you go into book deals. Forgo professional advance, and you're likely to make a deal which leaves you with less than ever before.
Labels: books, negotiation, publishing