We get a lot of questions from friends, family, local authors, etc. We love questions. They help us share the wealth of knowledge about our industry, and they help us shape our thinking about what kinds of products and services we should offer.

Some highlights:

Q1:  What’s the deal with abridgement?

Abridgement is the process of taking some long-form manuscript and removing content to arrive at a shorter version of the original work. Usually, publishers hire abridgers to perform this task; it requires careful editorial judgement about what’s in or out of scope for the shortened volume, so most people who perform this work are seasoned book editors.

The argument in favor of abridgement is that very large works that might present a barrier for some readers might gain a wider audience with a condensed copy. Classics like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich get abridged frequently — interesting but not critical material gets pulled to reduce the original volume’s total word count. Some fiction falls into this category, too. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is frequently abridged, as is Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Done well, abridgement is like watching the second Star Wars  trilogy with all the Jar-Jar scenes removed. Of course, you’re also trimming material the original author intended for you to see, so you’re not getting the full richness of the original manuscript. Some people care, others don’t, which is why both abridged and non-abridged titles remain on the market.

Abridgement as a literary project has no hard-and-fast rules. The goal is to preserve the original intent and major outline of the original work, while selectively removing X amount of words to arrive at the project’s intended length. However, an abridgment should not alter the tone, message or narrative infrastructure of the original. An abridged volume should be shorter, but not fundamentally different.

Oh, and abridged copies are different works and should have different ISBN numbers; it’s good practice to indicate that a volume is abridged on the title page or even the cover, so as to avoid misleading consumers.

Q2:  I have a brilliant story idea. Can you connect me with someone who can write the book, and then we’d split the profit?


Q3:  What’s the difference between percent-of-sales and percent-of-profit arrangements?

Older publishing contracts more often than not defaulted to percent-of-sales logic to account for author royalties. In that model, an author earned some fixed percentage of total book sales — 20 to 30 percent, usually — and royalties began with first-dollar sales calculated off the list price. So on a 25 percent contract on a book retailing for $20, the author gets $5 for every title sold, regardless of whether the book sold one copy or one million copies. Because royalties are a fixed input into the financial performance of a given book, the break-even point for publishers becomes a number that must be supported by a good-faith estimate that the book will sell X copies to recoup the publisher’s fixed costs. Most books include a wholesale discount of 55 percent from list and cost a certain amount of money to produce. So that book retailing at $20 might cost $3 to make and then another $5 in royalties. But with a wholesale discount of 55 percent, sales through Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Bob’s Corner Bookstore will generate $9. Which means the publisher’s net revenue is $1 for every book sold ($20 minus 55 percent, less $3 for printing and $5 for royalty). If you know that your fixed costs for marketing, editing, cover art, ISBN assignment, etc., total $10k, you need to move 10k books just to break even. In a nutshell, percent-of-sales contracts are why most publishers are gun-shy about taking on projects that they fear won’t crack the bestseller list. But as an author, you start making a predictable amount of money from first-book sales. With 10k books sold, the author gets $50k in royalties. That’s pretty sweet.

In a percent-of-profit scenario, however, the publisher keeps all revenue until agreed-upon expenses have been recovered in full, then any additional revenue beyond the break-even point is split between the author and the publisher. Caffeinated Press uses a percent-of-profit contract model; the author clears 60 percent of net profit after expenses except in cases where there’s no need for substantial editing of the work product (e.g., with a photo book), in which case the author clears 70 percent. The upside is that the per-unit revenue mitigates the publisher’s liabilities much faster, incentivizing the publisher to take on somewhat riskier or lower-margin projects. However, authors may not see any appreciable revenue until sales have tipped a certain point. For example, with $10k in administrative costs and $3 in per-unit production costs, a $20 book with a 55 percent wholesale discount must move 1,667 copies to break even. So those first 1,667 copies generate no revenue for the author. But, on the bright side, with a per-unit profit of $6 after break-even, moving 10k copies will clear $30k in royalties for the author (at 60 percent of net profit), or $3.60 per unit.

Sounds worse for the author, right? Well, yes and no. On the upside, it’s easier for a publisher to do percent-of-profit contracting because the relative financial risk is lower — so authors have more access to the market than they would with a percent-of-sales approach. Although $50k is better than $30k, $30k is better than $0. The downside for authors is that they tend to make less in the aggregate if the publisher only sells through distributors.

That 55 percent wholesale discount doesn’t come into play when the publisher is also the retailer. So on a percent-of-profit arrangement, if the publisher handles all sales through the company’s own website, then the break-even point on $10k in expenses is 589 units sold — and after that, the author’s margin is closer to $9.50 per unit. Which means that 10k units sold would fall just shy of $90k in royalties to the author. Woohoo! $90k is better than $50k.

In the real world, a small- or medium-sized press distributes both through wholesale channels and through their own website, so the truth is somewhere in the middle. But the value of percent-of-profit is that it opens more doors for low-margin product (thus increasing opportunity for authors) while opening the door to either a lot more, or a lot less, revenue for the author. It’s a gamble, in a sense, for the author, but that mode of contracting at least allows more gamblers to belly up to the table.

Q4:  I’m a starving artist. Why can’t you pay me more and let me pitch stuff that I’ve already self-published or pushed out on my blog?

Publishing is a business, and authors present more material than publishers need. As such, the demand curve for author work product disfavors producers. Although the industry supports certain normative fee schedules (for example, the rate card developed by the Editorial Freelancer’s Association), many markets pay below the EFA’s standard. Different publications pay different rates. Among literary journals, for example, The 3288 Review pays with both courtesy copies and an actual check between $25 and $75 — but most literary journals pay with a courtesy copy only. Trade magazines, by contrast, can pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for certain long-form pieces, but they’re usually open mostly to established, professional journalists and pay that way because they command significant ad rates. The sad truth is that creative writing isn’t financially rewarding until you hit the peak of your career and start publishing novels with larger imprints.

Because publishing is expensive, most publishers will only work with new material. It’s hard to shop reprints. No one wants to be the third person to offer the exact same product to market — at that point, people interested in that product have already made their purchase, thus affecting a piece’s market value.

Q5:  My “significant other” is a writer. How can I support my partner’s writing when I don’t really understand how the writing process works?

Writers need space and encouragement. Writing is a creative task no different, in terms of execution, from painting or pottery or photography. When your S.O. is in writing mode, create an environment free of distractions. Don’t interrupt, and protect the writing environment by, e.g., keeping children or felines away, or turning down the music or the television. When writing time abuts other activities, like going to parties or cleaning the house, recognize that writing time is a big part of your S.O.’s life and pretending it’s not (or, worse, like it’s the lowest priority on the task list) will create relationship stress. If your S.O. is important to you, then you’ll support those things important to him or her.

Do you have questions we can answer? Add your comments below.

Five of Your Questions, Answered!
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