by wjw on October 26, 2011

Three major publishers have announced that they’re going to make sales data available to their authors.   I mean, like, wow.

Those of you unconnected with the arcane world of publishing may have assumed that sales data was always available to authors.  I mean, why wouldn’t it be?

Because publishers stood to make millions by not telling authors how many books they were selling, that’s why.

I have before me a set of royalty statements from June 2011.  These reports didn’t actually arrive last June, they arrived last week.  And they do not cover sales to June 2011, they only cover sales to December 2010.    This sort of delay is absolutely standard in our business.  So at best, I get my sales information 10-11 months late.

Another problem is that the royalty statement is difficult to decipher.   It doesn’t give me actual sales, it gives me the figure for (sales) – (reserves against returns).  Publishers allow sellers to return unsold books for a full refund, so publishers insist on the right to reserve a part of the money in case the books come back.

I’ve heard of reserves of up to 85%.  So basically publishers

  • Reserve the right to keep up to 85% of the author’s money, for

  • As long as they feel like it

Now eventually the money does get released to the author, usually over dribs and drabs that can string out over years.

And not only does the information (and the royalties) arrive late, but there’s no objective way to correlate these figures with reality.  The numbers are the numbers because the publisher says they’re the numbers.  They could be making them up out of nothing— and there are those who suspect that this is exactly what they’re doing.  And how many of us can afford forensic accountants who can determine that the numbers actually are the numbers?

This put authors at a severe disadvantage when it came to negotiating with publishers.  The publisher’s opening line at every negotiation is “Sales of your last book were disappointing.”  (I’d like fifty grand for every time an editor said that to me, I’d be able not only to retire but to open a Retired Destitute Authors’ Home for all the authors who actually believed their editors when they were told this.)  My reaction to the “sales of your last book were disappointing” ploy was to say, “Well, y0u’d better get busy and sell some more copies— is your sales force incompetent or what?”  But that wasn’t how most authors responded, apparently it was more like, “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry I wrote a unworthy book, if you give me a pittance I’ll try to do better next time, pleeeeease?”

I mean, editors don’t just lie for the fun of it.  They lie when there’s money involved, like everyone else.

My attitude was pretty much borne out when I finally got the sales figures, years later, which showed that my sales figures were just fine, thank-you-very-much.

This was the situation even when computers entered the situation.  When every sale by every major retailer was recorded the instant it was made, still the figures were getting to the authors years late. What was the holdup?  The problem was that the publishers were keeping the money for as long as they felt like it, and keeping sales figures to themselves.

And then Nielsen Bookscan arrived in 2001.  Bookscan reported more or less instantly on something like 70% of retail sales in the U.S., and provided the data weekly to their subscribers.  But at first they only sold their service to publishers, which served to reinforce the publishers’  monopoly of information.  After threats of lawsuits and I-don’t-remember-what, they finally opened their service to anyone— but still, a Bookscan subscription cost a fair amount of money, and most authors did without.

And then, in 2010, came the saviour— none other than Amazon!  Amazon bought the Bookscan figures and made them available to any author who was willing to join Amazon Author Central, which you can do with a few clicks of the mouse and at no cost to yourself.  I now have updated information every single week, along with information about exactly where my books are being sold.

(And may I just say, Way to go, Utah! Your devotion to my work does you credit.  And as for you guys in West Virginia . . . well, try stopping by a bookstore every now and then, will you?)

Now, I have in the past said some possibly uncomplimentary things about Amazon, like how they want to rule the world an’ stuff.  But I should give them credit where credit is due.  This is a great thing for authors.

Now, it may be that Amazon is not doing this entirely out of the goodness of their heart, that they want authors to like them, because they want all those authors in their new publishing branch.  Which is fine.

So now three major publishers, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Random House, are going to let authors actually see their sales figures.  This is sort of like opening the vaults at Fort Knox after Goldfinger has already vanished over the horizon with his fleet of trucks, but I appreciate the gesture anyway, because it may just signal a paradigm shift.

It may mean that publishers have realized that the situation is so dire that they and their authors have to band together in the name of survival.

On the other hand, my cynical self can’t help but notice that this is happening against a background of declining sales.  “Look,” they may be telling authors, “your sales figures really do suck.  We really have to give you less money now.

Still, this is worthy of celebration.  Publishers— some, anyway— have decided to give authors the information they should have made available all along.


Oz October 26, 2011 at 10:17 am

The CPA in me says “about damned time.” Lack of accountability and self-policing are not good things. They really eventually gave authors what was due them? Really? Part of me snorts in disbelief. The whole reason there are audited financial statements (as the result of various court cases) is to stop nonsense like royalty statements, to make them consistent. Not necessarily perfect, not necessarily easily understood, but consistent and comparable across companies. I suspect there was also some sliding scale of accuracy involved. As in, best-selling authors got better information because they could afford lawyers who might sue and cause changes across the entire industry. I have itched for years to get my little accounting brain inside one of these companies and see how it’s done.

Oz October 26, 2011 at 10:25 am

And in case there’s a confusion about my comment above, audited financials have nothing to do with royalty statements (except royalty costs are a small part of them). My point was that there should have been a similar independent verification of author sales donkey’s years ago, that evolved, just as independently audited financials have. Computerized independent information that is readily available to the rescue.

Ted October 26, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I mean, editors don’t just lie for the fun of it.

Sometimes I wonder.

John Appel October 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Whoa! I think the horse just learned to sing.

One wonders how much better off the publishing industry (and the entire publishing ecosystem) if this kind of transparency had been available all along. Seems to me that history is littered with the wreckage of companies that tried to survive by this kind of obfuscation and chicanery.

wjw October 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

That’s something I’ve always wondered, too. It’s one thing to lie to people for your own advantage, it’s another to believe the lies yourself.

Ralf The Dog October 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Why would you trust the numbers they publish? It is their job to publish FICTION.

TCWriter October 26, 2011 at 11:07 pm

It may mean that publishers have realized that the situation is so dire that they and their authors have to band together in the name of survival.

It’s possible that 25 years in marketing have made me cynical, but I’d guess this has less to do with banding together for mutual survival than it does a progressiveness enforced by a sudden availability of the data elsewhere — and the fact that writers now have a lot more choices.

In other words, they weren’t your buddies before they were.

Florin Pîtea October 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

“Well, y0u’d better get busy and sell some more copies— is your sales force incompetent or what?” – I think that is my favorite line from one of my favorite writers. 😀

Ken Houghton October 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Wait…they have bookstores in West Virginia?

Ralf The Dog October 27, 2011 at 3:03 pm

@ Ken Houghton,

Wait… They have bookstores left anywhere in the United States?

DensityDuck October 27, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Why would you expect writers to make any money? After all, everyone knows that writers are poor and don’t make money (except for people who write books that are sold in airports, but those books are crap.)

Jason Williams October 31, 2011 at 7:31 am

First, I would like to point out that we have never held back against returns. It’s not even in our contract. We’re not all evil.

Second, the Bookscan thing has created a mess. This last royalty period, I had to have long conversations with at least six agents, three of whom have decades in the field, because they were confused by Bookscan numbers.

Bookscan number have absolutely nothing to do with your royalties. Your royalties are based on copies sold by your publisher into sales channels. Bookscan reports sales from those channels. So while it’s nice to have some vague idea of how the book is doing once out in the world, that’s all it is. If I sell 5000 copies of your book into the wild, that’s what your royalty report will show. Bookscan will show an indication of how well that book is selling from the people I sold it to.

Where it gets to be a mess is in an instance like Borders. Every one of those six conversations with agents was because the Bookscan numbers were showing wildly higher numbers than the royalty reports. And yes, if I sell 5000 copies of a book to Borders in December, and they start selling all their inventory at 90% off in March, you’re gonna see huge sales spikes in Bookscan. But it doesn’t change that they’re just selling the 5000 copies they bought the prior December.

Short version: Bookscan reports what the bookstores sell. It doesn’t report what your publisher sold the bookstore in the first place, and that’s what you get paid royalties on.

wjw November 4, 2011 at 5:24 am

Jason, the Night Shade contract is indeed a model. And y0u gotta ask, if a medium-sized publisher like Night Shade can survive without reserves against returns, what’s the problem with, say, Penguin?

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