A Call-In Letter to Cleis Press and the Book Publishing Industry
How traditional book publishing exploits authors and workers with unfair rights, royalties, and compensation.
And a roadmap to a more equitable book industry
Here is a fun fact that isn’t fun at all:
Imagine that for every hour of work you received only 8% of your wage.¹
¹But don’t worry, you’ll get a few thousand dollars up front!²
² Oh, but you’ll also need to keep working until those thousands are paid off before you can earn any more.
Sounds terrible, right? Welcome to the standard structure of a publishing contract.
What’s more, it’s unlikely that an author will ever earn out their up-front payout (advance).
Even back in 2006, before the explosion of indie and self publishing, “The average book in America [sold] about 500 copies” (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006).
Concern about declining book sales and an oversaturated market are nothing new; in 2009 Steven Piersante, president of Berrett-Koehler , compiled “10 awful truths about book publishing.” Perhaps in response to these market constraints, books are priced relatively low with little upward movement; Amazon is doing their best to cap ebook prices at $9.99.
A hypothetical case study: Janelle
Meet Janelle: she’s a first-time science fiction fantasy author who’s just signed on with an indie publisher.
Janelle is absolutely ecstatic to have her first publishing deal — her book will presumably be in Barnes & Noble’s across the country, and maybe even translated into other languages or made into a movie. This is a dream come true! So many of us were told we’d never have a chance at this, and now it’s finally happening!
But how much money will she actually make? And who is getting the better end of the bargain here?
It’s difficult to pin down a precise average for author advances, but literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s estimate of $5,000 to $15,000 seems reasonable — even a bit high.
In my experience it was closer to $2000, but my ex-employer (Cleis Press, now Start Media) may have been on the lower end.
But hey, let’s be generous and give Janelle a top-tier $15,000 advance.
At first blush maybe $15,000 doesn’t sound so bad.
I mean, who couldn’t use an extra $15,000 paid out all at once?
But this $15,000 is meant to cover the entire writing and editing process.
The time it takes to write a book can range from a few months to a few years. Even with a generous advance and a very short writing time (let’s say four months writing, two months editing), the advance comes nowhere close to compensating Janelle’s labor. Before taxes or payout to a literary agent, the advance would average out to $2,500 per month.
That isn’t so bad, right? That’s 30,000 a year, a small but maybe-liveable salary in some areas.
But Janelle receives no health insurance or 401k or other standard benefits or protections from her publisher. No sick days or vacation time. No medical leave, paid or unpaid.
And since most authors will never earn out their advance, Janelle will need to stretch the $15,000 to cover the writing and editing process and the subsequent time until her next book/advance.
Most books take at least one year to be published after initial manuscript submission, so we’re already at 1.5 years. Even if Janelle began her next book immediately (while also marketing her first book) she’d have come out at $833 gross income per month. This is a scant $139 above the U.S. poverty line.
Remember, Janelle’s advance is on the more generous end of the spectrum. With a $5,000 advance, she’d take in just $277 each month.
How book publishing exploits employees and interns
I worked at an independent publisher for 2 years. That job was miserable in ways I’m still unpacking nearly a deacde later.
Truly impossible workloads, even for a workaholic like me.
Bare minimum “professional training”, unethical and blatantly illegal business practices.
My employer was Cleis Press, but this isn’t a call-out of a specific business. This is an indictment of an underlying pattern in the entire industry.
I’m hard-pressed to name an industry that takes advantage of employees and business partners (authors) in quite the same way that many publishing houses do.
Internal employees face exploitative practices from many publishers, especially the smaller ones. Below are a few of my personal experiences. Please note that I’m not implying all of these are universal, though I’ve seen some similar patterns across the industry.
- My salary was remarkably low, even considering that it was an entry-level position.
- I earned $28,000 a year in the Bay Area. To put this in perspective, this is less than 1/3 of the income needed to live in the region at that time (it’s far less than that now).
- I was required to write fake Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes reviews, which constitutes a violation of the retailers’ terms of service (and basic ethics). I was told this is standard industry practice, though I can’t attest to the truth of that.
- I co-wrote an article that got credited solely to my boss. A progressive LGBTQ feminist publication still proudly hosts it on their site (though this is, of course, not the fault of that publication).
- My ex-boss is *still* claiming credit for my work on her Linkedin as one of her best professional accomplishments. Which is kinda flattering, tbh? At 23, I single-handedly pulled off the crown jewel of her career? Cool. But also, Very Uncool, dude.
This economic hardship excludes a vast number of would-be employees (and interns), a probable reason why publishing is still 89% white. People who are able to make ends meet still feel the weight of it. Even as a full-time employee I worked part-time jobs on the side to subsidize the low pay.
In order to break into the publishing industry, would-be employees absolutely must have relevant experience. Like other industries, this means most people start out with an internship. Unlike other industries, I can’t name a single indie publisher that pays their interns a living wage. Most don’t pay interns any stipend at all.
As a publishing intern I worked 24 hours a week for precisely $0. Technically I actually worked for negative $62.50 per month, since I needed to commute to Berkeley from San Francisco. With $1,000 rent (which was a true bargain for a room in the Bay Area), $394 in monthly student loan payments, and commuting costs, I needed $1,456.50/month just to break even. That’s excluding food, clothes, and any small pleasures like books or a shared latte with a friend.
Make no mistake: I had no parental financial subsidy for this internship, or savings account to fall back on.
I was on my own, and on the edge of homelessness (I was homeless a few times, actually).
I kept myself afloat by working long, late hours to subsidize the internship. Publishing was my dream job, and I was willing to do whatever it took to chase that dream.
Some people can afford internships because of external financial support, but many can’t. Many people can’t afford to do what I did, including people who are a primary caregiver for a family member or child.
Working long, late hours requires a type of privilege, and assumes stability of mental and physical health. I honestly didn’t have this, but I pushed past my limits because I had to.
And because of this huge barrier, publishing ends up excluding marginalized people.
These employment practices are exploitative at best, and quite possibly illegal. Unpaid internships are supposed to primarily benefit the intern, not the company.
I’m not a lawyer and not making criminal allegations. Just telling truths about what I witnessed and experienced first-hand, and linking out to the legal definitions.
Unless you provide the intern with training that does not primarily benefit your business, you are breaking the law. Yes, I know that many industries hire unpaid interns despite the clear violation of law and ethics. But how many offer no transportation stipend? How many demand 24 hours each week?
Having been on the other side of the table — the intern manager side, that is — I also understand why it’s so hard to give interns any kind of real training. With no formal management training, I oversaw the workloads of 4+ interns at a time, on top of my already-overflowing schedule. The outcome of that situation is almost inevitably rushed training and minimal mentorship.
But the exploitation didn’t stop with meager pay and limited resources.
My boss insisted that all unpaid interns work through Christmas vacation, when full-time employees got spend time with loved ones and take a well-deserved, paid rest. When I approached management to voice my concerns and discomfort with this, I was told that my opinion was unasked for and unwelcome and in a spectacular display of manipulation, my boss actually cried. Needless to say, the interns did work that holiday break. It evidently wasn’t a decision that shamed her, since she posted an image on Instagram of interns and some part-time employees packing orders right after Christmas.
Unpaid publishing internships unequivocally exploit young, inexperienced, and vulnerable dreamers for their own financial gain.
What exactly do book publishers do?
I’m positive that some publishers successfully market and publicize their authors’ books, and that their efforts are reflected in higher earnings for the authors. I’m positive that some authors enjoy a large advance, higher-than-average royalty percentage, or only grant non-exclusive rights to their work and can therefore make more income from their creative works.
I’m equally positive that this isn’t the case for most publishers and authors.
The services a publisher provides an author boils down to three main categories: production, distribution, and sales. With “Big Five” publishers like Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, a fourth service is perhaps the cache and credibility inherent to publication by a major industry player. But with small indie publishers cache is almost never a perk.
On the other side of the contract, authors dream up, plan, write, revise, and promote their books.
Publishers take draft manuscripts and turn them from words into art. They edit them and design the layout, and help you create something truly magical. It’s still your work, but it’s even more of itself. (At least, that’s what a good production process is. It decidedly doesn’t always work this way).
This also includes cover art, endorsements, and everything else that goes into a book, cover to cover.
This part seems like magic to most authors. How does a book get onto Amazon, and into Barnes and Noble and even places like Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters?
It’s simply a supply chain, but it’s true that it’s a tricky one to navigate. And publishers abstract this for you, and one day your book is just magically on shelves! That is, admittedly, pretty dang cool. (It’s also totally possible to do yourself, but that isn’t something I’ve ever heard a publisher tell an author, even when they flat out ask.)
I recall our marketing plans being increeeeedibly bare-bones — until I did the work of making them actually useful roadmaps, actionable, and timely, and effective. And data-driven.
My training as a “marketing expert” was minimal, but I thrive even with minimal resources, and I quickly explored and learned the ropes and sought out all the knowledge and experience I could get. And somehow became the “marketing maven” that everyone turned to as some kind of magician.
Side note: why didn’t I get any professional training?
The publishing industry is, on the whole, at least a decade behind other industries. Lack of funds means that industry professionals can’t attend cutting-edge conferences and trainings — like an intensive marketing, community, and/or publicity workshop. These same lack of funds typically means that the offices are understaffed, with staff working long hours for less pay than is fair.
This means that you’re not getting expertise, in many cases, and you could pretty quickly become the “expert” yourself! #Seizethemeans and all that.
A fairer royalty split
The simple math is this: If you look at the amount of work put in, it’s clear that the royalty rate should be reversed.
Around 8–20% of profits should go to the publisher for their expertise in preparing, marketing, and distributing the book, and the majority should go to the person who wrote the content.
I understand that books simply don’t bring in as much money as they used to. I understand that publishing employees already make meager salaries—because I too received that salary. I understand that there are no easy solutions.
But publishing prides itself on its ethics — independent authors, creativity, the best rising to the top on merit alone (though I’ll leave the myth of meritocracy for another day). We must strive to compensate labor as fairly as possible.
Where to go from here
I love books. I love reading and writing. And I believe in the singular power of the written word. This is a project I did in second grade:
It’s a self-portrait of sorts, with each piece representing an attribute core to my identity. I was such a bookworm that I included reading twice.
It is precisely because of this love for books that I believe that the publishing business needs to change.
We have all the tools we need to decentralize power and profits. Countless support networks offer advice and community for newbie authors looking for a way to break into the market. Self-publishing tools get better every year; for example, services like Lightning Source let authors completely outsource distribution. Separating out the services that publishers typically bundle can often create a larger profit margin for authors, unless your publisher and/or contract is exceptional.
Why sacrifice at minimum 80% of profits — profits that could go toward your healthcare, your kids, your retirement, your community — for so little in return?
What’s an author to do? A few proposals
A careful consideration of publishing options
Authors should weigh the royalty rates against the services they’re actually getting, expected sales, and the cost of getting those services elsewhere. When traditional publishing makes sense given these factors, awesome—when it doesn’t, perhaps self-publishing is the better option.
It may sometimes be worth it to start off with a book publisher, then transition to self-publishing after you’ve learned the ropes and gotten experience under your belt. For authors who have other income streams that don’t depend on books, money may be less of a factor in this calculation. It’s ultimately a personal, case-by-case decision. I just hope we can be more honest and transparent about the trade-offs.
Shift from a paradigm of books as a product to authors as creators
What if we moved away from a model of selling books as a product? I know this sounds a little far-fetched, but it used to be the model in the age of patronage. Creative industries have been shifting back toward this patronage model for the past few years (example: Patreon and PledgeMusic). Many artists, musicians, and writers make a living not through selling individual products but by receiving small contributions from several (or many) fans.
After all, can we reduce the writing process to a sellable product? What about the months or years spent planning a book?
The “patronage” model ensures that the entire writing process is subsidized, even when that process is technically “unproductive;” writers can take their time to create something truly innovative when they aren’t racing the ticking clock of a dwindling advance.
It also guarantees a predictable, smoothed-out monthly income, helping stabilize author finances.
Granted, this method means building up a base of loyal readers, but arguably any successful author needs to do this anyway. This way, you and you alone reap the benefits of your hard-earned community of readers.
Focus more on targeted publicity than on generalized marketing
When we do get around to selling books, authors and publishers alike have a hell of a hard time. There are a whole host of reasons for this difficulty: an oversaturated market, no-limit returns, and an overall shift in how people consume media combine to create an exceedingly hostile environment for book profits.
So how do publishers make money despite these challenges? Through targeted publicity. You can market a book until you’re blue in the face, and people may still not want to buy it. But if you create demand—a pull rather than a push—then books begin flying off the shelf.
It’s an open secret in the publishing industry that to sell a book, you should never sell the book itself.
In my 2 years as a book marketing professional, I never once got press coverage for a book based on its stellar plot or literary merits.
I very quickly learned never to lead with “we’ve just published this new book!” in a pitch email or call; instead, I relegated the recent book release to a mere footnote.
But if I you can’t sell the book itself, what are you supposed to sell?
1) Author as expert
Pitch the author as an expert in their field. This worked just as well for New Age practitioners and green homemaking experts as for sexual health professionals and romance writers.
For fiction authors, the author’s backstory is often a good selling point. For example, it’s often simpler to get local press than broader national coverage. Local news loves to showcase people from their town who are doing cool things (that’s you!).
2) News tie-ins
No matter your niche, it’s almost certain that you can tie your book (or your own expertise) into pop culture events and news. Publications want to cover the latest stories, and positioning yourself as part of a trend or recent event makes you far more appealing than if you simply tried to sell the reporter on your book alone.
If you’re daunted by the prospect of dealing with the media directly? You can hire a publicist for this purpose; I highly recommend Smith Publicity if you have the budget (special shout-out to the fantastic Sarah Miniaci, whom I had the pleasure of working with closely!).
While publicity is by far the surest path to interest (and sales) that I know, isn’t a guarantee of success. You will still need to make sure that the publication audience is aligned with your target market. For example, coverage in a parenting magazine might not be the most effective move for a sexuality professional author (though hey, you never know).
New markets: audio
As mentioned previously, print and ebook markets are saturated within an inch of their lives. In the United States alone, over 300,000 books are published a year. But there’s a third option that largely goes unexplored: audio.
While traditional sales are stagnating, audiobooks present a fresher market.
Why is audio fertile ground? For one, you’re tapping into a different way to engage with stories; people with short attention spans or busy schedules can now find the time to read (listen to) your book. From commuting to doing chores, people who needs hands-free entertainment are flocking to audio. Often you even have their undivided attention, a veritable anomaly in media consumption.
Audio is also orders of magnitude smaller than digital and print. Less competition means more chances to shine. One of the authors I worked with consistently made the Audible #1 best-seller slot in her niche, while her Amazon ranking was 20,000 on a good day.
The best part is that there’s a straightforward path to testing out the audio market: Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). Authors can team up with narrators, either on a freelance hire or royalty share basis. ACX publishes all audiobooks to their consumer platform Audible.
Managing expectations for author careers
Even if we change royalty structures, adopt patronage models, and try innovative marketing and distribution strategies, these changes will be gradual. For the moment, many authors will still earn at or below the poverty line. It’s crucial that we speak honestly and openly about how much people can really make as an author. It’s wonderful to dream of becoming a full-time author—and it isn’t impossible—but it’s rare, difficult, and requires a good measure of luck.
If we manage expectations of author earnings, authors can plan to supplement their writing with other income sources. Furthermore, they won’t feel that they’ve somehow failed if (when) they don’t make a liveble wage.
To publishers, if you’re reading this
(And especially to the community managers, unpaid interns, social media and marketing peeps, PR departments, and anyone else who might be having a Time reading this):
I hope you’ll receive this as a call-in from a friend, not a call-out or a hit piece.
I genuinely share your passion for helping authors get their books out into the world.
That’s why I founded my very first business, Giving Books a Voice (I still do author and social media consulting, at my consultancy Chic & Wolfe).
Heck, that’s why I got into publishing, marketing, and social media education in the first place.
And it’s why I’ve taking the time to carefully consider and write out what it would take to create a more equitable business model.
I’m hoping that you will hear this message and take it to heart — and take action— to adopt a fair, sustainable compensation structure.
And if not, I hope that your writers will choose what’s best for them, regardless of if that is best for the bottom line of your company.
People will always, always be more precious than profits. And as writers and dreamers, I know that you share that value. It can be hard to hang onto under capitalism, and when we’ve been told that it’s win/lose, us or them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And I’m more than ready to see what genuine equity in the world of publishing would look like.