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 The Big Bucks, Part Two


The Big Bucks, Part Two

Karl Giberson

(I am not doing a very good job with posting daily. Hopefully that will improve now that my life is settling down a bit.)

There are many steps between an expression of interest from a publisher and a signed book contract.  For Saving Adam, there were a few small details. For starters, you have to be OK with the advance on royalties. Such advances represent two things: the best guess from the publisher about how many copies of the book they can sell and, closely related, the commitment the publishing house is prepared to make to you. Publishers have to think hard about this.

In my case, I was an author who had written 8 books, which was good. It shows that I can finish projects and provides publishers with good samples of my work. Several of my books had been well-reviewed, which was good, but none had been bestsellers, which was bad. With Saving Adam, I was writing in the area of my “platform,” which was science and religion, which was good since it means there is a built in audience. (A book by me on car repair, or the joys of gardening, would have no built-in audience.) But I was writing from a more liberal perspective, which was bad, since the topic is most intense among conservative evangelicals, many of whom want to read only material that agrees with their point of view. Ken Ham’s bookstore, for example, will not carry Saving Adam!

Royalty advances vary greatly, from zero for projects with no real market, to over a million dollars for projects certain to become bestsellers. Many books are produced with no expectation of any real sales beyond libraries. If you see a book selling for $100 you can be sure that the publisher printed less than 500 copies and plans to sell them almost exclusively to libraries. The high price is required since the publisher has to recoup all the production expenses—editorial, design, legal—from a small number of sales. Supposedly the average print run of a scholarly book from Harvard University Press is 250 copies.

Compare this number to the 4000-copy print run for The Anointed, published in the fall of 2011 by Harvard University Press. Harvard brought out The Anointed as a “trade” book, rather than a scholarly book, which means they believe it has significant sales potential. So far they have been right, and the book has sold 3000 copies.

Authors are delighted when their book is considered a “trade book” because they understand that a trade book is more likely to show up in bookstores—but precious few understand what a publisher must do to get the book there.

What exactly is a “trade” book? It is a book sold to retailers at a “trade discount,” of about 50 percent of the retail price. For instance, a book priced at $30 like The Anointed but sold at a trade discount would earn the publisher $15 per copy. Amazon sells The Anointed for $20, probably make around $5 per copy.  Compare this to the hardcover version of The Oracles of Science, selling on Amazon for $99 with no discount. Nobody is buying that for their geeky nephew’s birthday.

Since the typical lifetime sale for academic books falls well below 1,000 copies, selling them at a trade discount is often self-destructive.

The trade market complicates the publishing process. The progress of a book from a publisher to a library is plain and simple: A library can buy it directly from a publisher, but more likely via a blanket order to a library wholesaler. Once a book is sold, it stays sold. In this system, the wholesaler is the only middleman; little can go wrong and costs are relatively low. A trade book, on the other hand, moves from publisher to wholesaler to retailer to buyer—who often is buying the book as a gift for someone else, who may not want it. If unsold at wholesale or retail, books loop back to the publisher as returns. A line becomes a circuit, opportunities for damage and error increase, books that seem to be sold may not be, and transaction costs double and triple.

In many cases publishers overestimate the demand for a book and have to “remainder” it at a large discount. (“Remaindered” books—which are very common—are often seen in huge bins at bookstores with gigantic discounts from the list price. ) My book Saving Darwin had an initial print run in hardback of 15,000 which ran ahead of demand. So HarperOne reluctantly had to introduce a huge discount to reduce their supply to acceptable levels.  Even now the hardback sells for less than the paperback on Amazon.

Fortunately, Saving Adam was not categorized as a “scholarly” book. This was intentional, however, as I no longer have any interest in writing scholarly books with print runs of 250 that are sold only to libraries.