used books

the midlist/midlife crisis

Original post date: 14 July 2007

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

while I'm cranky I might as well take advantage

I’m not going to get into the discussion about used books, but I do want to share an oddity that I can’t figure out.

If you go to Amazon and look at Into the Wilderness, you’ll see the paperback edition is still in print. You’ll also see that you could buy it used, and there are a 104 such copies to chose from, ranging in price from .59 (plus $3.49 shipping) to $10.00 (plus $3.49 shipping). The two copies being sold for ten bucks are listed as new, but there’s nothing collectible about them otherwise, as far as I can see.

But here’s where it gets very odd. If you look a little further (search “Sara Donati” and a list of all editions will come up) you’ll find a few copies of the books at prices I can’t figure out at all. For example:


If you look at the listing page you’ll see that somebody is selling a copy of ITW in paperback for $51.49, plus shipping. It doesn’t claim that the copy is new, or a first printing, or signed. The only claim: “Buy without risk! Excellent customer service.”

I should hope so. If you pay more than sixty bucks for a book you can buy brand new for 7.50, you had best get excellent customer service. I would expect the book to be hand delivered on a silver tray at that markup. And isn’t that adding insult to injury? If you go off and buy a used copy of ITW for a couple bucks because you’re broke or for whatever reason, the used book seller makes a slim profit. I don’t get paid at all, but that’s not the point here. The point: the person who manages to sell a paperback copy of ITW for $51.95 is making more money on that copy than I ever did. Many times more.

What’s the deal? Are these just opportunistic merchants who are hoping for a gullible person to walk by?

Hey bud, com’ere. You need a watch? I got beeeooo-tiful watches, these babies’d cost you more than a thousand bucks over in Switzerland, I’ll give you the pick of the bunch for an easy twenty. And whle you’re looking, you got any interest in rare books? I got a once in a lifetime deal here, let me show ya.

Somebody explain this to me, would you? Because I truly don’t understand.

new versus used books

Here’s the summary (and this is my take alone):

1. If you can afford to buy new books, that’s an excellent way to support the work of authors you like best.

2. If you can’t afford to buy new books, the next best way is to borrow from the library. Libraries deserve support. Libraries also support authors.

3. There are times and situations in which buying a used book is reasonable. If the work is out of copyright or out of print and/or if the author has been dead for a while.

If I buy a copy of a book new, I am then comfortable buying a second copy used if it’s for my own use.

If the author is new to me, I will get his or her work out of the library until I decide whether or not I want to purchase the books new.

Once I decide to buy a used book, I will try to get it from a nonprofit. For example, a library or school sale. There are a number of organizations that collect and sell used books for non-profits. The most visible one is Better World Books.

These are my guidelines. Everybody has to decide for themselves how best to proceed.

the shortest ever explanation of how an author makes money

I’m writing this post because I’m in real danger of falling asleep (at 9:30 in the morning) and missing Bunny’s vet appointment. So if I’m a little disjointed, that’s why.

Lauren’s question:

I’ve got a question about book purchasing. I buy from everywhere (Amazon, B&N, Borders, B.Daltons, Target, Costco, used bookstores,, library sales, ect, ect) but I never really gave thought to the author, I truly beleived that the publisher paid up front for the book, x amount of dollars, and then they paid to print, distribute, & advertise and the author didn’t get paid residuals for each book sold. Was I incorrect in this? I know you went over this before, but I couldn’t find it. I’ld love to know your take on this, in your opinion, wheres the best place to purchase?

I can only tell you about my own experiences, but I think they are pretty typical. Also, I can’t tell you where to shop. Or at least, I don’t think it would be right of me to try to tell you where to shop. Opinions? Sure. I’ll share some of them.

So this is how it works.

My agent goes to a potential publisher with (a) a finished manuscript or (b) a partial manuscript or (c) an outline and story idea. She does this by approaching the editor in the house who she believes is most likely to respond to the book and fight for it.

If she’s right, and the editor likes the book enough and finds it marketable enough, the editor goes to the editorial board and pitches the book. I don’t have much insight into this part of the process, but I do know what comes out the other end: an offer, or nothing.

If the publisher wants the book they sit down and crunch numbers. Given the market, the author’s Q factor, current production and distribution costs, how many copies of this book could they realistically sell? They come up with a number. On the basis of that number (10K or 50K or whatever number of book sales projected) they put together an offer and present it to the agent.

The agent looks at the numbers, talks to the author. they make a decision.

The deal will look something like this:

on signing of the contract, the author will get an advance. That advance is based on projected sales. It can be anywhere from $500 to millions (if you’re a consistent number one NYT author). But the advance is just that: an advance on royalties.

The contract stipulates how much money you get for each book sold. Usually the arrangements are pretty complicated, depending on format, and often there’s a sliding scale. The more books sold, the bigger the author’s percentage. So when a book sells for a cover price of $25, where does that money go? About 12% of that $25 goes to the author (and 15% of the author’s 12% goes to the agent). The rest of the money is the publisher’s to spend on editing, book design, printing, marketing, promotion — which a profit margin tucked in there too. Of course. This is a business.

The publisher makes deals with chain stories. Order xxxx copies of Book X and we’ll lower the cost to you. This is how Amazon can offer 30% off the cover price of a brand new book, because they’re buying bulk and they get a discount.

The author only gets money from the first sale of the book. The first time it’s purchased at the full cover price, or at a discount, the author gets her 12% of the stated cover price of $25. This is why small bookstores complain about the chains: the chains can negotiate lower rates, and thus lower the cost of the book to the consumer. It’s hard to pass up thirty percent off.

If a book is read and sold again as a used book, there’s nothing in those subsequent sales for the author. In fact, the author won’t get any more money at all until and less the advance “pays out”. That means, if you took home an advance of $20,000, enough books have to sell so that the royalties that accrue to you meet that $20,000 mark. If the book flops and it doesn’t sell at all, that’s still your money — the publisher takes the loss. However, you’re unlikely to get another contract with that publisher. So you live off your advance in the hope that the book will move beyond the projected sales. If not, you have to produce another book, or go work as a bank teller. Something thrilling, and far more regular and easier than writing.

I know I’ve left questions unanswered I’m too sleepy to have possibly done everything that needed doing. So speak up if you’ve got more questions on this.