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EUOLogy: Why We Publish Hardbacks

First off, let me say that this is the third version of this essay. I’ve rewritten it a couple of times, partially because of feedback I’ve received, and partially because my own thoughts on it have changed. The original drafts just felt too . . .well, whiny, which I didn’t intend.

The desire to write this essay came from an intersection between two events. First off, I received a clump of emails from readers who asked variations of the following questions: “Why are hardbacks so expensive?” “How much do you make off of a book?” and “If I could buy two or three of your paperbacks, or one of your hardbacks, which would you like me to buy?” Secondly, I heard that a fantasy novelist I respect is having difficulty making ends meet, and was a little bit frustrated to hear that he was working a second job to pay the bills.

So, I sat up one night doodling on the computer with my thoughts, and tried to write an essay that talked about all of these things. What I ended up with was an essay that sounded uncomfortably like I was begging readers to buy my books in hardback. When I read it over the next day, I felt the tone was off, and soon did a revision. However, despite my best efforts, some people interpreted the essay as me chastising people for buying paperbacks.

I found this frustrating, since I love it when people read my books—whatever the format. I’m a proponent of digital distribution and free content, going so far as to give away a complete ebook of one of my forthcoming works. I’m not angry when people buy my books in paperback! I’m excited to hear that they took the time to read my work.

That left me with a problem, though. I didn’t simply want to pull the essay, since that’s really not fair to some who might have linked to it in one form or created discussions based on it. However, I’d tried very VERY hard to get across that I approved of paperbacks and library books, and was still being misinterpreted. (And I believe the burden of guilt for the misunderstanding rests on my shoulders, as the essay—like most of the ones I write for my website—tended to ramble.)

I eventually decided I’d just try to rewrite the essay a third time, further attempting to get across my meaning.

So, let’s address the questions people have asked me and hope that leads to better organization. First off, “How much do you earn off of a book?” That one is both hard and easy to answer. Hard, because it depends on the book and the number off sales. Easy, because I can throw some hard numbers at you.

From what I’ve been able to see, most authors get between 6% and 8% on a paperback sale. Usually, the percentage is scaled—authors earn 6% off of the first group of paperbacks sold, 7% off of the next group, then 8% off the next group. These ‘break points’ tend to be rather high, in my experience. For instance, on Elantris, my break point is 75,000 books. (Meaning I get 6% off the first 75k, 7% off the next 75k, and 8% after that.) But, since the print run for Elantris was well below 75k, it will be a long, long time before I hit a break point. (However, I’m sure other authors have lower break points—and other others sell far more paperbacks than I do.)
Anyway, if an author’s book sells for eight bucks (average for a big fantasy paperback) and they get 6%, That gives them around 48 cents per copy sold. Let’s say that author does fairly well with the paperback and sells around 20,000 copies in the first couple years of release. That makes them a 10,000 dollars. (That’s not bad, actually. Sure, 10k isn’t enough to live on, but these sales will continue over years and years. Paperbacks have a long shelf life, and people buy them for a long time. The author will make residuals over quite a long time.)
Hardback royalties are much better than paperback ones. I’ve seen an average royalty being 10% on the first five thousand hardbacks, 12.5% on the next five, and 15% there after. And, since the book costs far more, those percentages deliver a lot more in return. So, a hardback of $25 will earn $2.50 on the first 5k, around $3.15 on the next 5k, and $3.75 per book after that. It’s not uncommon for a book in the mid-lists to sell around 10k copies in hardcover for an epic fantasy. At those numbers, you begin to ear around $30,000 for the run.

Perhaps you can see the beginnings of why we publish hardcovers. The first answer is very simple. They earn us more money. In epic fantasy using the Tor model (which focuses on the hardcover sales) it’s the way we stay afloat in the mid-lists.

Now, right there is part of what gets me into trouble in this essay. I don’t want to give the impression that if you buy paperbacks, you’re doing the author a disservice! We write books because. . .well, we love to do it. I really, really, REALLY don’t want you to feel guilty if you buy paperbacks. As writers, for most of us, our first and most important goal is to share our stories with readers, and you do us a great honor by reading them. This essay was never intended to make readers stop buying paperbacks.

It’s a fine line to walk, and I really don’t know how to walk it best. I do like it when people buy hardbacks—it’s the way I can make a living at this, and if someone were to ask me “Which would you rather I buy,” the answer would be obvious. That doesn’t stop me from appreciating the reader who reads the book in other forms, however. Think of it this way—the word of mouth you’ll give me by (hopefully) reading and liking my books is even more valuable than the money I get from a book sale.

Anyway, before I get myself into more trouble, let’s move on to the next question. “Why are hardbacks so expensive?” One of the other things I wanted to get across in this essay was that hardcovers are not, in my opinion, an attempt to rip off the reader. Yes, it may only cost a couple bucks in paper to print the books, but there it requires a whole lot of time and effort by a large number of people to get that book into your hands. This is all rather off-the-cuff, and I don’t have exact numbers, but here are some educated guesses of the breakdown of a hardback’s cost:

Let us assume a hardback, like Elantris, that cost 25 bucks. First off, roughly half goes to the bookstores. (Little bit less, but it depends on the book.) So, let’s say there’s around 14 bucks going to the publisher out of every sale. Three of that (on average, with the break points) goes to the author. 11 bucks left.
The publisher has to pay shipping on the book when they send it to the bookstores, and they also have to print the book. That eleven bucks is shrinking to something more like seven. From that seven, they pay the editor, the typesetters, the proofreaders and copyeditor, the cover artist, the interior artist, the designer, and a fleet of assistant editors and office staff, not to mention publicists, accountants, sales reps, and a legal department. Cut out the costs, and I’ll bet the publisher nets less than the author does on a given sale of a given copy of the book.

There are a lot of different models for making money in this business. Some people print a ton of paperbacks and get them into venues like supermarkets and airports where they can sell a lot of copies. Other people write in a format where they can produce a book every two or three months, then publish a large number of books, all earning them a small chunk of money.

For people in my situation, we try to produce a long, thick novel with interesting design and a lot of perceived value to encourage people to buy the hardcovers. As I often say, science fiction and fantasy actually has a much smaller readership than some other genres—but our readers are dedicated and they read a lot. A nice Tor hardcover is something that appeals to them, and the company has made a business out of providing this for them.

Do I need to stop again and say that I love paperbacks too? ‘Cuz I totally will, if you want me to.

Anyway, let’s move on to the third and final question. This is probably the one that sparked the most controversy in the original essay. One reader sent me an email asking if I’d rather they buy several paperbacks of my books or a single hardback. (Yes, there are people out there who ask questions like that.) This set me thinking.

You can buy a book like the hardcover of Elantris at deep discount on the internet for around seventeen bucks. You could do this the very week it was released. Seventeen bucks. That’s about the same price as two paperbacks. One hardback=$3 royalties. Two paperbacks=$1 royalties.

I thought “I’ve hit on something!” and I focused on this concept a lot in my original essay. I suggested that if people wanted to buy two paperbacks, they instead buy a single hardback, then read the other book from the library. Same money spent, but the author gets triple the royalties.

It was a cool connection of ideas, but the way I presented this just didn’t work. The problem is, a lot of people PREFER paperbacks. They’re easier to cart around, and you don’t worry so much about treating them poorly. Also, if you are buying only hardcover, then what about the authors who don’t publish in hardcover? If a person was going to buy my book and another person’s book, am I really suggesting that they buy my hardcover and ignore that other person?

Lots of problems. I still think this was a cool suggestion, but it’s more of an academically cool suggestion. In the end, I just couldn’t present this idea in a way that didn’t come across as sounding like a strange mixture of greedy and desperate.

Anyway, that’s the third version of the essay. Still rambles a lot. Still rather long winded. Hopefully less controversial. I was going to post the original draft on my website somewhere and reference it, but it’s almost four am. If you want to read it so you can shake your fist at me, just fire off an email and I’ll send it to you. As always, I apologize for the inevitable typos and grammatical awkwardness that shows up in a draft like this. I keep hoping to edit this thing in a way that fixes smaller problems, but I always end up completely rewriting the darn thing, and so it never gets any more polished.


|   Castellano