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Question of the Month: Nuts and Bolts

By Posted on 46 3 m read 623 views

Does it help you to know the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the book business, or does that make it all seem more depressing?

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I debated whether to bring the nuts and bolts of royalty statements here because so many people are protective of their sales numbers. But I’ve been pretty transparent throughout the process of trying to write and sell my book, thinking that knowledge of this business empowers writers, or at least makes us not feel so alone. So here goes… nuts, bolts, and numbers.

My debut novel came out the last week of September, 2010.

In April of 2011, I got my first royalty statement. (In the literary world, these statements come every April and October, hopefully accompanied by a check.) The April statement only showed sales from the book’s release through the end of December 2010.

The sales page was filled with confusing headings (royalty rate, gross units, reserves, and so on) as well as loads of numbers and percentages. I had to call my agent to decode the thing, but the short of it is this:

From the end of September 2010 to the end of December 2010, my book sold 31,000 copies. Most of those sales were paperback; fewer than 2,000 were for the e-version of the book (Kindle and Nook).

Now for the financial figures, the great humbling for writers…

Here’s a sample of a royalty statement (not mine and not my publisher) that I think has some really helpful highlights on it.

Okay, so your book is sold to readers for one price but that’s not the amount the author gets per book. You (the author) really get pennies per book. After the pennies are added up, you start subtracting for your advance (the original sale of the book), your agent’s fee (15%), returns (there were 157 returns of my book), and something called reserves (which I still don’t understand but it’s something like a holding fee).

The first statement also didn’t include foreign rights sales because those contracts came in late. But, hoorah, there was a check, only much smaller than the already cynical math I’d run in my head. In other words, no one’s going shopping; that money goes into the family checking account to pay for such glamorous things as electricity, groceries, and debt.

So now it’s October, and while I await another royalty statement and hopefully another check (please oh please I hope the Rosie O’Donnell show in March gave a bump in sales), I know where the real payoff comes from—it comes from you guys. The richest asset for any author is a community of other readers and writers, loving books and valuing the creative process.

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Some thank yous to people who posted about my book: Dear ReaderBeautiful World, Fayetteville Free Library, Girlfriends Book Club, Heidi’s Books, Pregnancy Books Review, ALTAFF, Letters for Lucas, and Michelle Wegner (What an honor to be in a stack with Heart of Darkness and The Velveteen Rabbit!). So appreciative of all of you. Word of mouth means everything to the life of a book!

And speaking of word-of-mouth for books, a few regulars here have some exciting new books to share: Nathalie Boisard-Beudin’s ON CLOUD 285, Greg Olear’s FATHERMUCKER, and Jessica Keener’s NIGHT SWIM. Adrienne Crezo has launched LitStack, an online hangout that somehow has the feel of being in an indie bookstore. And the incomparable Brad Listi has a brand new, hour-long author podcast (which is fantastic), called Other People. Please check out all the talented work!

Later this month, I’m going back to my home state of Virginia for an exciting inauguration of Club Read. Hope to see lots of you there!

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46 Comments
  • Jessica Keener
    October 3, 2011

    First, congratulations on your rookie year and for writing a novel that soared out of the park–you wrote a home run, my dear, and I’m so proud of what you created. Second, congratulations. You got a royalty check! Your sales numbers sound fantastic.

    Now to answer your question-I believe it’s better to know about the business you are in. If you sell apples, you need to know how they grow, and how they keep, and what they taste like and who likes to buy them, and how much they sell for. Same with books. If you are going to get into the business of selling your book, then you need to know how that system works (or doesn’t work). It’s not always fun and it can be a drag, for sure, but remaining clueless is a way of giving away your energy and your part in the process; and I don’t see what kind of sense that would make, no matter how you look at it.

    I’m just starting down a road you traveled last year, so I have the benefit of listening and absorbing all that you’ve been sharing with me and others along the way. Thank you so much for that, and extra thanks for mentioning Night Swim.

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      I’m so thrilled about your book coming out and can’t wait to read it again. Just gorgeous and still with me!

      I agree with you about knowledge, even when that knowledge is maddening. I’ve been grateful for people who’ve mentored me along the way, steered me past potholes, told me what would be better uses of my time, or patted me on the shoulder and assured me that what looks crazy is normal (or at least a normal that authors have learned to accept).

      The best advice I got just before my book came out was this: enjoy this time. You only have a debut novel once, and it’s something to celebrate and savor. The second best advice I got was this: You may be surprised by who doesn’t read or respond to your book launch at all. Let every bit of that go and allow the book to reach and move whoever it will. Here’s to a wonderful launch and a long life for NIGHT SWIM!

  • Jenny Milchman
    October 3, 2011

    Wow, I admire you, Susan, for sharing that! I have literally never seen an author give such an inside peek.

    My debut novel sold last May–the contracts are just being signed–so I’m still a ways off from any such, but I appreciate the sneak peek. I hope Rosie gives you a big bump, too! After groceries and electricity, comes the…yacht.

    And I will go now and look up your book, which of course is on my List, but which you just reminded me of!

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      Jenny, Congratulations! What’s the name of your book? What’s it about? How is the process going for you since the sale?

  • Billy Bones
    October 3, 2011

    Congratulations on earning out so soon. That will definitely help you land a second book (if you haven’t already).

    Mr. Lincoln definitely writes for the love of it, not the money.

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      Mr. Lincoln is brilliant, and I love his new imp drawings. And definitely not writing for the money here either. Not necessarily for love, either. Probably something closer to *need*.

      • Billy Bones
        October 3, 2011

        Thank you for saying that.

        As far as that *need* thing goes, Mr. Lincoln gets pretty twitchy when he’s not writing each morning, so I suppose it’s more than love for him, too.

        • Susan Henderson
          October 3, 2011

          Twitchy is a good way to describe it.

  • Lance
    October 3, 2011

    ugh…
    twice a year I engage in the love/hate relationship with the nuts and bolts.
    but, between those I get the real payoff, awesome mail from readers that my words resonate with.

    the business end of it often has me thinking Salinger was right.

  • Lance
    October 3, 2011

    “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

    “An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s”

    “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”

    …I could throw them out there all day… 😉

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      Those quotes are oh so welcome here!

      • Lance
        October 3, 2011

        On a personal note:
        The first book was easy. Being unknown affords the luxury of privacy, a shelter in which to create. You’ve nothing to work against to share a private world and make a voice. It feels safe.

        Following that isn’t near as easy.

        Conventional wisdom says that getting that first published is the hard part. I’ve found the work even harder faced with the options clause and work that shifts in to a voice unknown to those that embraced the first.

        …and those pesky nuts and bolts I knew nothing about until the dubut was long finished.

        • Susan Henderson
          October 3, 2011

          For me, I don’t think anything will ever be as hard as writing, editing and overcoming rejection of that first book. I also still, to this day, feel the relief of finally pushing through that door to publication. That said, writing the next book is still about starting with a blank sheet of paper and my chaotic thought process.

          About the privacy and the shelter of writing that first book, I hear you, and I’m trying my best not to hurry the one I’m working on now but to trust my own process and my own muse and my own timetable.

  • Nathalie ( @spacedlaw )
    October 3, 2011

    The noughts and bolts are pretty depressing but, on the other hand, I am only writing for fun (the pennies I get go to charity -I am not about to save the world from hunger, alas).
    I do hope you will get plenty of royalties still.
    Thanks for the shout out.

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      I’m smiling over “noughts” and want so badly to sit in a little Italian cafe today!

      • Nathalie ( @spacedlaw )
        October 6, 2011

        I had to (about the noughts).
        I am told there are very good copies of little Italian cafe in NYC, complete with Italian speaking waiters and patrons. Having never been there myself – alas – I don’t know if that’s true or if that’s one of those urban legends I keep hearing about.

        • Susan Henderson
          October 6, 2011

          NYC has everything… kind of. But there’s something about countries that are more than 200 years old and cobblestone streets and all that history. I think I’m going to go for the real thing!

  • billie hinton
    October 3, 2011

    I think the nuts and bolts are important info that we all need to look at and learn to understand to some degree – and then be able to set the knowledge aside as we need to in order to get back to the living of creative, productive lives, whether they be via writing books, painting canvases, sculpting clay, etc.

    It’s wonderful to earn money from the work – but for me the real benefit of the work is the doing of it. Although I admit, when I get the email from Amazon each month that a deposit has been made to my account, and it’s enough to pay some bills, I feel pretty good. 🙂

    So glad Up From The Blue has done so well – and looking forward to the new reads you mentioned!!

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      I couldn’t agree more about looking at it all and then setting it aside. And the thing I’m hearing over and over again in this comment thread is that all of us would love the money and recognition, we’re all in it for the art.

  • billie hinton
    October 3, 2011

    I love what Lance wrote about being unknown affording a shelter in which to create… it’s absolutely true. And yet, on some level, in some way, we have to figure out how to do this again and again if we continue writing. I suspect for me the shelter I manage to create for each book is part of why the “work of writing” is so important to me. I need that shelter in more ways than one. And I need to know I can re-create it as many times as I need to.

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      Yeah, it’s always new, isn’t it? In some ways that’s maddening, but in other ways it’s why I’m never bored. I like the challenge of wrestling down the story and then, in the editing process, making it sing. Er, sometimes that’s a very long process with the story regularly pinning me against the mat.

      • billie hinton
        October 4, 2011

        I was thinking more about creating the sacred/safe space in sandplay therapy where the client can access the depth material – and what Lance wrote made me realize that I do the same thing – create that shelter for myself and each book. It’s truly like a safe and protected space where I “allow” the stuff that churns through my head 24/7 to come out and onto the page. And I think there is something soothing and self-healing for me in making that safe and protected space for this to occur.

        I am fascinated that you use the word wrestling – it is so different for each of us. I think of it as getting still enough to let the voice of the book come forth – the opposite of wrestling, really.

        This is for me the beauty of the creative process – that it is so unique for each of us and does what it needs to do in some deep unnamed way. Although I like that you have created THIS space where we can in fact talk about these things and name some of them! 🙂

  • David Abrams
    October 3, 2011

    Susan,
    A thousand thank you’s for this peek behind the curtain. My debut novel was just accepted by Grove/Atlantic (no word yet on pub date) and though I’ve been standing on the periphery of publishing for years, I feel like I’m sailing into uncharted waters. Your honest revelations here are very helpful–like a lighthouse on a rocky coast.
    I also appreciate what you said in an earlier comment about celebrating and savoring the moments surrounding the birth of that first novel. You’re right–we’re only “first-time novelists” once. The best piece of advice I got from Amanda Eyre Ward a couple of weeks ago after I told her news of my novel’s sale: “Start writing your next book. You’ll never be able to write without critics’ voices in your mind again.”

    • Susan Henderson
      October 3, 2011

      David, Congratulations! Absolutely love Grove/Atlantic books and hope they take very good care of you. What’s the the title of your novel so we can keep an eye out for it?

      I’m a huge fan of Amanda’s and I can’t agree more with her advice. It keeps you from going into waiting/anxiety mode. Also, you won’t believe how busy things get 3 months before thru 3 months after your book comes out. You won’t get a thing done during that time because you’ll be your publicist’s little puppet. Right now is the best time to dream the new characters but with this time the tremendous validation that Grove has given you.

      • David Abrams
        October 3, 2011

        Thanks, Susan! I’m very happy and still a little I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me when I think Grove/Atlantic will be my publisher. The novel is tentatively called “Fobbit” and it’s about the Iraq War.

        The immediate future will be busy because of the edits G/A will be sending back to me. After that, during the “calm before the storm,” I hope to continue work on the next novel (already have a small start on it).

        Thanks again for the wonderful advice and encouragement.

        • Susan Henderson
          October 4, 2011

          Well, you’ve got me totally curious now! By the way, enjoy and take your time on the edits. It’s such a great feeling to make those final adjustments knowing you have the validation and safety net of a contract. You’ll see! Looking forward to the final product and the story of its takeoff!

  • Sheri A. (Sheri in Reho)
    October 4, 2011

    Susan: I continue to be so happy for you in the success of Up From the Blue which, as you know, I reviewed through the Amazon Vine program and loved. As to the answer to your question, while I am an UNpublished writer when it comes to paid writing (I have written as a volunteer for various nonprofits), I find it very interesting and educational to see behind the curtain of the publishing game.

    Is it depressing? I wouldn’t go that far. It may burst some bubbles for those of us to whom being published is still a dream (or a fantasy), but I think it is important information to know and I think you are fabulous for sharing it!

    • Susan Henderson
      October 4, 2011

      So grateful for your review. Thank you. I often find it disheartening and frustrating to peek behind the curtain. It’s a little like watching the sausage-making in Congress–you kind of can’t believe what you see. And yet seeing it shows which hoops are coming up that you can try to jump through, and it reminds you again and again to shake off what can feel deeply personal and keep at it.

      If you can dream it, you can do it! ~Walt Disney

      • Sheri A. (Sheri in Reho)
        October 6, 2011

        You sure that isn’t from Rocky Horror? LOL (kidding–tho it does sound like a line Frankenfurter sings toward the end)

  • Seré
    October 5, 2011

    Susan,
    Thank you for this very helpful and generous inside peek! I’ve written here before about how much I loved Up From the Blue, and I’m not the least bit surprised at how well it’s doing. I remember being so inspired by both your long-road-to-publication story (I too was on a lo-o-ong road that I only hoped was going in that direction) and your beautiful book. Since then, my own debut novel was bought by Dutton (!) and will be published in January. (It’s called The Underside of Joy.)

    I really appreciate how you share your experiences here — from all the hard work and rejection, to the inspiring dream come true, your writing (and wrestling) process, along with the nuts and bolts business details. Your generosity to your fellow writers means a lot. Thanks so much!

  • Seré
    October 6, 2011

    Thank you so much, Susan. I’m excited — and trying to get some writing done before I need to switch into publicity mode!

    • Susan Henderson
      October 6, 2011

      Smart move!

  • Colin Matthew
    October 8, 2011

    As someone who wants to someday be published, I think knowing the nuts and bolts of the industry is very interesting. You would go out and play a game of Rugby without first reviewing the rules would you? I know the whole book publishing industry is very depressing for writers, but I think going in to it with realistic goals would help writers cope with the checks they receive from their books.

    Also, 31,000 sounds like a nice sold number for the first 3 months of a debut book/author. Am I wrong in that?

    • Susan Henderson
      October 8, 2011

      That’s just it, Colin, I have no idea what my numbers mean in the larger scheme of things because no one shares their numbers. The only ones you ever hear about are for TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER because it often says right on the cover: “Over a bazillion copies sold!”

      I like the idea of comparing the writing business to rugby–nice!

      • Billy Bones
        October 24, 2011

        I’m going to adopt the “bazillion copies sold” strategy for my next book. I’ll probably have to add an asterisk, though.

        • Susan Henderson
          October 25, 2011

          Me, too! And no one ever reads the footnote when there’s an asterisk so it’s a great plan.

  • Kristin
    November 12, 2011

    I found this site from the back cover of Up From the Blue; love to write, love to read, love to OWN my books – but sadly I have to take this one back to the library tomorrow. Love the characters! Needless to say, if it were mine, I would be reading it again at some point. When I have money I should like to add it to my collection! I was surprised to see this as a debut book – very well written and held me from the first page. Looking forward to reading more things from you in the future!
    Kristin

    • Susan Henderson
      November 12, 2011

      Kristin, Thank you for making my day! And welcome! 🙂