Publishers and Money

A friend in publishing sent me an email saying he felt my blog entitled Do Publishers Owe Us More was unfair. You might recall that I suggested that publishers had an obligation to print books exposing social problems even if those books might not be profitable.
“70 % of all books published do not earn back their advances,” my friend wrote. “What other business operates with those losses? To incur more losses – regardless of the importance of the subject matter – would further weaken the industry.”
I’ve always been suspicious of that 70% figure.  Here’s why.
My first book, FAMILY OF SPIES: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring, had several publishers bidding on it because the Walker case was the biggest spy scandal since Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Bantam bought the book for $250,000.  In the book business, this is known as an “Advance on Royalties.” It means the publisher is advancing the author these funds to write a book. If the book sells sufficient numbers to pay back that advance, then the author also will get royalties.
But first, the author has to pay back that $250,000 from his/her share of book sales.
The hardback edition of Family of Spies sold 14,490 copies. (Most nonfiction books sell around 12,000 copies.)  As the author, I earned a royalty rate that varied according to how many copies were sold. All together, those 14,490 copies earned me $35,169.
That figure — all $35,169 – was deducted from my $250,000 advance, which meant that I still owed Bantam $214,831.
Next came the paperback edition. Family of Spies sold 164,332 copies, which earned me $86,533.
That $86,533 was deducted from what I still owed.  That left me with a debt – on paper — of $128,298.
Put simply, according to the royalty report that Bantam sent to me, Family of Spies lost the publisher $128,298.  They had paid me $250,000 and I’d only been able to pay back $121,702. Clearly, the book fell into that 70% loser category.
Or did it?
What is missing from the author’s report, are the publisher’s earning figures. When Family of Spies was published, Bantam was earning about $8 on hardbacks and $2 on paperbacks. This was the profit after all expenses — except author advances – were deducted.
This means that those 14,490 hardbacks earned Bantam $115,920   ($8 times 14,490.)  The 164,332 paperbacks at $2 each earned it $328.664.
Overall, Bantam earned a total of  $444,584 from hardback and paperback sales, and when you subtract my $250,000 advance from that figure, Bantam pocked $194,584.
Do you see the difference?
If you look at the author’s royalty report, Family of Spies was a big loser because I still owe Bantam $128,296.
But if you look at the publisher’s books, Family of Spies earned $194,584 and was a good investment.
Hence my skepticism.
A recent poll showed that 86 % of Americans thought they could write a book and that their life was worth writing about in a book.
If you are working on a book, especially one about mental illness, I am thrilled and I honestly hope you will get it published. The same is true if you are writing a novel.
But please note that I do not offer advice to anyone about getting a manuscript published. People write to me each week asking for help with their manuscripts. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer any to you. I do not recommend agents. I do not recommend publishers. I do not offer advice about writing.  Nor do I read/edit sample chapters.
I will wish you luck and hope that you get your manuscript published, but that wish is all that I can give you.
Have a great weekend.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • davealmeida

    If 70% of all books published do not earn back their advances, then I would argue that the publishing industry is using a pretty shaky set of standards for vetting what to publish. Perhaps, instead of concluding that losses would increase by agreeing to publish more under the same criteria, the industry as a whole needs to be better connected with its customers.

  • dottimckee

    Pete, I share your skepticism with the publishers. I have several friends who have 'self published' their books which are not be printed until they are ordered, thus eliminating thousands of unsold books. Sometimes a book is then picked up by a publisher. What do you think about self publishing? Thanks.

  • dottimckee

    Pete, I share your skepticism with the publishers. I have several friends who have 'self published' their books which are not be printed until they are ordered, thus eliminating thousands of unsold books. Sometimes a book is then picked up by a publisher. What do you think about self publishing? Thanks.