Three Things I’d Like to See #1

#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As it is now, most authors have to wait six months for a printed, snail-mailed royalty statement that’s filled with outdated information that’s mired in financial gobbledygook their own agents can’t decipher.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.

Publishers Respond

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.)

11 thoughts on “Three Things I’d Like to See #1

  1. nicolagriffith

    Information is power. Publishers don’t like to share information with writers. Their mindset is frozen somewhere around 1950. (They write the cheques therefore they believe they call the shots; we’re peons, not partners.) They don’t like to discuss print runs, publicity and marketing plans or budgets, or shipment/order numbers. I’m sorry to say that I think a few will have to go bankrupt before they figure out this brave new world. Sigh.

    Reply
  2. KateDouglas

    Pat, Your blog could not have been more timely for me-my royalty check for the period from January to June is due next week, a payment time frame that seems like a lifetime ago-and as usual I haven’t got a clue how much to expect. It’s definitely frustrating, and the lack of information impacts promotion as well as bargaining on future contracts. We are definitely at the bottom of the
    food chain in this business.

    Reply
  3. tinatessina

    Hear, hear! As an author of 13 books published in 16 languages, I’d LOVE to see online royalty statements! I’m so tired of being the last to know (one of my books was published in Chinese, one in Portuguese this year sometime, and I didn’t find out until my author copies arrived.)

    We’re talking all things romance at the Dr. Romance Blog http://drromance.typepad.com/dr_romance_blog/

    Reply
  4. Amanda Kelly

    Once upon a long-ago time, I stumbled over a POD publisher that did this. They provided a username and password to their authors for a section of their website so authors could go in whenever they so chose and look at a detailed rundown of their sales, with their total sales and total royalties listed plainly. Alongside this they also issued periodical royalty statements.

    In my opinion, it’s an incredibly useful tool, and I just don’t understand why the trade publishers can’t do it too. Granted, the publisher in question that I saw was a self-publisher, but they seem to have proven the idea’s ability to operate as a viable system, and kudos to them for it.

    Reply
  5. suzannewhite

    How heartening to know that some other authors out there are as aware as I of the intentional opacity of publishers’ accountings.

    No. They do not wish to discuss print runs, marketing plans, publicity budgets or shipment/order numbers. We are not only peons. We are the parents of our books whose children have been kidnapped and are trapped in an unfriendly orphanage. We don’t even have visitation rights -much less get paid what is due us for renting out our offspring for life. How are to we to know how many kids were sold to whom at what discount? How are we to know if a child becomes redundant and goes out of print? When one of our children is no longer of any use to them, do they revert the rights to the parent? No. They just warehouse them. And leave us to worry about them not being available forever after.

    Book publishers dared tell Pat Holt that electronic online sales updates would cost a lot of money to establish. That’s evidence of their ignorance. Or else it’s a lie. (I vote for #2) Surely, if they provided online reports for us all to consult monthly, they would be able to lay off some accounting people and can a few secretaries who send out those envelopes every six months. You don’t have to pay health benefits for a computer.

    My own books are published all over the world. Publishers the same everywhere. A conspiracy against the laity (that’s us). Too busy to send out your royalty statements and checks because they are just getting ready for Frankfurt of the Paris book Salon was only last week or they have to rush off to the conference which nowadays passes for the ABA. French publishers render their phony accounts once a year – usually 60 days late. (Le Salon of course has a very strong back) I have taken to sending them a bill. The Chinese won’t answer mail. The Germans send out accounts twice a year but they never sell anything. Bertelsmann has produced and sold my book for over ten years. But according to my royalty statements, they have never sold any.

    I am on the pitchfork committee at suzanwhite@aol.com. Of course organizing a manifestation of authors to carry weapons through the streets of NY would be a life’s work. But thanks to Pat Holt, this is a start. Let’s make our desire for online sales reports known. Got any author friends? Let’s send ‘em a pitchfork and the url of this blog.

    Reply
  6. suzannewhite

    Thing is, we authors have long since booked passage on your “Titanic” and have been obliged to put up with the lousy dinner service for too many years. That’s why we’re focusing on the lag in royalty information. We don’t feel sorry for the publishing industry’s current difficulties. Nobody can stop the damn thing sinking. But even if it only exists for five or ten more years, we still want to know about sales and foreign publishing deals and we still want to be paid on time. Business is, after all, business.

    Reply
  7. JoeCottonwood

    Just before reading this post, I was checking my royalty figures online. As Amanda indicated, the POD publishers are leading the way on this – probably because they’re already digitally savvy. I use BookSurge. My royalty statement is updated daily and shows how many copies were sold each day. When you’re handling your own publicity, it’s great to see instant royalty feedback on what works and what fails.

    Reply
  8. sync2pcs

    Uh… My comment was posted and then deleted. Pretty sure I didn’t swear or violate terms of service, and a response to it is still listed so I know I didn’t dream it. Reposting in case it was an error:

    Evolution can be painful and success isn’t always guaranteed. Publishing has been under siege for a very long time and is probably going to be brought to its knees by the current (and just-beginning) economic crisis. Reading in this society has fallen off a cliff, replaced by sound bites, TV, games, smart phones and other devices that don’t require thought or sustained attention. People used to grab a book for companionship, for the doctor’s office wait, for the ride into work but now there’s texting; find out what your buddies had for breakfast! Instantly comment on the white-boots-black-pants hideousness of the woman standing 2 feet from you on the train…. We all want to write but we’ve lost the desire to read. That’s so self-indulgent and also exactly where we are as a society: we talk, but we don’t listen. We’ve lost so much in the industry — editors that work with authors, houses that nurture careers, literature that was great *and* profitable — but we have to recognize that it’s demand-driven, i.e. a slightly time-delayed mirror image of the world we live in. What’s a publisher to do? People are reading less and less. Fewer books are selling. The entire cost structure is an anachronism. Books, newspapers and magazines are all in the same boat, sliding slowly towards oblivion. I think we’ll eventually end up nearly exclusively digital and print-on-demand or print-at-home because that’s the only financially viable structure. At that point, of course, information will be instantaneous and there will be no excuse for authors to be in the dark about royalties. In fact, at that point there’s no reason not to self-publish, period. But to focus on the lag in royalty information at this point in this industry is to complain about the dinner service on the Titanic.

    Reply
  9. johnnyd48

    I worked as a staff editor at four different New York houses over a period of more than twenty years so I think I can speak with some knowledge.

    Publishers do not want authors to know too much about what happens with their book in terms of sales, returns, etc. because, among other things, writers who have accurate knowledge of the performance of their books will not put up with the endemic and institutionalized withholding of income from authors disguised as reserve for returns and “the foreign money payment didn’t arrive during the current reporting period so you’ll have to wait another six months–plus the standard three month delay before we actually issue the report, to lay hands on any of that income.”

    It’s called “float” and it’s a lot of what publishers live on while they’re waiting for their accounts to pay them, months and months after they spent the money on printing and shipping.

    You could call it a house of cards or you could call it criminal fraud, depending on your point of view and your spot in the food chain.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Bookstore People · Excellent Thoughts on the Demise of Book Publishing

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