I was reading a public mountaineering forum this morning and was struck by some comments made to a writer about his book, which he had posted in the forum. The author was a member of Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR), and some people on the forum questioned his character in regard to writing a book about his experiences and not explicitly pledging a portion of the profits to SAR. Below is my response.
People seem to have a lot of misconceptions about the business side of the publishing industry. The fact is, if you work with a publisher, and they get your book into stores, the retailer keeps at least 40% of the money when they sell one of your books. Some of the big box retailers take 55% or more. That’s right: If you write a book and Walmart sells it for $20, they get $11. Of the remaining $9, the publisher takes 85-90% – so up to $8.10 – for editing, layout, printing, marketing, sales, and distribution. That leaves between 90 cents (worst case) and $1.80 (best case) for the author for each $20 book sold.
This is no different than any other business that provides a product or service: The individual contributor generally gets a small percentage of what you pay for an item. Case in point: When I taught college, my students were paying collectively $15,000 a week for my classes. I was definitely not making $15,000 a week. Think about your own jobs and what people are paying for what you create or provide, and ultimately, how much of that actually ends up in your paycheck. REI takes 40% or more of every book they sell, and they take similar percentages if not more for all other items they sell. This is Business 101, folks, so if you want to make money at something you need to learn the business side of whatever industry you jump into.
Back to publishing… What the author stated in his original post — about not making a lot of money off each book sale — is true for what he refers to as “non-fiction niche market” books, and it’s also true for any other book that gets written and published. If you want to make a million dollars, you have to write a book that a million people will buy. You can bypass the big publishers and self-publish, but then you have to do all the other stuff – editing, layout, printing, marketing, sales, and distribution – yourself, and if you’re a writer you don’t want to spend time doing that crap, you just want to write. Also, all that stuff costs money, too, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper (per book) for a big publisher to get 10,000 books printed than it is for a self-published author to get 1,000 books printed. And who wants to manage that inventory? I don’t. Amazon Kindle is a great option for self-publishing, by the way, and they give you a large percentage of the sale price, but you will have to invest some time into learning about online marketing to promote your work, and then actually doing the marketing, or no one will know it’s out there.
If you hear stories of people getting $100,000 advances on their books, it’s because the publisher is confident they’ll sell 100,000 books the first year or two that the book is out. They don’t actually pay them to write the book, they give them this money upfront, which counts against future royalties on books sold. Make sense?
Most people who are in the business of book-writing as a career use the books to establish themselves as experts in their fields, and leverage that for paying jobs, or they do the book tour circuit, with paid speaking engagements, where they usually also sell and sign their books (they can get them directly from the publisher, bypassing the retailer and thus getting a bigger cut). Either way, they are still working. Personally, I am an extreme introvert (borderline recluse), and so the thought of speaking engagements makes my skin crawl, but I occasionally do them anyway and then I go home exhausted and think “Wow, that was fun, maybe I’ll do another one – in ten years.” But there are authors who really enjoy them, and who do them well, and who make a career out of them. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called a job.
Writers seldom talk about this stuff, because we often get smug comments like, “I would never write a book, then,” and all I can say to that is, “You’re right, you would never write a book, because if the only reason you would write a book is for financial gain, then you’re not a writer.” Actually, they would never write a book because few people would actually devote the time and energy it takes to start and finish a book. The author mentioned he spent 1,000 hours on his book, and I would agree, having spent between 1,000 and 2,000 hours on each of my own books. It is a crap-ton of work, and most writers do it while they’re also working full time jobs. As I stated on another thread, I regularly put in 80-100 hour workweeks for four years writing books.
Before you criticize, or think to yourself, “What a waste of time,” think about how this compares to mountaineering.
You know how when you go to work on Monday morning and tell your cubemate that you slogged ten miles in thigh-deep snow over the weekend to the top of a 14,000-foot mountain and you stood up there all by yourself watching the sun come up and light up the peaks for a hundred miles around and they look at you like you’re nuts and say something stupid like, “I would never climb a mountain. You couldn’t pay me to do that. What a waste of time.”
They’re right, they would never climb a mountain, not so much because they wouldn’t get paid to climb a mountain, but more because they would never drag their ass out of bed early enough to drive two hours to a trailhead in the dark and put on all those layers and haul themselves and their pack through all that snow to the top of that peak.
And they’ll never know what it was like to stand up there, like you did.
That’s how it feels when someone tells me they’ll never write a book because it’s a waste of time.
One final note: As far as donating a portion of your royalties to charity, considering what most writers make that’s a ridiculous request, but I’ve been asked the same thing numerous times. I even had a TV station call and ask me to do an interview for them, and they would promote my books, if I agreed to donate some of my earnings to charity. When asked about my charitable contributions, I usually give some P.C., B.S. response.
Here’s what I would like to say:
“How much of my earnings do I donate to charity? Well, let me ask you that same question, how much of your earnings do you donate to charity?”
While they’re standing there with a puzzled look on their face, I would continue…
“Wait, I really don’t want you to answer that question. Do you know why?
“Because it’s none of my damned business.”
Climb on… and write on, too!
One thought on “Why Don’t More Authors Give a Portion of Their Royalties to Charity?”
Susan, thanks for your very thoughtful comments on this touchy subject. My book “The Adventure Gap” has been out for just over a year now and I have yet to see a dime in royalties as my publisher has yet to sell enough copies to pay off the advance I was originally granted to write it. So it’s safe to say that none of my royalties have been donated to charity. Now that having been said because I have the ability to purchase copies of my book at a discount from my publisher I’ve had the opportunity to by-pass the traditional retail model and sell them direct to the public either online or at signing events. Because I earn a significantly higher margin for each copy sold I can afford to set aside a small portion of the profits to a scholarship fund through the National Outdoor Leadership School.
These days I don’t know how anyone makes a living just writing books. The trick is learning how to sell them. With the added income of speaking fees and paid magazine and newspaper articles based on the topics detailed in my book, upon which I am now apparently an expert, I’ve been able carve out a modest existence as a professional writer with the prospects of publishing another book in the forseeable future. But like anyone who generates capitol in the world it’s up to each of us to decide whether or not to pay our success forward in the interests of those less fortunate. It is indeed no one’s business what we do with the money we make, however if the idea that a portion of the purchase will go to some charity will help boost sales I say why the hell not?
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