Monday, May 14, 2007

The Numbers Game

There’s a discussion going on in a group of science fiction/fantasy authors that I belong to about whether or not the group should buy a membership to Bookscan. Nielson Bookscan ( tracks the numbers of actual books leaving bookstores that have signed up to be part of this service -- the majority of those being, to my understanding, big box chains. Right now the only people who have access to this information are publishers, who buy subscriptions.

As a lot of people have pointed out, there’s not much use in knowing these numbers. They’re not something that a writer has much power over changing. However, there is so much information that our publishers keep from us – not necessarily on purpose, but knowledge is power. Most authors, for instance, won’t talk openly about money – i.e., how much they got for an advance, how much they made in royalities – and so when one’s agent says, “Well, they’re offering $-,---“ you have no idea if blank is the fair going rate or not. You can ask your agent if the price is any good, but she’s likely to say something like, “Well, it’s what they’re offering,” and not say that she sold a similar book for twice (or half) the amount last week.

For the record, I’ve always been willing to share actual dollar figures when asked. I tell my students what I got on my first book (if only to watch their hopeful faces crumble as they ask, “Is that ALL?”)

Money is considered such a private affair that I don’t see that suddenly changing. It’s considered rude to talk about how much you made (even though lots of other professions have ways of tracking what’s a standard salary in their field). So, my feeling is if we, as authors, can get our hands on other comparative information – such as how book stores are reporting sales for books in our genre (Bookscan breaks up genre books pretty specifically – I only know because Tate’s first book, Tall, Dark & Dead made a best seller list in the sub-sub category of paranormal romance on Bookscan last year – previous to that I’d never even heard of them.) Though the numbers may be flawed (see: this Salon article: it’s at least some indication as to how your book did in comparison to others in its genre.

Yeah, okay, this information is likely to be pretty depressing for the average mid-list author like myself, but I also think it can be helpful when it comes time to hit the negotiation table (especially, if you share the information with your agent.) It might mean that some authors who were expecting to make more, find the numbers indicating they should make less, but there are other factors to consider, such as how long someone’s been writing (one’s advances should always go up a little per book) and how lucky the publishers think they might be (see article below on how publishing is just one big crap shoot.)

Keep in mind, too, that most authors don’t have a clue how their book is doing. Royalty statements tend to only come when there’s money owed the author (though they’re supposed to come regardless) and not every book earns out. And, you don’t see these except quarterly, and even then usually months after the quarter has ended. People always ask me, “How’s the book doing?” and I inevitably have to reply, “I have no idea.” The other thing access to Bookscan would give authors is a sense of how a book is doing as the publishers know…. instead of months and months later, possibly even after the publisher has decided to pull the plug on a book and remainder it.

What do you think? Would you want to know how well you’re selling?


Kelly McCullough said...

I'm personally ambivalent on this topic in terms of career management--since I'm firmly in the "there isn't really much you can DO with the info" camp, but would be interested in terms of cool data. Okay, so I'm an academic at heart. I like to learn things for the simple sake of learning them.

I do have to quibble with on thing you wrote though: one’s advances should always go up a little per book.

That should probably be: one’s advances should always go up a little per book if the books earn out.

tate said...

No, I don't think so. I think writers should get a little senority points. They do in romance.

And I've had my career tank but my advances go up a little each time. I'm not saying this DOES happen, mind you, but it should.

Kelly McCullough said...

Why? If an author isn't even earning the money the publisher gives them, why should the publisher pay them more?

It is after all an advance against expected royalties. If the expectations go down for perfectly valid reasons, i.e. the earnings and royalties don't match expectations then what is the case for increasing the advance?

To increase pay in the face of bad performance sounds like a great way for the publisher to go out of business.

Kelly McCullough said...

And I've had my career tank but my advances go up a little each time.

But that was a function of doing well enough with the first book that the contracts for the second set of books reflected increased expectations and then (when that didn't go as we would all have liked to see it go) for switching to a genre where sales expectations were much higher.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say I'm with Lyda on this one, and here's why: if the publisher is doing badly on your books, they shouldn't freeze the amount of your advances--they should drop you as an author. That they are willing to continue putting out your books means that something in their algorithm said this book was worth investing in, and to me, that means that the author's stock goes up. If they don't want to pay an increased amount because the numbers are that tight, then they shouldn't continue publishing that author. And they do. Houses are slashing their mid-lists, much to the chagrin of authors everywhere. If you don't make enough for the house, they aren't going to keep you.

Kelly McCullough said...


That they are willing to continue putting out your books means that something in their algorithm said this book was worth investing in, and to me, that means that the author's stock goes up.

How does this follow? It could just as easily mean that your books will make money for them, but only if they print half as many and correspondingly pay half as much. If that's the case, it makes perfect sense for them to make an offer based on that.

Or, more likely, it means that the editor still loves your work and wants to keep you on so you have a chance to rebuild your career, but the only way the editor can convince the publisher to go along is to either lower your advances or change your name.

Then it's your responsibility as a writer to decide whether either of those are a game you're willing to play.

lydamorehouse said...

To be fair, my pay "raises" such as they were (and, I should say, Kelly, that I'm not talking anything significant here at all) came after Archangel Protocol did really well, and then again after switching genres.

So, you may have a valid point. I probably still looked like a good bet to my publishers. We'll see what happens on the next Tate book. It may be that I'm not such a good bet any more. Then, my only hope is not to lose ground. If so, I might be tempted to go out on a limb and not accept the offer. Scary thought, though.

Kelly McCullough said...


I should probably make a distinction here between types of should.

I would love it if pay rates were more in line with the amount of work and love that goes into a book. I know how much you care about your work and how much effort you put in each new novel.
It absolutely should be possible for you or me, or any of us who are in this business to make a liviing at it, at least in the cosmic justice sense of should.

The should I was arguing against is the business case should and there it doesn't make sense to reward anything but sales, sucky as that is.