Best of ’09: M.J. Rose on Changing the Way Authors Get Paid

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

As 2009 comes to a close we wanted to celebrate by bringing you a week’s worth of your favorite articles that we’re run on Publishing Perspectives. We’ll be back on Monday, January 4, with our next new feature. In the meantime, enjoy the best of ‘09 and check our news blog for updates and analysis.

Today, M.J. Rose discusses how increased marketing and promotion demands on authors necessitates a change in the way authors get paid. Following Rose’s article, publisher Bob Miller, founder of HarperStudio, responded in a separate article, which is also reprinted below.

Editorial by M.J. Rose

MJ Rose

Shout it from the rooftops, or better yet, hashtag it on Twitter. It’s time to turn the page on how authors get paid.

Times have changed, and with them, every aspect of the publishing landscape is morphing. And from my vantage point, nowhere is it changing more than in marketing. Authors aren’t waiting and watching to see what publishers aren’t doing for their books — they are jumping in feet first and months ahead of their houses to make sure there’s a serious marketing and publicity effort.

And publishers aren’t gnashing their teeth over the author’s involvement anymore — they are encouraging it. Co-op is more costly than ever and eating up marketing dollars. In almost all cases, publishers are making it clear that they expect authors to supplement their marketing/PR effort in various ways and, in some cases, even soliciting the author’s help with both time and yes, money.

As a result, today the author’s marketing/PR effort is often equal to or even greater than what the house is doing.

The good news is it works. No wonder really — people do buy more of something when they know it exists, and in general, book marketing is so low-key that people don’t know what books are even out there. I have dozens of case histories of authors who have pushed their sales into reprints when none were expected, created enough velocity to generate free co-op when none was anticipated, and achieve bestseller listings when none were dreamed of.

But whenever there’s good news…

We now have a situation where publishers are financially benefiting from the author’s efforts but the author is still getting paid the old way, without regard to how much we personally invest.

There’s just no consideration for the checks we’re writing out of our own pockets for marketing or PR services.

Accordingly, it’s blatantly and patently unfair for us to invest in our own books and then wait for our advances to earn out based on the same royalties rates we’ve always gotten.

Be it $2,000 or $20,000, the money we invest should be discounted from the advances we’re paid, allowing us to earn royalties faster based on an honest up-front expenditure by the publisher.

And, it goes without saying, we should be be getting a higher royalty rate. After all, we’re doing more than writing our books, we’re business partners as well.

Times have changed since 1999 when I went to my first marketing meeting as a debut author. I’d been the creative director of a top NYC ad agency, and was startled by the paucity of the marketing budget the publisher presented. I’d known not to expect the millions I worked with at the agency, but I did expect a real ad budget. When I found out it wasn’t there, I offered to give my publisher back my advance if they would spend it on advertising.

The publishing team not only refused… they were horrified.

So was I.

I wanted to supplement their efforts to give my novel a better shot and they were turning down my money?

How times have changed. And how contracts now need to change.

Over the last ten years I’ve spoken out a lot about authors needing to get involved in more than just the writing of the book, and how we can benefit by investing in our books and becoming marketing partners with our publishers.

At first I was a pariah — publishers were aghast. Education can be a dangerous thing when it causes conflict and requires extra conversations and explanations.

By 2005 when I started (to offer authors and publishers viable and affordable marketing solutions) authors were still a little nervous about getting involved in marketing and often asked me how best to broach the subject with their publishers.

By 2007 that trepidation was gone. Publishers were welcoming the help.

And now, in 2009, publishers not only expect the author to do a certain amount of marketing, I now hear weekly from authors approached by their house asking if he or she wants to foot an ad bill or share some costs.

This pendulum has swung a bit further than I ever thought it would.

We should be involved in marketing and PR — in every aspect of our careers. And if we want to pay for extra marketing or publicity, as long as we do it right, it’s a smart investment. But it is not now and should never be our obligation. And if we are going to make these investments, publishers need to acknowledge that commitment. And not just with a nod and smile and a thanks.

“Because so many contracts don’t earn out,” publishers will argue, “the author makes far more than the we do — so why shouldn’t we ask them to invest? It’s their career, after all.”

The answer is: because it’s wrong. The system and the contracts were set up at a different time under different circumstances and set up in the publisher’s favor.

It used to be that the author wrote and the publisher published. Publishing meant everything from editing to distribution to marketing. Now, more and more books are not being published, but instead are merely being printed.

No one walks into a bookstore and says to the clerk — “I’d like to buy a book that I never heard of and that you never heard of.” Someone has to do the marketing and get the word out. And if that’s going to be a shared responsibility, so be it. We all have the same goal in the end.

But our contracts and the way we get paid can’t remain the same.  It’s time to start a new chapter.

M.J. Rose is the bestselling author of several novels including, most recently, The Memoirist. She is also the founder of and one of the founding board members of International Thriller Writers (ITW). Her next novel, The Hypnotist, will be published in May 2010.

READ: M.J. Rose’s blog about book marketing and other issues, “Buzz, Balls and Hype”

PERUSE: M.J. Rose’s personal web site, which features information about her various books.


A Response: Re-thinking the Author/Publisher Partnership

By Robert Miller


Bob Miller is the President and Publisher of Harper Studio (photo credit: Adrian Kinloch)

NEW YORK: I’ve just read M.J. Rose’s editorial from last Friday, “Publishers Must Change the Way Authors Get Paid,” and I couldn’t agree more that it’s time to re-think the publisher/author relationship.  M.J. deserves credit for moving this conversation forward; indeed, for years M.J. has shown by her own example how authors can and should be full partners in the marketing of their books. If anyone has earned the right to question author compensation, it’s M.J. Rose.

However, I don’t think that the solution is to have authors paid a higher royalty in exchange for their marketing efforts.

First of all, how would this be judged? What amount of marketing effort should be expected of the author before their royalty changes?  Shouldn’t author and publisher alike be doing everything possible to make a book succeed, without needing to count up who has gone beyond the call of duty and who hasn’t and trying to calculate how that should translate into how they share the proceeds of their success? What if the author and the publisher have both made herculean marketing efforts, but the book has lost money? Should the author get a higher royalty, even as the publisher is taking a loss? (Similarly, I don’t see how publishers and authors would know how to apply the author’s marketing expenses to their advances, as M.J. suggests here.)

This approach reminds me of those group housing experiences we all had just after college, when inevitably the refrigerator would get divided up into separate grocery bags with cranky “this is mine, don’t eat it” notes on them. When that happens, the household stops being a fun place to live…and I don’t think it’s a good basis for sustainable publisher/author relationships, either.

I don’t think that this solution goes far enough. I believe that publishers and authors should be equal partners, sharing profits fifty-fifty, as we are doing in all of our deals at HarperStudio. The author brings their creative work to this partnership, and their commitment to do everything in their power to help their book succeed. The publisher brings their financial risk (under our model, the publisher puts up the publishing costs, including the advance to the author, from which the author can decide to help the marketing effort if they’d like, or not), their passion for the project, and their staff time (we don’t charge any overhead to the profit split; the authors don’t charge for their time spent marketing the book either).

This financial structure requires both parties to think responsibly about costs, since both parties will be charged for those costs at the end of the day. The result is that the relationship is much less adversarial.

The question each day is, “What should we be doing for this book?” not “What have you done for me lately?” It feels healthier to me.

So, M.J., got a book for HarperStudio? If so, we have a structure that I believe would reward you fairly for your impressive efforts, without turning us all into dueling accountants. The new chapter has begun.

Robert Miller is the president and publisher of HarperStudio, which he founded in 2008. The first books from this new imprint are published next month.

VISIT: The HarperStudio Web site.

FOLLOW: The HarperStudio blog, The 26th Story.

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