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On the True Costs of Bargain Books, Or Guilting Readers Because Authors Signed Bad Contracts

4229965852_5e6eb45b84_bJames Mayhew has taken up the cause of trying to guilt, harangue, or otherwise convince readers to overpay for books from legacy publishers.

About a month ago (I just now found it) Mayhew published a post where he argues that fans should not buy bargain price books because an author’s royalties are slashed as the price drops.

So how does it all work? Authors get paid royalties, which are a percentage of the book price which you may (or may not) earn from books sales, usually around 5-10% of the price, but very often less; most books are discounted in any case, and the royalty shrinks accordingly. In simple terms, you would expect to get between 50p and £1 for each hardback book sold (and less on a paperback). This is completely normal, and I have no complaints, although it’s often a shock to people.

What happens when books get discounted further? Subject to contractual terms, the royalty may shrink on cheaper books. So you end up getting a tiny % of an even smaller amount. We are talking pennies. Once upon a time there was a system called the Net Book Agreement, limiting the extent to which books could be discounted. But that was abandoned in favour of a “free market” years ago. The result? books can be reduced to next to nothing.

But increasingly, publishers broker cold, hard, cynical deals with these people and then print to order. The publisher is complicit in the arrangement and sells books at extremely low prices (less than 50p per book) to the discount catalogue (but not at a loss to themselves) who then sell them on at a very nice profit – usually £1 per book. Tens of thousands of copies. And the author? I get less than 4p a book, while the discount company makes millions every year. …

Some book contracts give authors a right to veto such deals, although very often publishers make the deals first and then inform you, too late, of the fait accompli.

Authors and publishers might see things differently, but what I see here is an author who is trying to guilt readers over the price they pay for books.

That is a pretty obnoxious behavior, but it gets worse when we look at it sideways. That’s when we realize that the real issue here is not the price of the books but the contract terms Mayhew agreed to. He’s trying to make readers responsible for his, and other authors', bad business decisions.

And that is a load of nonsense.

Around this time last year I argued that readers have no obligation to support a publisher’s flawed business model, and today I would like to extend that premise to include authors.

If an author doesn’t like the terms of a contract, negotiate a better contract. Or get a new publisher. Or self-publish.

But what authors don’t get to do is demand that readers fix the problems that the authors helped create. It’s not the reader’s fault, and it’s not the reader’s responsibility to fix.

P.S. I know that sounds cold and heartless, but at its core this is a contracts issue. It’s a business matter.

P.P.S. I could write a whole other post on how Mayhew screwed up his plea, but it’s not strictly relevant. Suffice it to say that one should only make Mayhew’s argument to fans who already feel a connection. They will want to help, whereas I have no connection to him and see his post as a guilt trip.

image by colindunn



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Peter June 9, 2016 um 10:06 pm

Unless Luca Brasi was standing behind him with a gun to his head and telling him that either his brains or his signature were going to be on the contract, he gets zero sympathy from me.

David North June 9, 2016 um 10:39 pm

On your article’s point, absolutely. When the latest (and previously stated final) book in S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series was listed on Amazon for pre-order, the price jumped completely out of all the previous series' scale.

I made a comment on the author’s page (which has never been responded to by either of the authors) about how I wouldn’t continue the series at those prices — final book or not. The first response I got was, "Why punish the author?".

My rebut to that comment was very much in line with what you said here.

If an author is facing bankruptcy or has a chronically sick child and feels he needs to raise prices in an extant series, he should ask me, the reader, to understand and give me at least an explanation of their need — otherwise, that author is just trying to monetize me at a higher rate because they know I’ve been invested in their success up to that point.

I have no obligation to support, feel sorry for or respect them in that endeavor.

Darryl June 9, 2016 um 10:44 pm

Was Luca involved? I didn’t see a thing!

David North June 9, 2016 um 10:42 pm

P.S. They did the above after selling television rights to SyFy which aired some of the series a television show. And, of course, Hatchette is their current publisher.

David North June 9, 2016 um 10:45 pm

P.P.S. I think many authors want the assumed prestige of being professionally published and feel they "must" deal with publishers. I also think this is a poor reason to not pursue new areas — such as self publishing.

Discount-sale royalties and other first world publishing problems – TeleRead News: E-books, publishing, tech and beyond June 10, 2016 um 7:02 am

[…] book prices can affect author royalties. Nate was curious what my own take on the article was, and has since covered it himself. To keep my own objectivity of viewpoint, I won’t read Nate’s piece (beyond the […]

Paul June 10, 2016 um 9:00 am

I would point out that the UK market is different to the US market, so I would give him some slack, particularly as they still have bookstores in every town the UK.

On the True Costs of Bargain Books, Or Guilting Readers Because Authors Signed Bad Contracts | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing June 10, 2016 um 10:00 am

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DavidW June 10, 2016 um 10:54 am

Authors should trust that their publishers know what they’re doing when they reduce the price on one of their books.

Have a new book coming out in a series? Reduce the price on the first novel or two. It will drive up pre-orders and sales on the new release.

This author only understands short term earnings and doesn’t get the true *benefits* of bargain pricing.

Anne June 10, 2016 um 11:00 am

I’m fine with him trying to educate readers, I’m not fine with him trying to guilt a party that didn’t sign the contract he describes.

FSkornia June 10, 2016 um 11:07 am

Hmm, probably shouldn’t tell the dude about used book sales… even better bargain prices and absolutely no money going back to the author… 🙂

Hannah Steenbock June 11, 2016 um 10:36 am

This kind of guilt-tripping annoys me no end. And I’m not sure it happens in any other business than artist businesses. It’s basically milking the "starving poet" cliche.

Imagine a carpenter begging his customers to pay more because his business isn’t going well. That’s going to make people run to him, right?

This is right up there with comparing book prices with prices for a Starbucks' coffee, or a beer. It’s just so incredibly off and stupid.

Paul June 11, 2016 um 11:06 am

Actually we have a very good example of a businessman stiffing his workers for the work they do.

KS Augustin June 11, 2016 um 10:19 pm

It actually works the other way, too. I’ve bought bargain books by authors I’ve never read before, liked their writing style, and have then gone on to be full-price (even *gasp* hardback pre-order) fans for their subsequent books. This would never have happened if I’d been forced to pay full-price for every single book I’ve ever read.

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