There was thread over at Metafilter this week talking about book sales and author earnings, including a link to a study that purported to chart author earnings, based on sales at Amazon. I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle over it. Not because it was attempting to guess author incomes, which is fine, but because the methodology for estimating those earnings came almost entirely from trying to estimate sales of the authors’ books on Amazon, and extrapolating income from there.
Here’s the thing: For non-self-published authors, the correlation between annual book sales and annual “earnings” as a writer can be fairly low. As in, sometimes there is no correlation at all.
Confusing? Think how we feel!
But let me explain.
So, I’m a writer who works primarily with a “Big Five” publisher (Tor Books, which is part of Macmillan). For each of my books, I’m given an advance, which in my case is paid in four separate installments — when I sign the contract, when I turn in the manuscript and it’s accepted, when the book is published in hardcover and when the book is published in paperback. This is fairly typical for most writers working with a “traditional” publisher.
Once the advance is disbursed, my publisher owes me nothing until and unless my book “earns out” — which is to say, the amount I nominally earn for the sale of each unit (usually between 10% and 15% of each hardcover, and 25% of the net for eBook) exceeds cumulatively the amount I was offered for the advance. Once that happens, my publisher owes me for each book sold, and that amount is then usually disbursed semiannually…
… usually. There could be other complicating factors, such as if the royalties of the books are “basketed” (meaning the contract was for two or more books, and the royalties are not disbursed until the advance amount for every book in the “basket” is earned out), or if some percentage of the royalties are held back as a “reserve against returns” (meaning that some books listed as sold/distributed are actually returned, so the publisher holds back royalties for a payment period to compensate).
Bear in mind that most publishers try to offer as an advance a sum of money they think the book will earn, either over the first year in hardcover, or across the entire sales run of the work. Which means that if the publisher has guessed correctly, it will never have to shell out royalties. Sometimes they guess poorly, which means either they paid too much for an advance or not enough; in the latter case, that’s when the royalty checks come (please note that even if a publisher pays “too much” and the advance isn’t earned out, it doesn’t mean the book wasn’t profitable for the publisher — their bottom line is not necessarily heavily correlated to the author’s advance — nor does the author have to pay it back).
So what does this all mean? Well, it means that for a non-self-pubbed author, often none of their annual earnings from a book are directly related to how many of those books sell in a year (or any other specified time frame). In fact, depending on how the advance is paid out, three-quarters or more (even all!) of the author’s earnings from a book are disbursed before the book has sold a single unit.
Book is contracted: 40% of the advance (“signing installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0.
Book is turned in and accepted: 20% of the advance (“delivery and acceptance installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0
Book is published in hardcover: 20% of the advance (“hardcover installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0 (there may be pre-orders, but the sales don’t usually start being counted until this time).
Book is published in paperback: Final 20% of the advance goes to author. Books sold to date: Hopefully some! But even if the number is zero, the final installment gets paid out (if so few books are sold that the publisher foregoes the paperback release, there’s still usually the contractual obligation to pay out).
Note these advances can be paid out over more than one year — I once got a final installment for an advance roughly six years after I got the first installment (it was a complicated situation). Likewise, once the book starts selling, it can be years — if at all — before the author starts earning royalties, and even then, thanks to the reserve against returns, what the author gets in those semi-annual royalty checks is not 1:1 with sales for the period the check covers (note: this sometimes works to the benefit of the author). Also note: Those semi-annual checks? Often cover a period of time located in the previous fiscal or calendar year.
All of which is to say: For a “traditionally published” author, at almost no point do what an author’s yearly earnings for a book directly correspond to how the book is selling in that particular year.
(Is this bad? No, but it needs paying attention to. Authors tend to love advances because they’re not directly tied to sales — it’s money up front that doesn’t have to be immediately recouped and can help tide the author over during the writing and the wait for publication. But it also means, again, that it can be years — if at all — before money from royalties comes your way. Authors need to be aware of that.)
To move the discussion to me directly for a moment, if someone tried to guess my annual earnings based on my yearly unit sales on Amazon (or via Bookscan, or anywhere else for that matter), they would be likely be, well, wildly wrong. At any moment I have several books at various stages of advance disbursement — some contracted, some completed but not published, some published in hardcover and some published in paperback — a few all paid out in advances but not earned out, and several earned out and paying royalties.
Add to that audio sales (another set of advances and royalties) and foreign sales (yet another) and ancillary income like film/tv options (which are not tied to sales at all, but sales help get things optioned) and so on. Also note that not all my sales provide royalties at the same rate — a lot will depend on format and how many were previously sold (if they are in print or physical audio), unit price (if they are eBook or audio files), and on other various bits that are in contracts but not necessarily disclosed to the wide world. Oh, and don’t forget my short fiction and non-fiction!
Basically, my yearly earnings as an author are a delightful mess. I’m glad I have an accountant and an agent and a very smart life partner to help me stay on top of them. These earnings have almost nothing to do with unit sales in any calendar year, and more to the point, never have, even when I was a newbie book writer with a single book contract to my name. I signed my first book contract in 1999; since then I have yet to have a year when my earnings from being an author approach anything like a 1:1 parity with my book sales in that same year.
Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are, for example, trying to extrapolate what “traditionally published authors” make based on their annual sales, and are then comparing those “earnings” to the earnings of self-published authors. It’s ignoring that these are entirely different distribution systems which have implications for annual earnings. I don’t think one is particularly better than the other, but a direct comparison will give you poor results. Note also that’s true going the other way — applying “traditional publishing” income models to self-published authors will very likely tell you incorrect things about how they’re doing economically in any one year.
(And as a further note: Do likewise be aware of the caveats for anyone trying to extrapolate self-pub/indie annual author earnings from Amazon as well. It misses direct sales, which for authors who ply the convention circuits can be significant, and also may not fully incorporate how Amazon deals with payments in its subscription models, which are handled rather differently than actual sales, and which (unless it’s changed very recently) come from a pre-determined pot of payment rather than a straight percentage of sales. Hey, it’s complicated! Almost as complicated as the “traditional” model.)
Here’s one thing I suspect is true: It’s possible to make money (sometimes a lot of it) as a traditionally published author, or as an self-published/indie author — or as both, either in turn or simultaneously, since, as it happens, there’s no deep ideological chasm between the two, and generally speaking an author can do one or the other depending on their project needs, or their own (likewise, it’s possible to make almost no money either way, too. Alas). It’s not an either-or proposition.
But yes: Here is a grain of salt. Please apply it to anyone who tells you they know how much any author (traditional or self-pub/indie, but especially traditional) is earning in any year, based on Amazon sales, even if they’re limiting it to Amazon sales. They’re just guessing, and you have no idea how far off their guesses are. And neither, I strongly suspect, do they. Only the actual authors know, and most of the time, they’re not telling.
In Mirror Dance, Mark ruined what passed for his life and then found a better path. In Memory, Miles is freshly cryo-revived, so now it’s his turn!
The tradition in this reread blog is that we kick off the new book by examining some book covers. What does Memory have in store for us?
Note: This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.
Memory has some reminders of how little I know about Barrayaran military insignia, for starters. I know you get some tabs to pin to your shirt collar when you get promoted (“May I, Lieutenant? For my pleasure.”) Barrayar kind of loses me on things like colors and shapes, and the insignia featured in the lower left hand corner of this cover don’t look like Horus eyes to me. But I’m going to assume they are, and I’m going to assume that those somehow represent a captain’s rank, because I have decided that this silhouette is Simon Illyan’s. That’s why it’s totally cool that none of the stuff inside this head happens inside this book; No cities burn to the ground, no shuttles crash, I think it’s possible that someone gets shot but I can’t recall a specific incident (other than Miles’s seizure), and Alys Vorpatril isn’t a redhead. I am completely befuddled by Ms. Pouty Lips.
The cover for the Kindle edition is comparatively understated. Once again, we’re looking at Simon Illyan. This time, things are leaving his head. It’s very dignified. Where these Kindle covers miss the mark, I usually feel it’s because they’re a little boring.
In the interests of giving credit where it is due, the Kindle edition isn’t as boring as this German cover, which features a character I have never even heard of before—who is this blond kid?—and which would also work as a cover for any story that has an army vaguely near it.
The Estonian cover, by Toomas Nicklus, looks like it was intended for a book about an airfield in the Second World War.
The Japanese cover is a beautifully rendered image of something that absolutely does not happen in the book. I’m including it because I think that might be Elli Quinn on the lower left. Given an opportunity to draw a physically fit brunette woman with stunning facial features, a shocking number of artists have opted to draw space ships or something instead. She’s on some covers of Ethan of Athos, and some covers of Brothers in Arms, and Esad Ribic put her on the back cover of Mirror Dance, although I was dismayed by his decision to focus on her torso. (I’m sure it’s a very nice torso, but that’s not what Bujold has described as her most notable feature.) In total fairness, that’s almost all of the books she appears in. This is her last personal appearance in the books, so it’s the last time there’s an excuse to put her on a book cover. I’m struggling with that.
I’m super-critical of all of these because I have fallen in love with the Czech version.
If Martina Pilcerova’s painting of Miles holding a knife to his throat is too pretty, it is because the drama and use of color draw on the pre-Raphealite movement. Pilcerova has also created a moment that isn’t precisely in the story, but she honors its emotional heart. Her Miles is like a sexy Hamlet. That’s not in the story either, but again, I think it honors its emotional heart.
* * *
The first four chapters of Memory feature Miles making every possible mistake. He leads a combat squad rescuing a kidnapped ImpSec courier, has a seizure in the middle of the action, and cuts off Lt. Vorberg’s legs with his plasma arc. Elli Quinn was his second-in-command on the mission, but he didn’t tell her about his seizure issues before he became an emergency. He didn’t tell anyone in the upward portion of his chain of command either, because he didn’t want to be stuck in a desk job. He puts together a mission report that leaves out all mention of seizures because he still doesn’t want a desk job. He argues with Elli Quinn about it because she is a rational adult. Quinn very rightly points out that Illyan has agents in the Dendarii Fleet, and word is likely to get back to him. Elli’s tone in the scene suggests to me that she will send word herself if Illyan’s agents don’t. I agree with her—commanders with uncontrolled seizures should have the sense to run operations from a safe distance with appropriate backup. And, you know, to get their seizures under control rather than crossing their fingers and hoping the seizure fairy is busy elsewhere today.
Miles’s attitude in re the relative virtues of combat and desks has a longer history in popular culture. Captain Kirk also subscribed to the philosophy that taking a desk job was, in essence, giving up on life. Aral and Cordelia would have had Things To Say about this if Miles had mentioned it to them. Both of them did a lot of meaningful work after leaving the line. They might have sent Miles to have a conversation with Koudelka, whose nerve disruptor injury made him unfit for combat at what turned out to be the beginning of his career. I’ve referred to Kipling several times in the course of this reread, so I feel justified in pointing out that Kipling also said things about seizures, although in a very different context—“Epileptic fits don’t matter in Political employ” (“The Post That Fitted,” 1886). It’s a decent poem, with fascinating ironic relevance to a book where a character ruins his life by trying to pretend that he’s not epileptic. You should read it, if you’re not familiar. The blog post will be here when you get back.
The poem’s discussion of romantic infidelity is also relevant to Memory’s early chapters. Miles is abruptly summoned home. Since he has lately argued with Elli, he brings Sgt. Taura as his bodyguard. He’s still sleeping with her. Miles has many excuses for this; He and Elli have never made vows or promises, his relationship with Taura predates his one with Quinn.
Yeah, nice try. If you have to hide one partner from the other partner, lest someone feel aggrieved and betrayed, you’re not being fair. And Miles isn’t being fair to Taura either. He’s Taura’s knight in shining armor, but only when they’re alone, and not anywhere near Barrayar. Miles is desperate to find any woman in the universe who he can bring home to Barrayar, as long as that woman isn’t Taura. I could live with that—Barrayar can barely accept Miles and Mark—if Miles spent a single second’s emotion on the fact that Taura probably would take on Barrayar if he asked her to, and it would be a horrible waste of her short and precious life. They do have a nice dinner. There are a lot of dinners in this book, even in the first four chapters.
On his return to Vorbarr Sultana, Miles delivers his doctored report to ImpSec Headquarters and finds Illyan away. He’s sent home on leave, but told to hold himself ready to report on short notice. This begins an idle section where Miles tries to sort out independent adulthood outside the context of his personal mercenary fleet; Miles starts doing ordinary things. He runs into Duv Galen in the elevator and exchanges greetings. Duv is seeing someone. How nice. Miles goes home to Vorkosigan House and notices that the gate guard is keeping a cat. Miles gets a little drunk. Miles goes to the corner store and buys cat food and TV dinners—Barrayaran TV dinners come with exclamation points. The shopkeeper accuses Miles of being a bachelor. Miles and Ivan find some people to invite to one of the Emperor’s parties. These are such fun slice of life moments, this little calm in the eye of Miles’s storm.
Remember in The Vor Game, when Miles found a man dead in a drain pipe? That was shortly before Miles faced a moment of decision that had serious consequences for his military career. Somewhere in the course of that book, Admiral Naismith stuffed Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan in a closet. In these first four chapters of Memory, the Lieutenant has escaped and kiled Admiral Naismith. It wasn’t staged as dramatically as Killer coming out and kicking Baron Ryoval in the larynx. The Lieutenant started plotting this murder shortly before he got over his cryo-revival amnesia and Naismith hasn’t yet discovered his own corpse.
This blog post would not be complete without mention of Elena and Baz Bothari-Jesek, who have left their lord’s service to pursue parenthood and civilian life. Elena is expecting a girl. Miles declined to be a complete idiot about it, which was clearly a struggle for him. The Koudelka daughters also get a mention, foreshadowing the significant roles they will play in this book and in A Civil Campaign.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.
We’ve added 400 more sketch editions to the Random Access Memorabilia Kickstarter! Click that link, then scroll down a bit to “Sketch RAM Batch 2” to find the right pledge level.
What changed? Well, Kickstarting this book allows us to expand our fulfillment window a bit. In plain terms, it gives me more time for sketching, and that means more sketches. We probably should have figured this out earlier, but we’ve done so many book releases the old way that it didn’t even really occur to us.
Random Access Memorabilia is going to be a beautiful book. You should get one, and let me draw in it.
Life in Sunrise Valley is tranquil, but beyond its borders lies certain death. A dangerous black fog looms outside the village, but its inhabitants are kept safe by an ingenious machine known as the dam. Pig’s father built the dam and taught him how to maintain it. And then this brilliant inventor did the unthinkable: he walked into the fog and was never seen again.
Now Pig is the dam keeper. Except for his best friend, Fox, and the town bully, Hippo, few are aware of his tireless efforts. But a new threat is on the horizon—a tidal wave of black fog is descending on Sunrise Valley. Now Pig, Fox, and Hippo must face the greatest danger imaginable: the world on the other side of the dam.
Based on the Oscar-nominated animated short film of the same name, The Dam Keeper is a lush, vibrantly drawn graphic novel by Tonko House cofounders Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi—available September 26th from First Second.
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Following the sad news of Kit Reed’s death yesterday at the age of 85, the community of science fiction and fantasy readers, fans, editors, and authors have made it clear how much she will be missed, expressed grief at the passing of a legend and celebrating an extraordinary life and career. Jen Gunnels, Reed’s editor at Tor Books, penned the following tribute to the author:
Several years ago, I met Kit Reed for the first time at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. It was… an intimidating moment. I mean, Kit Reed. She was the most gracious, elegant, suffer-no-fools woman I had ever met, and I adored her for it. Over the years, we became better friends, and when I stepped in as her editor after the death of David Hartwell, we started the editor/author relationship. It was all too brief.
Kit was old school in all the best ways. Meet with an editor? Then it had to be at the Algonquin, that famous hotel where the Algonquin Round Table met—the literati like Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and others shared drinks and barbs and molded literary culture. She would fill me in on literary news in a manner that Dorothy Parker would have approved. She was much like a fairy godmother—if fairy godmothers knew EVERYONE in the book circles, swore like a Teamster, and carried herself like that bullet proof broad from a noir novel. I think that this would have pleased her to know.
While we’ve lost a writer who helped pioneer the genre for women, she has left us with an ongoing legacy in her work and with her approach to young talent—authors and editors alike. So, remember her by raising a glass and saying something insightful and biting and clever. She’s really only gone just around the corner.
Tor editor Marco Palmieri tweeted a recent noir-ish photo of Reed, writing:
— Marco Palmieri (@mxpalmieri) September 25, 2017
Elsewhere, Reed and her work have been celebrated with an outpouring of tributes by many of her fellow authors:
Very sorry to hear of the death of Kit Reed, who was a delight to have known for over twenty-five years.
— Jack Womack (@jwomack) September 24, 2017
I just learned that Kit Reed has died. She was scathingly funny & enormously kind, and made me feel so welcome as a tiny teen entering SFF.
— Lara Elena Donnelly (@larazontally) September 25, 2017
I’m very sorry to learn that Kit Reed has died. She was a lion, fierce and brilliant, warm and wonderful. pic.twitter.com/a8j5Ecmkdz
— Karen Meisner (@kmeisner) September 24, 2017
Shocked, saddened, and determined by Kit Reed’s death. She was awesome. First I’m gonna raise a glass, and then I’m gonna raise some hell.
— Max Gladstone (@maxgladstone) September 25, 2017
I’m so sorry to hear that the inimitable Kit Reed has died. She was a lovely person and an amazing writer.
— Sarah Pinsker (@SarahPinsker) September 25, 2017
So sorry to hear of the passing of Kit Reed, an amazing writer and person. She will be missed terribly and remembered often and fondly.
— Paul Tremblay (@paulGtremblay) September 24, 2017
Goodbye, Kit Reed. Thank you for everything.
— 🦈 Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) September 25, 2017
Finally, calling Reed “a brilliant giant of science fiction,” Cory Doctorow penned a touching tribute on BoingBoing, which you can read in full here. As he notes, those who wish to honor her memory with a donation can do so by donating to the Alzheimers’ Walk of Greater Los Angeles in her name, to 826 National or another writing program, or to a cancer charity like Cancer Research. Clearly, Reed’s impact on the field of SFF, her kindness toward and support of other writers, and her impressive body of books and stories will continue to inspire all of us—friends, fans, and strangers alike—for years to come.