“Before you sell your soul, better do the math” — Ice Cube
Steve Albini’s classic article “The Problem With Music” (from The Baffler #5) is written from the perspective of a producer who worked with artists he liked from both major and indie labels. He proposed that the ethical reasons for going independent were reinforced by, perhaps even overshadowed by, the economic ones.
Since it had long been assumed that people “sold out” for the money, this was quite a shock for many the armchair pundit. Certainly I was appalled and fascinated at the amount of money involved in the music business and how little of it actually got to the music makers.
While the publishing industry isn’t nearly as exploitive or as lucrative as the music biz, looking at the numbers involved can be interesting. Based on the common royalty of 10%, and a unit price of $20, an author must sell 5000 books (a bestseller in Canada) to make $10,000. Going by this, if an author is living soley off of her writing, she would have to write a bestseller every six months to sustain an income over the poverty level: $20,000. As entertaining a vision as this is, a hunched over figure scribbling away in her hovel, such a person has never existed.
How then, do Canadian authors survive? Well, second jobs as professors, spouses, and a lot of them sell the foreign rights to their books — specifically to our neighbour down south. (I received $15, 000 from the sale of Flyboy.) While I haven’t anything against this, we have to admit that our authors are fairly dependent on the US market and that this probably has cultural repercussions.
But this isn’t about Canuck identity, thank god, it’s about money.
While it looks like a big chunk goes to the publisher, you have to remember the kind of overhead they’re dealing with: they pay editors, designers, publicists, marketers, bookseller reps, receptionists, and administrators out of that, not to mention fronting the printing bill. They don’t make a lot of profit — a 2% margin according to Michael Harrison, president of the Association of Canadian Publishers. So although the author is getting paid poorly, I don’t think it’s a case of exploitation. It’s an elephant trying to fit in a teacup. The scale of its business is simply bigger than its market can possibly sustain.
Here’s my alternative to it.
With this breakdown, I can make $10,000 if I sell 1800 copies of my next book. Considering that my last book sold around 2500 copies ($5000 for me), that’s a conservative estimate. So this way, I make more money by selling less, have complete control of the project, and can rely on the Canadian market for my income.
This isn’t for everyone, obviously. Lots of people would be happy to hand over a manuscript and hang out at the cafe until it’s time to sign the books. Lots of people like to have editors and publicists and agents, for practical and prestige reasons.
I’ve made my own zines and books for ten years, and I’ve developed skills and relationships that allow me to produce the same quality product without the overhead. As interesting as it was to have things done for me, it only confirmed my suspicions that there was no difference between professionals and talented amateurs. Basically, a corporate publisher offered me services I didn’t need.
Or more anecdotally: it was fun to be treated to a really fancy restaurant, but I prefer to make my own food. I don’t have to worry about the waiter getting my order wrong, or how much it’s all costing, or that the food is more pretty than filling. Haute cuisine‘s overrated.
I’ve also posted the nitty-gritty numbers of a past publishing venture here.