take the money. or maybe not.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a couple years, and today I was looking at a royalty statement and I thought, what the hell. I think people will find it interesting and maybe even helpful.

ITW Royalty Statement NA 2007This is the summary page of the Into the Wilderness royalty statement for 2007.

Let me point some things out. Under Current you’ll see that no hardcover copies were sold in 2007 — because, of course, the hardcover edition is out of print. This statement only represents new sales of new books. However, in 2007 the mass market edition of ITW sold 7,634 copies, or about 614 copies every month. Considering the fact that the mass market edition was first released in August of 1999, that is a pretty healthy number.

Since it was first released, ITW has sold 241,813 mass market copies and 25,246 hardcover copies in the U.S. and Canada. This statement doesn’t cover sales overseas. If I had those numbers someplace where I could find them, I’d give those to you as well. But I don’t. The number is pretty high, though, given the loyal readers I’ve got in Australia and New Zealand. Somewhere around 100,000 copies. There are also editions in Germany, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and a couple other places that aren’t coming to mind right now, but none of those sales figures are represented here.

You’ll see that the original “guarantee” ( advance) was $150,000 (a very good advance today, and even better in 1998). Translation? The royalties on ITW exceed the advance, which is what is called “earning out” — the publisher calculated the number of copies they thought they could sell, and paid an advance based on those calculations. In this case things worked out well. Not all my novels have earned out. Yet. She said hopefully.

This is the problem: if you have five novels in print, or two, or thirty, the publisher won’t offer another contract without looking at these sales figures. If they have miscalculated badly, it hurts them first but it also hurts the author. Say for example that the publisher offers Author J. Jones oh, three million for a two book deal. J. Jones leaps into the air with excitement. Oh boy oh boy. His career is made.

But the publisher got it wrong. The J. Jones novel doesn’t tank, but it never surges. It just bobs along mid-list. Three years down the line it’s only generated $25,000 in royalties — which means a lot more books have to sell before Jones has earned the 1.5 million he’s already got in his pocket for that first novel for the two book deal. You might think that J. Jones won’t care — he gets to keep the whole three millions (as long as he delivers the second book as well) regardless of how many copies sell. If these two books never earn out, so what?

Here’s the so what: J. Jones still has lots of books he wants to write. Some really great ideas, one of which (looking into my crystal ball) is destined to hit number one and stay there for months.

Except it doesn’t get written, because J. Jones is a bad bet, according to the numbers. The publisher is not going to throw good money after bad. Now, if Jones had got an advance of $100,000 and the book earned out in two years, his agent can go to the publisher with some real leverage and negotiate a much better deal for that second contract. If things continue along that trajectory, Jones will build a career, and a lucrative one at that.

Or he could invest his three million and live off the interest, never putting words to paper ever again. If inflation doesn’t eat it all up, of course. Now, a good agent will be able to weigh the pros and cons of the publisher’s offer and make some suggestions based on long-term goals. A good agent is there for the duration, and has more invested in you that the one book in hand. A bad agent will push you to grab what you can and run so that s/he can do the same thing. Which is a disserve to you in about a dozen different ways.

This is a pretty complex topic and I’ve glossed over a lot of details. Please feel free to ask questions, and I’ll try to answer them.

EDITED TO ADD: If you find this kind of thing interesting or useful, I’ll do it more often. But you have to let me know if you’d like to hear more. If you don’t comment I figure I’ve bored everybody to death.

what you should know about anonymity: yours, mine and ours (in which I admit: I review for PW)

The internet is a wondrous thing. It brings together people from all over the world to discuss and share the things they love: Stamp collecting, horse breeding, politics, antique electric fuses, baseball, the perfect martini, hedgehogs, Sanskrit, Buddhism. It’s hard to imagine a topic that’s not represented someplace, and this is only one facet of the whole enterprise. Sales, marketing, corporate branding, all that has been turned on its head. Banking, investing, selling or buying property — all revolutionized for the consumer’s ease.

And then there are the personal weblogs. People who keep journals about their daily lives for the sake of friends and family. People who start a weblog to keep track of a pregnancy, losing weight, learning a language, battling cancer, organizing a bridge club, caring for a parent with Alzheimers, looking for a job.

The internet is also a free-for-all, a megaphone for every cause, worthy or fabricated. It’s a way to reach out and touch, or reach out and punch neatly on the nose.

I mostly stick to the publishing/reading/book-ish part of the internet. Weblogs by authors and writers, weblogs for readers of a dozen different kinds, review weblogs. Booksellers. Book group organizers. Weblogs by agents and editors. Big name review venues, and teeny little weblogs. Some of them anonymous.

Anonymity is an issue that people talk about a lot, and that they will continue to talk about because there’s a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved. Four years ago Amazon’s lackadaisical anonymous review policy finally backfired and the result was a first page article in the New York Times. Laura Lippman’s concise overview of the whole debacle came down to this:

Why does Amazon allow anonymous reviews at all, especially when there have been numerous reports of vendettas bordering on actionable libel? Legal issues aside, it’s just darn strange as a business practice — and saying the reviews are “popular” is a weak defense. The Paris Hilton video was popular, and Amazon didn’t make that available for downloads. Can you envision any independent bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, handing out Post-its to customers and encouraging them to affix their scrawled thoughts to volumes? Imagine going into a bookstore and seeing little yellow squares stuck to Huckleberry Finn (“An erotic masterpiece,” LF in Montana), Portnoy’s Complaint (“Don’t shake hands with this author” — A reader from Central Park South) and the latest Atkins diet. (“He’s dead, but it might work for you.” Hizzoner, Gracie Mansion) Look, I sign my reviews and I think other people should, too.

In the end Amazon did change its review policy, and my guess is it had more to do with the issue of actionable libel than anything else.

The question of anonymous reviews predates the internet, of course. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, for example, both publish reviews anonymously. The idea, it seems, is that they want a uniformity of tone and approach, an argument that many people don’t find convincing. Quinn Dalton’s essay on this topic demonstrates how destructive one anonymous review from a respected source can be.

Anonymity means the reviewer has nothing to lose by writing a negative review, and nothing to gain by writing a positive one. Fair enough. But anonymity doesn’t remove personal bias on the part of the reviewer—for or against certain authors, or certain types of books. It just cloaks bias behind a brand name, and is therefore untraceable for librarians and booksellers and the authors whose careers suffer or are nurtured as a result.

I have had my share of mean-spirited reviews, some from Kirkus, some from Publishers Weekly, and more than a few from anonymous Amazon customer reviewers. I’m not talking about negative reviews, which any reasonable author expects and will learn from. I’m talking about the nasty stuff. But I think it was Dalton’s article — read some years ago for the first time — that made me want to pursue the subject.

I do some reviewing myself, right here, but I also write reviews for Publishers Weekly. Anonymous reviews, because that’s the way they do it. I’ve been writing PW reviews for about a year now, two or three a month. I started because I wanted to understand the process from the other side and then I found I started looking forward to what might show up next for me to read. I have never been sent a book by anyone I know personally, or by any author I strongly dislike. I’ve seen a few big names, but more usually novels of authors who are just starting out. Here’s something that may surprise you: even if I wanted to get up to anonymous mischief, I couldn’t. The editors do their job. They make sure that the PW style is maintained and word count is observed. They’ve got procedures in place to make sure I read the book I’m reviewing. Most of all, they stand there ready to step on any excess of negativity. Sometimes I think they are too quick with that, but hey, I’m only the reviewer and let me assure you: I’m not doing this for the money, which is negligible. I do it for the perspective. Last year I asked the editor where he had been when PW’s review of my (I think it was) Lake in the Clouds came out with the never -to-be forgot line color by number cartoon caricatures. “Before my time,” he wrote back. I like the two editors, both male, even when I don’t agree with their decisions about my copy. Because my name isn’t on it, I can live with the changes. Usually.

From this angle, it seems to me that it’s sensible to distinguish between anonymous reviews that are vetted by editors, and those that aren’t. Kirkus and PW might get it wrong; off track, mean spirited, even petty. But the anonymity is only one layer deep. There is always an editor there in front of the anonymous reviewer, and a publisher in front of the editor. There are responsible parties.

There is no depth to an anonymous weblog, no responsible parties at any level. For a certain amount of money, you can cloak your personal information so that even the ownership of the web address remains hidden. And then there are different kinds and degrees of anonymity. I’ve only ever found one list, from back in 2003 (via Joho):

  • Hiding all biographical facts but using your real name (= shy blogger or professional journalist blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts using your real name (= liar blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= fictional blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= informant blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using a false name (= witness-protection blogger)
  • Hiring someone to boast about your life and sign it using your name (= CEO blogger)

Sometimes the reason for anonymity is clear and compelling. You don’t want to get fired, or make your spouse unhappy, for example. GetUpGrrl was one of my favorite weblogs of all time, smart and funny and important, too. Grrl documented her history with infertility treatment, right up to the point where her son was born to a surrogate. She remained anonymous, and in that case I don’t think anyone even thought of trying to out her, because she had the respect, admiration and good wishes of her readers.

But in many cases there seems no reasonable argument for anonymity. Lorelle the WordPress goddess has written at length about this:

You can stay anonymous by not clearly identifying exactly who you are, but help us to understand at least where you are coming from and why we should 1) care, 2) trust, and 3) read. If you are pontificating about the rain in Spain or number of terrorists inside of the United States, I will want to know how you know this and whether or not to take you seriously.

There are also compelling arguments against anonymous blogging at The Aardvark Speaks, and the more in-your-face position of The Gothamist:

Gothamist does not approve of anonymous blogging: We believe all bloggers should stand behind their posts with their real names. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be blogging.

But anonymous weblogs won’t go away. The Supreme Court has made it clear any number of times: anonymous speech falls under the First Amendment rights, and is protected. ((More detail on the legalities at The Electronic Frontier.)) So there’s no question of legality, unless the anonymous blogger causes real harm to someone else.

There are quite a few anonymous weblogs that focus on some aspect of reading or publishing fiction. Miss Snark — a literary agent — wrote a sharply entertaining weblog, where she was clearly trying to be helpful to people trying to get published — but the masses wanted to know who she was, and eventually she was identified as Janet Reid. At which point she stopped blogging, much to the dismay of her many readers.

I have been thinking about anonymous reviews for a long time (obviously, given my PW gig), and trying to sort out for myself whether they do what they set out to do. Which is? I hear you asking, quite rightly. And no, I’m not going to get into the sticky territory of defining the review in all its forms and approaches. But I can ask a different question instead:

Why anonymous review blogs? I can think of reasons that someone might want to be anonymous, but none of them are encouraging. Someone who has not been able to get their own books published, and has an axe to grind with the industry (and published authors); a person with conflicts of interest (such as the husband of the poet, at Foetry) ((I’ll tell this story in another post; a cautionary tale when it comes to anonymity)); a person who wants to be published someday and therefore couldn’t afford to offend people openly; somebody with strong opinions who likes to stir up controversy, but not be held responsible for it.

Are there any compelling arguments for this practice? I can’t think of one, but maybe you can.