Over the last two weeks I’ve pulled aside the curtain and given you a peek into the nuts and bolts of my nascent publishing empire. I know it’s considered uncouth to talk about money. (Sometimes it’s considered dangerous, too, especially to talk about it on the internet.)
But I also know where that particular bit of etiquette came from. It’s a handy method used by the Haves to keep the Have-Nots from figuring out just how much they don’t have. Management traditionally hates it when employees talk openly about their salaries. They say it engenders ill-will and low morale, but what it really engenders is legitimate requests for raises.
Traditional publishing has been playing the same game with writers for most of a century. They keep royalty statements deliberately vague, they keep their own numbers as close to the chest as possible, and they discourage writers from discussing earnings.
And as I mentioned last week, it’s largely because of the courage of other indie writers to break that convention and share their numbers openly (on the internet, even) that I had the courage to try it at all, and that I had the information I needed to make smart business decisions along the way.
I’m going to do some of that this week. I’m not going to get into detail about all the money I’ve made so far because that’s not really an interesting story yet. But I am going to get back into the numbers on my sales chart from last week, and discuss how those sales impacted my earnings (and projections), and some of what I expect for the future.
Before I can really get into that, though, I need to take a minor diversion. That’s because, unlike Konrath and Eisler and Hocking and anyone else from the indie revolution whose numbers you might stumble across…my situation is kind of weird.
Eighteen months ago I started talking about a business plan I was toying with. I called it The Consortium. If you know me personally, you already know about the Consortium. If you’ve bought one of my books, you might have seen the name before (the listed publisher is Consortium Books). If this is the first time you’ve heard it mentioned, you should probably at least take a look at the company’s website.
Here’s the company’s mission statement:
The Consortium is a nonprofit organization based out of Oklahoma City, OK, that supports the arts by encouraging the development of local talent and generating high-quality works of art that directly benefit the community.
There’s some high phrases in there (“encouraging the development of local talent” and “works of art that directly benefit the community”), but within the larger business plan those phrases have a very specific and targeted meaning.
The company’s primary goals are twofold:
- To provide a desirable and reliable career path for working artists
- To produce new, good art into the public domain
And those two goals go hand-in-hand. The aim of the Consortium is to create a new patronage and demonstrate how we, as a society, could support the arts without the incredibly broken and abusive concepts of copyright and intellectual property.
We do that by separating the value of an artist from the immediate commercial value of a discrete work product. The claim of copyright is that it will encourage the creation of new works of art by providing a (potential, future) commercial incentive tied to the individual work. We provide the commercial incentive in advance, and we make it real instead of potential.
We pay our artists enough, the whole time they’re creating a work, that they don’t need to make another dime after it’s released. The work has already been paid for. And that allows us to release it into the public domain instead of expending vast amounts of sales, marketing, and legal muscle to squeeze every last drop of profit out of it as a commercial product.
Those last two paragraphs are beautiful. They bring a tear to my eye. They’re also completely untrue. Or, rather, they’re not yet true. That’s the company’s business model, but before it’ll actually work, we need the capitol to start paying those salaries. Right now, everyone working for the Consortium is working on a volunteer basis. We’re working to create that beautiful future. And sometime in the last three months, I realized with a bit of a shock that we’re actually succeeding.
That’s where my book’s sales figures come into it. That’s where things get complicated. See, in a traditional publishing contract, the writer gives the publisher permission to produce the book (usually one version of the book, in one sales market), and the publisher agrees to pay the writer a certain percentage of the profits on every sale made.
It’s a very small percentage.
But if the book does really well, the royalty rate often increases. And, of course, if the book does really well, then even a small percentage can become a huge sum of money.
In the self-publishing world, the writer gets to keep a much larger percentage. (We’re talking about the difference between, say, 6% of paperback sales, and 70% of a self-published author’s digital sales). They might pay for some of the publishing services (editing, layout, cover design), but usually those are flat fees and one-time payments, and once a book has earned that money back, the writer gets 70% of profits forever.
But my books don’t fit either of those models. All my books that are currently available are produced under the Consortium Public Works Book Contract. At the heart of it, that contract is a way for me to turn my my creative work into a charitable contribution to the Consortium. A donation. Here’s how it works:
- The Consortium pays all initial publishing costs.
- The writer receives 100% of all proceeds generated by the book–so if Amazon pays us 70% of the list price for a purchase of Taming Fire, every penny of it would go to me, the writer. Okay, let me start over: The writer receives 100% of all proceeds generated by the book until the writer receives $30,000. At that point, the book is considered “fully funded.” At that point, the writer (me) agrees he has been adequately compensated for the effort that went into creating the work.
- Once the book is fully funded:
- The Consortium will release it into the public domain.
- The Consortium keeps all proceeds generated by their sales of the book.
- The writer promises not to self-publish the same work in competition with the Consortium.
From a business perspective, that’s a terrible publishing contract for a writer. $30,000 might sound like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. I designed that contract as the President of the Consortium, but I was careful to design a contract I’d be happy signing as a Consortium Writer.
Still, it’s a terrible contract. If Taming Fire makes a million dollars, I get $30,000 and the Consortium gets to keep the rest. If Taming Fire becomes the next Harry Potter and earns $200,000,000 dollars for the Consortium, I get $30,000. Those are the terms of my publishing contract, and they’re legally binding.
But as I said above, the contract isn’t designed to make me rich. It’s designed to compensate me for the work I put into writing this particular project, and turn the work’s commercial value into a charitable contribution to a grand social experiment I believe in deeply.
And as it turns out, I’m going to be putting my money where my mouth is. Unless something changes drastically, Taming Fire will be fully funded in less than a year. Its sequel, The Dragonswarm, might well be fully funded within the first three months.
(And I’m not the least bit alarmed. On the contrary: I’m thrilled at the thought of my little company having some actual operating funds.)
But those were some very specific projections up there, and some kind of weird ones (what with Taming Fire needing another year to outsell a book that won’t even be published for another three months yet). And, of course, there’s a story behind how that happens. And another chart, too. Come back Thursday, and I’ll tell you about the complicated mysteries of making money in indie publishing.