Once again I have been reading Twitter-complaints about the cost of indie books…. “Why buy an independent book for $15 when Grisham is $8?” is the message.
When I first entered the field of writing, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, though I knew trying to find an agent would always be an uphill battle. In that time, I’ve learned a thing or three. Among them, it’s not unusual for agents to offer to represent if you’ll completely overhaul your book to be more like the very books it’s supposed to be nothing like (in my case, “Make Juliette more like Bella Swan!” to which I said NO, and so lost some agents). After I decided to go indie so that I wouldn’t have to go against the very reasons I started writing, I learned many more things, and they all have the same message:
Even though the book industry couldn’t exist without authors, indie authors are seen as existing to make other people a lot of money and to be employers, and yet many readers think our prices aren’t worth it, even though most of us won’t break even.
Aside from the top of the top, it’s the rare author who will earn more money than those they have to pay. Unless you have people who can help and will do so for free, you can expect to pay a few grand for editing alone. It’s not uncommon for an indie author to spend upwards of $15,000 getting one title ready for publication, and promoting it. To earn that money back…let’s do some figures. I’m going to use my real figures.
A print copy of Sacred Blood costs $5.69, not including any of the shipping, which works out to another dollar per book. So $6.69. My book is listed at $16.99. Right now, Amazon pockets 35% of that. I get $11.04 per book sold. Sounds sweet, right? Profit! Ah, take out the $6.69, and I’m down to $4.35. I’m taxed on the entire $16.99, can write off the printing, shipping, and fee to Amazon, but still get back less than the taxes (as an indie, the list price is seen as income, and the cut Amazon takes is treated as me being the boss paying Amazon). It’s about $4 in taxes, after all is said and done. There’s my profit margin. 35 cents. If I wasn’t lucky enough to have people who can edit for me, and help with any tech work, that would be gone too, and I’d be in the hole. But since I do some promotional events, I’m in the hole anyway.
If you go to Amazon and by my book through them instead of through Vancouver Independent Publishing, I get even less. Amazon undercut my list price, and I get a minuscule royalty for it, “after printing costs” that as inflated. I don’t see any return on books shipped from Amazon, and I have no say in Amazon listing my books as sold by them.
If a big bookstore will carry your book, they get a discount off the list price, typically 65%. I’d get $5.94, and since the shipping would be on them, this means I get 35 cents. Again. I’m rich! Hundreds and hundreds of hours of writing and editing has paid off! Oh, but I have to give it all back if they decide not to shelve the books, and to instead return them. I could easily end up in the hole.
E-books aren’t much better. A price of $2.99 gets me $1.04 since I won’t agree to letting Amazon be the ONLY place people can get books. Since I’ll send them myself, I don’t qualify for their slightly higher exclusive-distribution rate. Factor out taxes, and I’m making a couple quarters. Worse, though, is that Amazon allows people to buy and return e-books without question. This has resulted in many people treating Amazon like a library. Every author I know of has had people buy and return books. On the tax end, we have to pay taxes since it’s still seen as a sale. A return is a loss, but with the way it all works, we don’t get all the taxes back. Every returned e-book means money we have to pay, on top of having to give back our scant royalty.
Now I had accepted this as the way things are. I know authors with sales in the tens of thousands of units who are still struggling to get by with other full-time jobs because of how much it costs to be an author. But then I learned another way we are seen as a source of income for others, rather than as a vital component of the industry.
I was turned on to the idea of audiobooks. I looked into the main company that distributes audiobooks. You’ve probably heard of it (hint: It starts with “Aud” and ends in “ible”), and I guarantee you’ve heard of its parent company (hint: I’ve mentioned it in this post). There are two ways an author can pay for an audiobook, and so it sounds sweet. One is to pay per finished hour, which is quite expensive. Some narrators want as much as $1,000 per hour, meaning a 10hr-audiobook will cost the author $10,000. Ouch, I can’t afford that! Most want $250-$500 per. $2,500-$5,000 is still more than I can afford. So on to the other way. Royalty-share! If you share royalties with a narrator instead, you each get 20% of the list price of the audiobook. Right off the bat, this is a better deal for the narrator. For doing much less work, they get as much as the author. But at least it’s an option for the author.
Better still, royalty-sharing means a partnership. Both author and narrator have a stake in helping promote since neither get paid if they can’t drum up interest. I am a fan of teamwork. So this idea greatly appealed to me.
I started looking into narrators on the royalty program. I approached several. Even though the service says per hour OR royalties, what I found was narrator after narrator wanting both. On the low end, $2,500 plus royalties. On the upper end, some wanted $10,000 plus royalties. The service doesn’t even list this as an option when making an offer to a narrator (and the offers have to come from the author side). This turned me off. What incentive does the narrator have to help with any promotion? They’ll have received tons of money, and no it’s all passive on their end since I’ll be doing all the promotion and giving them half of what I get. This puts the author in a position of giving a lot of money up front, then giving the labor of promotion, then giving half of all earnings that result of that labor without anything further on the part of the narrator to earn it. This is the author literally working for the narrator.
I sent an email to the service about this, and the reply I received claimed first that this is all just a part of narrator and author negotiating. I fired back that not only would this actually require payment outside the service with no protection for the authors, but that authors don’t have the ability to adjust the share of royalty to compensate for someone also wanting thousands of dollars on the side. The reply I received was that they have no way of knowing which narrators require payment outside the service, which actually is against the rules.
At this point, I wanted to bang my head against my keyboard. It’s all right there in the messages. They can read them. They can see who is requiring payment in a way that is against the rules, but they won’t. The service is protecting the narrators at the expense of great risk to authors. This also means that narrators have the right to higher earnings the authors who spend hundreds of hours, or more, on each book. Authors are a source of revenue to the narrators. Our own books aren’t revenue to us. We write to profit other people more than we can hope to profit ourselves, or to even break even.
At the end of the day, writing is an act of love. Most of us will never break even. We write because we both love writing, and believe that it’ll somehow pay off one day, even if the pay-off is nothing more than breaking even. My books have changes a few lives in great ways (two women identified abuse in their relationships, found self-worth, and got away, and a man understood why victims don’t just leave), which has tremendous value to me. However, when I can’t break financially even, it means putting out the next book is harder. If I don’t have the money to get things done, get books printed, then that means no more books. I’m in the fortunate position of having a spouse who earns enough to support us, and who supports the money going into this financial black hole that is writing, but it’s still not easy, and can be hard to justify.
And then people complain about the cost of books, especially how much indie authors charges since surely we can’t have the same expenses as authors who are represented by agents with books printed by the big hitters! The truth is we don’t have the same expenses. We have more. We have the expenses the big publishing houses pay instead of the authors. That’s all on us. And, unlike us indies, agented authors whose books are handled by big publishing are only taxed on their royalties since they’re seen as being paid by the publisher. I get taxed on $16.99, while they, if a book lists at that, sells at that, and they get 10%, are taxed on $1.69. Re-read above to see how I don’t actually see anywhere near $16.99, and see less profit per book, if I break even.
Readers, PLEASE, for the love if the written word, don’t expect us to compete with the prices of books by big names. Those big names have it easy. They don’t have the expenses we do. Someone else pays for the editing, the covers, the formatting, printing, distribution, everything, and even though their own royalty may be 20%, since 100% of the list price isn’t treated as income, they come out ahead, book for book, even when you buy a book for 40% off at Barnes & Noble. All that stuff that’s handled on their behalf if what we indies must pay for, and is more work we must do. We have to do it on our own, and competing, price-wise, would put us in the hole more than we already are.
Please understand that we all know we’re going to be lucky to keep our necks above water, but we all take the financial risk because we want to share our stories with the world. We do this as a labor of love for you, the very group most likely to complain about what we charge. I’m begging you, on behalf of all the indie authors out there, to think about what you’re getting for what we’re giving. We are like the rock artists who haven’t sold out. Many of us are indie because we refuse to sell out (like the agents wanting me to revamp my anti-Bella into a Bella-clone), because we want to give you something different. Our work may not always be the shiniest of the shiny, but we also can’t afford the $10,000-editors and the $5,000-cover artists. We do the best with what we have, and we do it for you. You can say we write for ourselves, and that’s true but only to an extent. At the end of the day, we have stories we want to share–with you. Those of us who write anything for ourselves keep that writing in a folder on our computer, or in a notebook somewhere (I’ve got more words written for myself that the world will never see). Those of us who publish publish for you. If you think our prices are too high, please spare us the ache we feel when you tell us, and just head on out to Barnes & Noble and get your discounted books.
I know some of you reading this are probably taking away the message that I’m complaining about there being any costs associated with being a writer, that I’m saying people who work for us deserve nothing. You’re actually touched on a point. These people do deserve some pay, whether it’s a fee up front or a share of royalties. Unless we’re dealing with royalties, where does the money come from to pay people? That’s right. From the pockets of the authors. Complaining that our prices are too high is saying we should get less, which means less to pay those people. If we’re lucky to break even as it is (and again most of us are far from it), how can we pay anyone on even less? I personally couldn’t do it at all without the people I know who are willing to gift their time to me in support of my writing. Most writers aren’t so lucky.
If you value the craft of writing, please give some thought to what we put into each and every book, from the time writing to the costs out of pocket to our accepting that we are the bottom-feeders in an industry that depends on us for its existence. What you get for the price really is much more than you pay. You’re getting a piece of our hearts that we give knowing we likely will never get out of the hole, and we do it out of love for telling you our stories.