Some people were shocked a few years back by Lynn Viehl’s very revealing and incredibly generous post about how she only earned $24,517.36 after taxes and commission on her mass market NY Times Bestseller TWILIGHT FALL. In the post she also estimated the publisher’s gross at $450,000 and guessed the net profit to be something around $250,000.
This raised some eyebrows. How could publishers make so much and the author earn so little?
Well, my math is a little different. According to Amazon the list price of TWILIGHT FALL is $7.99. Discounts to booksellers vary and that’s not information others are always privy to, but since this is a rough sketch let’s just say they’re 50% across the board. For the purposes of this post that means that for every net copy sold (i.e. actually sold to consumers) the publisher receives around $4.00 and the bookseller receives $4.00.
Unit costs (i.e. producing the actual book) also varies anywhere from $0.75 to $3.00 depending on the format, quantity of the print run, etc. Since this is mass market let’s say that unit cost including shipping and warehousing is around $1.50 per book. Again, just a very very rough guess.
So we’re down to $2.50 per copy for the publisher. Lynn says net sales so far are 61,663, so according to the napkin the publisher is around $154,157.50
Lynn says she received a $50,000 advance, so the publisher stands at (approximately) $104,157.50 on the title.
Pretty good! This is a bestseller after all.
But you have to deduct all marketing costs (ads, sending out copies for review, bound galleys/ARCs if any, co-op), other production costs (cover, seasonal catalog, etc.), and overhead (salaries, health insurance, rent, etc.) before you get to the profit.
How much does all the rest of that cost? I don’t know, I’m not a publisher. But it all adds up to a pretty good chunk. And let’s not forget that historically most books don’t earn a profit and those have to be paid for as well.
At the end of the day, on all books that turn out profitable the publisher is going to earn more of the profit than the author barring a revenue share type of model where the author isn’t paid up front. After all, they put up the advance and the production costs, and the risk on any given book is exclusively theirs. While of course a book not selling can hurt an author’s career, they don’t have to pay back the advance or the amount the publisher lost.
But publishers aren’t exactly raking it in either.
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Art: The Moneylender and his Wife (detail) by Quinten Massijs