Open Source Thinking: Author Pay Rates

The Good Fight

Super Hero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press is now available in print as well as for Kindle. Check it out for several amazing stories by yours truly and many other great authors! It’s the start of something big.

So in light of the post yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about how much we would be paying our authors for their work. But I’ve been thinking more and more about the slog to earn our stripes as a professional publishing company.

As I’ve noted before, being a professional author is harder than ever. And the joy and joke is that publishers need to pay off their starting cost debts and return to black on top of the need for authors to get paid. Granted, the debt isn’t much to surmount and people often supplement themselves with another career.

But let’s do some quick math here. E-books typically sell for either 35% or 70% royalties. Some may rush to point out the changes to Amazon’s royalties, but I would counter that it only applies to Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the listed price is $5. Thus, at best we’re earning $3.50 and at worst, $1.75, and none of this includes printed royalties.

On the costs side, let’s focus strictly on what we’re paying the authors. In the past, the anthologies we’ve released have used pure profit sharing. This “nonprofit” (no entity keeps the money, just the creators) approach gave authors incentive to keep pushing the book after the release, and we had no real start up costs to worry about—we used the “free” ISBN from Amazon, and everything worked via a private contract rather than officially starting a company. There was no reason to preserve income because the project was never in the red.

This time around, we would have a minor debt to pay off and need additional capital to grow.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will.

The usual approach for small press publishers is to compensate authors with token payments, exposure and a free copy of the book. Overall, not a bad package in lieu of professional pay for a fledgling writer. Let’s say that a publisher pays its authors $15 per a short story. A twelve story anthology costs $180 for the authors alone. And this doesn’t include cover art or editing (for which the business owners will probably be responsible.) If the sales are fifty-fifty on the 70% versus 35% royalty rates, that’s around $2.62 per sold copy.

That means to cover the authors alone, the book has to sell 69 copies. If you optimistically sell just 70% royalty stories, you can actually earn that cost back in 48 sold copies. If just the 35% rate, 103 copies.

So that is the most basic model. Lower the price of the book and you’ll have to increase sales. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the cover art, which one can technically do if they use a public domain image (possibly acceptable) or no cover (not recommended).

Now here’s the secret about artists. The average price of cover art is roughly $500. This is a stiff price to beat in the sales, but there’s actually some economic flexibility if people don’t mind paying for the difference in time.

Explained, a professional artist might have a back list of interested clients willing to pay $500 or more around the clock during the best of times. But on occasion, there maybe a lull in the number of demanding jobs, during which time it makes sense for an artist to take a lesser paying job as long as there is a very distant deadline and a patient customer.

So if you go to an artist and ask them, “I have a limited budget for this, but I’m also in no rush. Can we work out a lesser rate with expected delivery in 9 months? I understand if higher priority jobs come along in the mean time.”

And chances are, you can probably work something out depending on the artist’s schedule and professional philosophy. It helps if the artist is interested in the work you’re doing, because their muse needs inspiration too. But if you go rushing to them, exclaiming that you need this image and you need it now, now, now… well, have five Franklins ready at the very least. Because exposure doesn’t fill the pantry.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yeah, cover art will add more to the cost although as I said, there maybe room for some flexibility on that. Yet here’s what I suspect a lot of small press companies face—costs (should) inevitably grow.

Why are they growing? Well, the biggest reason would be author pay rates. If you find a good author who is willing to work for $15 a pop, they’ll probably be ecstatic to be published for the very first time. After a few more stories, they’ll start to wonder if maybe they could earn a bit more, so they start searching. Are their short stories worth $25? Yes, so what about $50? Sometimes? Can they get 1 cent a word? 2 cents? Always hunting for that professional rate of 5 cents a word.

At a 5,000 words pay cap at 5 cents a word, that same twelve story anthology suddenly costs $3,000. Chances are, that cover artist cut you a deal before because you were a small company. But if the authors are earning that kind of money, then the artist will probably want the average professional rate of $500. That means a game of professional ball costs you a minimum of $3,500. And there are bound to be additional costs I haven’t factored into the equation.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will. If your readership base isn’t large enough to support higher rates, then your writers will start seeking a company who pays better and has a larger audience. If you’re not paying attention to the market, it’ll kick your ass.

A blog post I once read mentioned that large publishing companies seldom cultivate writers anymore. It took me less than a minute to realize that major publishers really don’t need to, not when you have hundreds of small companies willing to gold pan for them. Even if the little guys don’t realize it until they back a winner who brings in the readers… and then gets poached.

It’s a ceiling that stops many small press companies. And something every publisher has to bust through to join the major leagues.

Sunlight on a New Day

I’d say I’ve been thinking about starting a publishing company. But that would be an understatement.

The fact is, we (not I) have been doing more than just thinking about it. Yesterday I closed my eyes and opened them to a business plan, complete with a basic budget and a five year strategy. It had most of the essentials. LLC filing costs for tax considerations, policies, necessary tools we’ll need, growth ideas, purchasing of a round of ISBNs…

Although there is are initial costs to crest before we’re official, the plan covers the first round of critical questions. On some fronts, we’re not inexperienced in this, having gone through the process three times and figuring out the basics. But in other regards, we’re trailblazing. I’ve never set up a real company before. On the plus side, creating an LLC is cheap. There are tiered costs for converting it into stocks, and equity is an important consideration to maintain the nature of a startup company. But that’s something to visit another time.

For the moment, focus is on structuring our policies, mission statements and marketing considerations. We have a few ideas on that latter point. The biggest hurdle of any author is simply getting their name out there. A publishing company of reputable quality doesn’t take long to attract at least a small following of readers and interested parties. Last I checked, there are roughly half a million published writers in the United States alone. Writing good or even amazing material just isn’t enough to stand out.

Another factor we’ve been discussing is how much of our infrastructure we’re going to in-house. While there are some great services out there that I would strongly consider once we’re of a particular size, I want to handle as much as I can on my own and outsource as I realize that certain tasks are too complex or offer no real benefit to maintain. If I can in-house my own file management system with minimal problems, fantastic! If I’m blowing two or three hours a week dealing with an exploding mail server, I’ll probably just go with Google business emails.

Yeah, it sounds like a great deal of work. But we have a hotshot artist, an up-and-coming writer and a tech guy looking to automate aspects of the job. One could do worse. Yet nothing is happening until the royalty payments for Marching Time and Far Worlds are complete however. As eager as I am to get started, I need to wrap up the old business first.

Anthology Publishing Theory

An idea came to me during the day. My friend sent some flash fiction to edit, which was intended to go between the stories of a new anthology we’re working on.

The flash was great, but diverse. Some were happier endings, some comical. Some were darker. They hit a wide range of emotions in anywhere from a paragraph to a page in length.

As I finished, a thought occurred to me. In my opinion, the grand problem with anthologies is that their nature doesn’t permit them to be page-turners quite like novels can. A story comes to an end, and you say goodbye to the characters, the setting, the events and plot. You have to start something new.

Every tale has an emotional impact associated with it. So when it ends, I suspect that most people shut the book and set it aside to digest the ending. We’ve made some effort in the past to be careful with the order of our tales, trying to keep similar stories apart.

But as I thought about it, what’s the job of a DJ? To come up with a playlist of songs to keep people dancing, to maintain a kind of energy high so people don’t want to leave the dance floor. If the music doesn’t keep up the pace, people start to hit the bar. (And if the music is bad, people leave.)

A flash vignette is tempting however. If the reader sees that there’s a short passage just after a short story has ended, I suspect that they’d want to read it just because it’s so simple and brief. So could there be a way to balance it? If the short story ends on an evil note, could a hopeful and uplifting flash fiction piece help the audience carry onto the next story more readily?

More initial instincts say that the emotions should contrast to find balance. If something is sad, make it happy. If something is depressing, give them hope. If a tale ends with the bad guys winning, have the next piece contain an outlet for the reader’s anger.

Will have to try it…

Book Marketing and the Future

If I have any regrets the last year, it was that I didn’t start using Twitter until very recently.

Fact is, Twitter is a better marketing tool. Brief, to the point, easy to interact with. It can be linked to Facebook. Rather than engaging in “mutually beneficial” friendship arrangements, you simply have followers which you must attract. There are fewer walls and the actual spread of information is way more open, where as Facebook applies an algorithm to reduce clutter on people’s walls (which can filter you out).

Twitter is actually kind of essential for those reasons. Without walls, fans can connect readily with authors and creators. Although one can get in trouble with the platform, there is quite a bit of power to be harnessed if used carefully.

As I move forward with the anthology, I’m also hacking away at other needs to promote it. I’m examining advertising costs on Facebook. But more importantly, I’m looking at various book reviewing bloggers. Although there are “big name” critics out there in the newspapers, these smaller guys often tend to be quite niche, and really hit the reader bases that we’re writing for. In a way, the smaller guys can be a lot more powerful than the big names, because they know what they want.

This is why, despite an age where anyone can publish anything thanks to Amazon, publishing houses are not going away. They have the power to provide advertising and superior editing services. They usually know their market, and can tap top talent if need be. Self published success have occurred and will continue to happen, but there are services that publishers provide that simply aren’t available to the average author.

Business is really all about networking. Knowing the guy who can do what you can’t, knowing the right people for the job. All of us, especially writers, have to be in business for ourselves. And despite potential competitive aspects of business, a lot of it is also about working together.

Speaking of business, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll be doing next year. I’ve mentioned trying a few drafts against Everyday Fiction. But Narrativium will be in charge of the next anthology, Marching Time. Besides that, there will be the Black Library submission window, of which both myself and several of the Boltholers will have our strongest chance next year to be published.

The major question is whether to attempt my first novel, or self-publish an anthology of novellas. The latter is very tempting. My approach to being published has revolved around an “evolving plan” of difficulty. Flash fiction and short stories started it. There has been at least one novella thus far.

An idea is to go ahead and write more novellas, and get used to longer tales before attempting a novel-length story. Length is a major factor. 300 pages is nothing to sneeze at. My approach has really allowed me to gradually increase the difficulty, while building on the skills I’ve learned in the previous steps.

What I learned from short story telling can be applied to novellas. What I learn from novellas could evolve into a novel. Thus far, that idea has been working. While I don’t want to be complacent, this approach is working thus far.