Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

It’s All About the Pie

Every time the debate over the legitimacy of epublishers erupts within RWA (which it seems to do with frightening regularity of late), there’s always speculation about why the debates get so heated. Or, more accurately, why the folks who are published by ‘recognized’ publishers who offer advances that suit RWA’s guidelines get so fired up and snippy when epublished authors pipe up and say they’re quite all right with the “no advance, higher royalty rate” model.

I’ve heard a lot conspiracy theories suggesting that the outrage isn’t directed so much at the payment model as at the content of the books. Specifically, a lot of epublished authors speculate that the contingent that’s “out to get” them either a) hates “those books” (erotic romance) and/or b) thinks their books are just not good (which is why they haven’t been able to land a NY contract).

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t SOME of this attitude out there. But the reality is, I think, that most of the authors who are vocally in favor of RWA holding the line on its publisher recognition standards1 have far more personal reasons for holding their beliefs. I really don’t think they care that much what other writers are writing or whether it’s any good or not.

What they are fearful of is the possibility that their publishers will be the next to hop on the “no advance” train. And that hits them right in the pocketbook, which, let’s face it, is almost everyone’s most personal space. (To support this statement, I observe that authors, in general, are much more willing to share dirty secrets about their sex lives than tell you how much they earned on their last book! Talking about money is pretty much taboo in the publishing world. Which is a shame, because if we could actually ferret out a realistic picture of how much authors earn under each model, we wouldn’t be arguing based on assumptions.)

The authors who are accustomed to and have benefitted from the advance model are naturally wary of any payment structure that doesn’t guarantee them a minimum income stream for their work. They also believe, not without justification, that a larger advance translates into greater publisher support in the form of marketing, promotion, etc. If their publishers stopped paying up front for their work and didn’t have to guarantee a minimum rate of return on the sale of their books to make a profit, would they still put as much effort and support behind marketing and promoting it?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think anyone does. But I do think that whatever the model–be it an advance+royalties or royalties only–the publisher benefits when books sell well. This is just as true for e-only publishers as it is for traditional print publishers. The more copies sold, the better the publisher’s profit. Period.

Moreover, for traditional NY print publishers, there’s really no benefit to NOT marketing the books they put out because the profit model depends on volume–the more books are sold, the more profit there is to be made. Whether or not the author is paid in advance for the book’s content, the “packaging” of that content requires a significant upfront investment on the part of the publisher, and the publisher is going to make a better return on that investment if the book sells well than if it doesn’t.

So I don’t necessarily believe that if print publishers started paying authors on a model similar to that used by most epublishers, the result would be an abrupt change in the way those publishers market and promote their authors books. And those authors who are regularly hitting the New York Times/USA Today bestseller lists would almost certainly have the clout to continue to demand those six and seven figure advances. By the same token, it’s entirely possible that newer and/or midlist authors might actually find it beneficial to be paid based on actual copies sold (especially if the royalty percentage were higher and returns were somehow capped/limited) because the pressure to earn out the advance in order to get that next contract would be considerably less.

But of course, this is all just speculation. I think authors who are accustomed to receiving advances are frightened of the possible repercussions if the no-advance model becomes “legitimate.” And I can’t really blame them for that. It’s working for them. It’s what they know. Why would they want to risk lending approval to a different model with such an uncertain outcome?

Well, here’s why: Because that model doesn’t work for very many of RWA’s members.

Advances (and nice ones much bigger than $1,000) might be the way we’d all like to be paid for our work, but realistically, only a small minority of RWA’s 10,000 members have gotten multiple, advance-paying contracts from NY houses. I believe roughly 20% of RWA’s members are currently considered “published” by the organization, but the rules for qualification have changed enough over the years that there’s no way of telling what percentage of those members are still actively contracted by advance-paying publishers. (Right now, I am one of the 20% who qualifies as “published” but I’m between contracts. And I will continue to qualify as such whether I sell another book to a advance-paying publisher or not.) In other words, of that 20% who qualify as published, there’s only an even smaller subset of authors who are actively continuing to be contracted and paid under the advance model.

Which means that well OVER 80% of RWA members aren’t in any way benefitting from the “preferred” method of earning income on their writing. It is, in my estimation, 100% true that the “real” money in publishing is made by authors who write for the big NY houses and receive advances for their books, but it is also true that there is more money to be made in epublishing than in not being published at all. Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, the author who contracts her book with a reputable epublisher is earning 100% more income from writing than an author whose books are just taking up space on her hard drive. And to deny that is to be blindered to the reality that NOT EVERY BOOK and NOT EVERY AUTHOR is NY material.

It wasn’t that long ago that NY and a few small print presses were pretty much the entire pie when it came to publishing. If you couldn’t get a contract from those places, you were sunk. But now, we have epublishers making the pie bigger. One of the ways they’re able to increase the size of the pie is by publishing books that don’t have a market in NY but do have a market.

So rest assured, advance-receiving, multi-NY-contracted authors…those of us who epublish aren’t trying to steal any of your pie. We’re just taking our slices from a different part of the expanding pie. And that is something we should be celebrating, not denigrating.

Because a bigger pie means more for everyone, not just the limited, lucky few.
1RWA will only “recognize” a publisher and grant them workshop space and editor appointments at the National conference if the publisher pays a minimum advance of $1,000 on every manuscript contracted. This doesn’t mean that all publishers that DON’T offer an advance are considered vanity or subsidy publishers, or that authors who publish with them can’t be recognized as published under RWA’s rules. It’s important to understand this distinction, since confusion between PUBLISHER recognition and AUTHOR recognition is rampant and leads to a great deal more ill will.


  • ArkansasCyndi June 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Excellent comments, Jackie. I think you’re hitting the nail on the head about why some people are against the “no advance/higher royalties.”

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  • Carly Carson June 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Interesting post. I can’t help wondering if some writers don’t think the pie won’t increase (readers will only spend x on books, regardless of how they’re published). So, the thinking would be, if those pesky epub writers would go away, maybe there would be more NY contracts available. It’s all supply and demand. It’s amazing to think that possibly 80% of RWA’s members don’t fit within the RWA “publishing model”.


  • Arwen June 27, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    This was a very insightful post, Jackie. Thank you. I think you are right in that there is some fear going on.

    And I think it is on both sides.

    The Digitally-pubbed only folk fear the print folk look down their noses.

    The print folk fear the digitally-pubbed will take a piece of an already slimming pie.

    And fear makes us all do and say some crazy “chit, man”. Crazy.

    I hope we can all discuss this rationally and without the fear-based reactions I’ve seen on several other blogs.

  • Monica Burns June 27, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Great Post, Jackie!! Logical and thoughtfully presented.

    The interesting thing about that pie is that some might see it not as the pie itself getting larger, but the slices getting smaller. BIG difference.

    I see it more as the slices getting smaller, BUT with greater opportunity for more writers to break in and see if they can’t climb up the ladder to the USA or NYT list.

    Of course, it’s all about perception. So glad Delle Jacobs pointed out your post. Nicely done.


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