#1: ONLINE ROYALTY ACCOUNTS FOR AUTHORS
(Note: This seems like an obvious next step for the book industry, although publishers hit the roof when I’ve shown it to them, as you’ll see. — Pat)
If you were an author, wouldn’t it be great if your publisher gave you a password to your own royalty account?
This would be an online, frequently updated, always accessible, entirely confidential page on your publisher’s website that would replace the current system.
As frequently as you wish, you could check sales of your book, the rate of returns, the percentage taken out for reserves and varying royalty rates for bulk sales, special sales, premium sales, electronic sales, and so forth.
As it is now, most authors have to wait six months for a printed, snail-mailed royalty statement that’s filled with outdated information that’s mired in financial gobbledygook their own agents can’t decipher.
But if your royalty statement were online and you didn’t understand the accounting – and this has been the most frequent complaint I’ve heard no matter who publishes the book – a pull-down Help box would provide a virtual tour of royalty statements in general so you can learn as you go. Specific questions could be emailed directly to the royalty department and answered within days.
How Hard Could It Be?
It’s not as though publishers don’t have the information online already. I come from the Pleistocene age (publishing in the 1970s) when we all read printed spreadsheets of weekly sales reports from booksellers, wholesalers and distributors.
Nobody took these numbers as Gospel. They provided a working estimate of front-list shelf life and a way to anticipate printings before the warehouse ran out of books. This wasn’t easy in those BPC (before personal computers), BB (before Bookscan), BI (before Internet) and BMHM (before menopause hit me) times.
Yet even then I was curious, as I am today, why authors as a rule are kept in the dark about the first crucial months of their own book sales. The reasons, when given at all, always sound a bit jaded to me: The last thing a publisher wants is for an author to be given too much information, editors and accounting officers would say. Why, early data might generate phone calls from difficult authors, causing harried editors and busy sales reps to be pinned down with questions from the hinterlands.
But today surely publishers don’t want authors to struggle with unintelligible information that’s six months old, not to mention often marred by mistakes. If royalty statements stay the way they are, bogged down in nineteenth-century thinking, the industry appears to send out a negative statement: Authors, who used to be respected and honored as the driving force in publishing (i.e., the people behind all our paychecks), have been tossed to the bottom of the heap. They are expendable and replaceable, and they’ll be sorry if they make a fuss about their royalty statement.
About Those Rankings on Amazon.com
Then, too, why should publishers abdicate their power to Amazon.com of all places? Today every author in America turns to Amazon the moment his/her book is published because the only numbers available are those wildly misleading rankings one finds near the bottom half of each Amazon title page.
It is in this fantasyland that the most damaging kind of false hopes crop up. Authors are encouraged to think: Gee, my book is 172,278 – that’s pretty high considering two million titles available. And wow! Another single-copy sale just pushed my ranking up to 152,722, more than 2,000 points! That could be a sign, yes? Another couple of sales and it might be time to reprint…
Granted, authors are 21st-century products just like the rest of us – they have to monitor something. And if their publisher could provide reliable figures on a regular and timely basis, why, authors could better understand how the book business works and develop more realistic expectations.
I confess that mainstream publishers to whom I’ve broached this idea haven’t responded all that positively. ”Are you crazy?” one said. “Why, we would never do that. It would cost millions, and authors would get even more confused?” What a terrible assumption, I said. This is a service you should have provided authors years ago, and you know it. (That didn’t sit well either.)
I do know this: One day every publisher will provide royalty information online, and once that happens, it will only be a matter of time before electronic updates flow as routinely as data comes in – in other words, all day and night. At some point, we’ll all marvel at how long the old-fashioned royalty statements kept authors enslaved.
But maybe I’m the one in the Dark Ages. Perhaps publishers are out there already providing this service. Maybe authors know how it feels to check their royalty account online every day. If so, I’d love to hear from you. To paraphrase “The Tempest”: “O brave new world, that has such royalty statements in it!” Please do tell me about it.
(#2 and #3 of the Three Things will follow.)