The Blog of a Historical Romance Author


How to suck at typography

July 30th, 2014

Over the last few months on twitter, I’ve increasingly seen people linking to covers of historical romances and saying something like UGH this does not look right!

Some of those covers actually have great underlying images. The problem in 99.9% of them is that the typography is…not good. There are usually three ways that people end up with typography that is not good.

  1. They are doing the typography themselves.
  2. They have hired the typography out to someone who is not good at typography (e.g., they have used a graphic artist to make the cover, but not all graphic artists are great at laying type.)
  3. They have hired someone who knows how to do decent typography, but insist on elements that are not good typography. In other words, the client is creating the problem.

This post is specific to historical romance. That’s because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at historical romance covers, and feel like I can talk about them with some reasonable authority. This post is nonetheless not intended to be authoritative, complete, or to serve as instruction for anyone putting together a book cover.

This is a post that is designed to do one thing and one thing only: Tell people things to do on their historical romance cover to make sure the typography sucks.

Without further ado, here are some of the most effective ways to suck (with suggestions as to how to not suck.)

1. Choose a crap font.

Bad typography: Crap font

This is the biggest one. I can’t tell you how many historical romance covers are ruined by crap fonts. Just about anything you got free on your computer or downloaded from some free site is going to be sheer crap, I’m sorry to tell you. And fonts that are great for the inside of the book–fonts like Garamond or Times New Roman–often don’t do well on the cover for name/title fonts.

As a note, what constitutes a “crap font” in historical romance is not the same thing as a “crap font” in another genre. For instance, Trade Gothic is standard on a number of thrillers. It would look ridiculous on a historical romance. Spend some time looking at covers in your genre to see what kind of fonts people use.

I actually don’t think that the typography above would be absolutely terrible for a certain kind of book.

A great font is not just a great font–it is also a way to brand yourself as an author. Don’t be afraid to spend money on an excellent font. It always annoys me when I see people whining that people won’t buy their book when it’s less than a cup of coffee, but they are unwilling to shell out $50 for an extraordinary font that would brand their books.

(My biggest problem with some of the less-expensive-but-still-professional-looking cover design shops is that they’ve figured out a typography combination that works for them and they keep using it over and over, regardless of the client.

End result? A look that is branded to the cover designer rather than the author.

But given a choice between crap typography and a non-branded cover, I’d say go for the non-branded cover.)

2. Use low-contrast color combinations.

image

Want people to be able to read your title and your cover? Well, don’t use red-on-red color combinations. This one is fairly easy to see, and yet I keep seeing things like this crop up on Amazon. I really have to wonder at people who put out books like the above. What are they thinking?

3. Use too many fonts.

image

Using a small number of fonts allows you to create a cohesive feel to your cover. One or two fonts–three at the absolute maximum, and then only after careful consideration–is all that anyone should ever need to make a good cover. Too many fonts will distract the viewer.

4. Don’t pay attention to kerning

image

Kerning is about the spacing between letters. As a note, this is one of those places where a quality font really matters: a really good font is one where the designer has gone through and specified kernings for every pair of letters. That gives it a professional quality that requires less work on the designer’s part. The random font you got for free off of someone’s website? Probably has crap kerning, and you need to adjust manually.

See that space between the “T” and the “H” in the author name? It just looks weird. And unprofessional. Ditto for the space between the “D” and the “u.” If you look at all these letters, you can see that they subtly feel like none of them are properly aligned.

If you don’t know how to kern a font manually, you’re probably not someone who should be doing typography. If your designer doesn’t know how to kern a font, ditto.

5. Use font effects.

image

You know what? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you have any doubts as to your ability to judge typography, you should not use font effects beyond a mild drop shadow. For historical romances, font effects are basically death. I include in this flashy color gradients, fonts on a wavy path, fancy texturing or beveling of the font… You name it, I don’t want it. Font effects are the opposite of tasteful covers. They are harder to read at best, and migraine-inducing at worst. The worst fug in the world comes from font effects.

DO NOT USE.

6. Use all the whizbang.

image

Yay, you spent a ton of money on an awesome font, and now you want to show it off. Your font has whizbang. So much whizbang! You cannot wait to show everyone all your whizbang.

Please restrain yourself. A few bits of whizbang are enough for any one cover. Too much whizbang is hard to read, and that distracts people from the cover itself. You are better off having no whizbang than too much.

7. Don’t balance your cover elements.

image

This is actually a really, really subtle point–the typography above is actually not horrendous. But in this case, it has been centered with a computer and left like that. The end result is that it looks unbalanced. The “The” is hanging over the “Duke” and there’s a large gap that makes it perceptually look like it’s farther away (even though I have set the baselines of all three words to be equidistant). “Dukes” and “Cock” do not appear to be centered with respect to each other. And the elements are placed over the image without any thought as to what will draw the eye on the image itself–note that the eye is naturally drawn to that white spot right by the rooster’s wattles, and the text placement does not logically follow from that spot.

Typography is not just about placing elements over an image; it’s about bringing things together into a cohesive whole.

If you cannot tell why items 1-7 are not great examples of historical romance typography, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that does look GREAT on a curvy path!” do not do your own typography. You do not have the skills you need. In fact, you are the opposite of what you need, and you need to get out of your own way.

(It’s okay. Everyone sucks at something.)

If you look through a designer’s portfolio and see them using only cheap/free fonts with terrible kerning, do not use them. Et cetera and so forth.

Things you should do if you want to not suck

(Note: I basically banged all these images out over the course of half an hour, and now I’m looking at this and still want to fiddle–especially with moving around the title/author name–but since I am not, in fact, using this for anything except illustration purposes, I’m just going to leave it like this, even though I’d probably still make changes.)

image

 

1. Use typographical elements to draw the eye back to the image rather than send it away.

2. Pay attention to how typographical elements interact with each other–in this case, the “D” and the “C” in the title interlock with each other, and I’ve moved the “The” to give a sense of balance. Rather than having the swirl from the R intersect the middle bar of the “E” as in the above image, I’ve deleted the middle bar, so the elements flow together.

I do not pretend this is the best historical romance cover ever (for more reasons than one). But it is, at a minimum, not guilty of horrendous fug. And if you are nitpicking things about this cover, yay, congratulations, you may be nitpicky enough that you can do typography!

3. Use a great font sparingly. This font is called Desire, and it is made by Borges Lettering. It is the only font used on the cover for the last three images. (You can see that the font has a lifetime supply of whizbang, should you wish to use it–use with care.) You can get it here: http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/charlesborges/desire/

4. Make sure that the typography and the image interact well. Don’t cover over parts of the image that you want people to focus on; make sure you choose an image that has a lot of places to overlay font with a great color contrast. (This, by the way, is the primary driver of the “girl in a massive dress” cover–because the dress serves as a blank palette to overlay text on.)

All righty. That’s my short course on how to suck at typography. I’m sure I’ve left off a bunch of items, so please feel free to add your own tips in the comments!

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Enhanced editions!

July 7th, 2014

Hi everyone! The enhanced editions of my first five books–Unveiled, Unclaimed, This Wicked Gift, Proof by Seduction, and Trial by Desire, are now available–and they’re only 99 cents each through July 25th.

enhanced

If you want to know what an enhanced edition is, I explain it better here. If you have already purchased these books, and just want the additional content, you do NOT have to rebuy the book just to get it–I don’t believe in making people pay twice, particularly when they’ve been nice enough to buy the book in the first place. The enhanced content is available for free on my website here.

That is, I think, all that you need to know as a reader: you can get my earliest books, with more content, for 99 cents!

Here are buy links, for those who are so inclined:

Amazon: http://smarturl.it/enhanced-amazon
Barnes and Noble: http://smarturl.it/enhanced-bn
Google: http://smarturl.it/enhanced-google
Kobo: http://smarturl.it/enhanced-kobo
iBooks: Unveiled | Unclaimed | This Wicked Gift | Proof by Seduction | Trial by Desire

Authors, have asked me a lot more questions over the last few weeks, and so here are some answers to those questions.

Q. Why are you releasing enhanced editions?

A. Because I can. I know that sounds a little bit ridiculous, but let me put it to you this way–if you had a contract with a publisher for print-only releases, and the contract specifically stated that you reserved digital rights, would you put that book up as a digital edition? Of course you would.

That’s what my contract looks like with regards to enhanced editions. They specifically reserve the right to make enhanced ebooks to me. I had that right, and so I am now exercising it.

Releasing enhanced editions gives me control over pricing, covers, branding, promotion, and back matter. It also makes me more money.

Q. Are you the first person to release enhanced editions?

A. Nope! Publishers have been putting out enhanced editions for years. And authors have self-published enhanced editions before, too. I’m aware of two other authors. Christina Dodd has put out enhanced editions of her Lost Hearts series, with deleted scenes and author commentary, and Cherry Adair has put out enhanced editions of a number of her books–with more material in them than I can possibly list here.

I’m pretty sure that Cherry Adair, like me, is putting out enhanced editions while her publisher still holds an exclusive license to the underlying unenhanced text.

Q. Specifically what in your contract allows you to do this? Can I do this, too?

A. There are two parts to my contracts that allow me to do this. The first is the following statement in the Grant of Rights section of my contract:

(d)  electronic use of the non-dramatic unenhanced verbatim text of the Work, excluding video use (whether in a now known form or hereafter discovered) … Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Agreement, electronic rights shall be limited to the display of the text in the Work and shall not include any moving images, sound or any interactive or multimedia elements.

Incidentally, give my agent, Kristin Nelson, a hand for drafting an extremely clear statement. If she’d just left it as “unenhanced verbatim text” or even limited it to “multimedia elements” we might have had to argue about what “multimedia” and “enhanced” meant. As it is, the line about “sound” gave me a really, really clear out: As long as I included audio, I was outside the rights I had granted to my publisher.

The second is something that is not in my contracts, and that is a noncompete provision of any kind.

I don’t know if you can do this. You’ll have to look at your contract. I’ve mentioned here the two things you’ll need to look at–the grant of rights section and…uh, the rest of the contract. In the grant of rights section, you need to look and see if you are only granting rights to the “unenhanced” text, or if you reserve “multimedia” rights or something along those lines. There are probably a thousand different ways to word the reservation, and so there’s no magic language I can tell you to look for.

There are also a lot of authors out there who don’t have an enhanced reservation at all. I’m pretty sure that Harlequin series boilerplate, for instance, will not allow this.

Whether you can do this will depend entirely on what you and/or your agent negotiated.

Q. Will you look at my contract and tell me if I can do this?

A. No, sorry. That’s a job for a lawyer, and I’m not licensed to practice anywhere at the moment, and don’t want to get you in trouble.

Q. Are these self-published?

A. It depends on what you mean by “self-published.” If you look at the publisher listed on the vendor websites, it will say “Entangled Edge/Macmillan.” That’s because I have a distribution arrangement with Entangled Publishing, who in turn has a distribution arrangement with Macmillan.

Why do I have a distribution arrangement with Entangled? I wanted to make sure I was falling under the safe-harbor laid out in my contract–meaning I had to include audio. Self-publishers cannot publish books to Amazon or Barnes and Noble with audio in them, so I have a distribution arrangement with Entangled to send them out.

I produced the files and covers entirely on my own, and granted Entangled a nonexclusive license to distribute them. [ETA: As a sidenote, I asked Kristin to negotiate that agreement as well, and she made sure we stuck to the points we needed to most protect me.]

I could have gone through someone like vook.com to distribute–but I’m getting a much better deal this way.

Are these self-published? I bore all the costs and work of producing the files, so in that sense, yes. Are these distributed through normal self-published channels? No. They are not.

Q. Are you worried that your publisher is going to sue you?

A. Not really. We’ve kept them in the loop throughout, and they’ve had the chance to raise objections before now, which they have not done. My contract is really clear on this point, so they don’t have grounds to sue me. And they’re not unreasonable.

That being said, my budget for this project included a phantom legal fund. Just because something’s extremely unlikely doesn’t mean that it is impossible.

Q. Are you worried that someone is going to get sued over enhanced ebooks?

A. Yes, which is one reason I don’t want to look at anyone’s contract (I mean, aside from the fact that the unlicensed practice of law is generally frowned upon). There are potentially tens of thousands of books out there that have an enhanced ebook reservation in them.

I think that there’s a huge opportunity here for authors, but I also think there is a huge risk involved, and I want to emphasize the risk in addition to the opportunity. I think there are very few authors who are positioned as well as I am: on the one hand, my contract is from my limited experience unusually clear on this point; on the other hand, I have legal resources available to me that are, to say the least, uncommon.

Q. Are you worried that your publisher is going to be unhappy about this?

A. Not particularly. But if I were still publishing with them, and wanted to continue publishing with them, this would not have been a particularly prudent course of action.

Q. Where did you get the idea for this?

A. From Joe Konrath, at the end of this post. And yes, I’ve known that I could (and likely would) make enhanced editions since before I self-published my first work. I’ve been planning these ever since April of 2011.

Any other questions? You can ask me in the comments. (I may be in and out quite a bit today, but will get to comments as I can.)

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RT’s Giant Bookfair

May 18th, 2014

Yesterday was RT’s Giant Bookfair. It was easily the most intense signing I’ve ever been at. Authors rubbed shoulder to shoulder (literally), books taking up all available table space, with a line of readers that snaked through much of the building. The waits were immense.

Some self-published authors are talking about one specific thing: that is, the separation of authors into two rooms on the basis of criteria that would not have been obvious to readers. Authors who were selling nonreturnable books–typically, authors from digital-first presses and self-published authors–were selling books on consignment, whereas the other books were being sold by a bookstore.

(For those following along at home: Most authors know what is meant when we say a book is “returnable,” but readers probably don’t. So just to make it clear, many publishers make their books available to bookstores on a “returnable” basis. That means the bookstore can order in 20 copies of a book to see if it will sell well. If it does, yay for everyone! If not, the bookstore can send back the copies they didn’t sell for credit. They do this to convince bookstores to take a chance on authors without having to take an enormous risk. From a book fair perspective, it could be very expensive to order nonreturnable books that are not sold at the book fair. There is little other avenue to sell those books–so ordering those books, and having to eat the cost of them, could easily make a bookfair unprofitable, and then we wouldn’t have them at all. Instead, authors with nonreturnable books bring those books on a consignment basis.)

That meant that the authors needed to bring those books, have them checked out, determine the sales of books afterward, and fill out paperwork as to how they were to be paid. I believe RT handled those sales. By contrast, a bookstore was handling the sales for the books that were returnable. At the RT Giant Bookfair, for administrative ease, authors with nonreturnable books were put into a separate room. This saves a little time because then RT staff would automatically know if an author needed to be checked in/checked out. From the reader perspective, I believe that these books had to be paid for separately, too. (I didn’t go through the paying lines and so cannot say for a fact that this is true, but I’ve heard it more than once now.)

(Another not-so-sidenote: I refer to this as a “separation” because that is in fact what it was. I do not think it’s appropriate to use civil rights language to describe what happened. There is a difference between business arrangements that are entered into voluntarily, and irrational, debilitating animus that is based on immutable personal characteristics. Also, there is a difference between separating people on the basis of irrelevant facts like race, and separation on the basis of legitimate, administrative reasons. It’s really uncool to appropriate the struggles of minorities to describe a voluntary choice to get 70% royalties on digital books. I don’t really want to have that debate, though, because I have Been There Before and it Rarely Does Any Good. So I’m putting my thumb on this particular issue: I reserve the right to disemvowel comments that go there. If you want to engage in appropriation, you can find other venues to do it.)

This separation was not explained well to readers or volunteers–unsurprisingly, since most readers/volunteers don’t really know or care whether the books they buy are “returnable” or not, since that’s a distinction that matters only to the bookseller.

Naturally, people made up their own explanations for the divide. Rumor has it that someone claimed that the authors with returnable books were “real authors” and that the authors who were selling their books on a consignment basis were “aspiring authors.” As far as I can tell, this appears to have been one misinformed volunteer, rather than the official RT Convention description. It was not something that I saw or heard, and I do not think it was widespread.

Several readers had difficulty finding me because it was not made clear that there were TWO giant rooms full of authors, and while there was a list stating what room each author was in, if you’re looking for 15 authors, it gets confusing to plot out a course between them unless you sit down and plan everything right from the start. The end result was that a division made on the basis of administrative ease led to chaos and confusion. It meant that it took readers much, much longer to navigate the Bookfair and find the authors they were looking for, and even longer to pay for those books.

While I understand the administrative reasons that gave rise to the separation, the end result was hurt feelings for authors, and–far more importantly–confusion, hassle, and hours-long waits in line for the readers who had come to this event to get signed copies of books from their most beloved authors.

I hope RT will strongly consider the possibility that a separation based on administrative reasons that are not immediately visible to readers created more difficulties than it solved. One possible solution is to scrap the consignment system and have authors with nonreturnable books sell their own books directly, using something like Square.

Despite these administrative issues, I still really enjoyed the signing. I sold every book that I brought. I met many people I had only interacted with online, and others who have just read my books on their own. Thanks to every reader who came to find me, to the wonderful authors sitting next to me who took this whole thing in good humor, and to the RT volunteers and staff who put in a tremendous day of work to make a signing of 700 authors come together.

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Can we talk about black women in stock photos?

April 12th, 2014

Trigger warning for racism.

I’ve talked before about how I make covers for my books.

http://courtneymilan.tumblr.com/post/73371595545/where-do-your-covers-come-from-the-images-models

The basic idea is this: (1) I go on stock photo websites, (2) find pictures of women in wedding dresses, and (3) modify the dresses in photo editing software. Voila, a cover.

The most time-consuming step in this process is (2)–finding a photo that will make a good underlying cover. It’s not easy. You need someone who doesn’t have a silly expression on her face, whose pose is interesting and makes the viewer wonder about her. She should match the description of the heroine in the book. If I’m doing a series, the pose needs to match what I’m doing for the other books in the series. Since these are wedding-oriented, I have to discard a good portion of them because the women are wearing or holding things that are incompatible with a book cover photo–things like veils or massive bouquets. I have to look through about 500 or 600 photos for every usable picture I find.

Luckily, there are tons of pictures of women in wedding dresses on stock photo sites. These are very often pictures that are designed for women to look at, because everyone wants to sell a bride something. The dresses are beautiful. The lighting is often just a little ethereal, which is great for a historical romance cover. And the photos are all taken with a certain view in mind: to send women the message that they are beautiful, that they deserve to look pretty and deserve to be happy. (We can talk about the bridal industry and beauty standards and all that jazz…but not today.)

Even with that said, it probably takes me 2 or 3 hours to find a good photo. This is something I do at night, when I’m too tired to do more taxing work. It’s relaxing to just thumb through photos.

Or it was until I started looking for photos of black women.

There are 107,151 pictures tagged “bride” on shutterstock.com for all ethnicities. (If you don’t add “all ethnicities” on there, you get substantially more photos–but I’m not going for exact statistics here, just a hand-wavy feel of things.)

You can also search by ethnicity (assuming the photos are properly categorized in the system).

Here’s the breakdown (and, no I didn’t make up these ethnicities, so let’s not try to parse this too much):

  • African: 57
  • African American: 444
  • Black: 222
  • Brazilian: 2
  • Chinese: 1,783
  • Caucasian: 77,536
  • East Asian: 2,704
  • Hispanic (Latin): 1,572
  • Japanese: 1,592
  • Middle Eastern: 1,235
  • Native American: 41
  • Pacific Islander: 102
  • South Asian: 1,614
  • Southeast Asian: 2,077
  • Other: 3,484 (Not scientific, but at a first guess, many of the brides in the “other” category appear to be white.)

Of course, there is some overlap between these categories. Some photos show up in both the “African American” and the “Black” ethnicity tag. And as you might imagine, some photos are tagged as all possible asian ethnicities. But you can see what I’m driving at. 107,151 photos of brides on shutterstock, and less than 723 of them are of black women. That’s 0.6% of all the available photos, and that percentage looks even worse when you remember that shutterstock is a global site, and many of the contributors are not from the US.

That disproportion is troubling.

But let’s talk about the kind of photos you can find on shutterstock.

Some of the photos are absolutely lovely.

shutterstock_100026020 (1)

Attribution: Deborah Kolb, shutterstock.com

Like this. (I used a picture of the same model, different pose, on the cover for Talk Sweetly to Me.)

So don’t get me wrong–there are adorable pictures up there, and yay for that! But there are a lot fewer pictures over all than you’d expect from population proportions. And while 0.6% of the photos of brides are black, the pictures of black brides are disproportionately less likely to be ethereal pictures of beautiful women.

There are more photos like this, where you can’t actually see faces.

shutterstock_152429537

 

attribution: John Warner, shutterstock.com

Those are relatively innocuous.

There are also more photos that look like this:

shutterstock_108557000

Attribution: nostalgi1@mail.ru | shutterstock.com

Don’t get me wrong. She’s beautiful. But she is also wearing substantially less clothing than your average woman who walks down the aisle. This is not a photo that is designed to make a woman think about the joy of looking beautiful on the special day when she gets married to the man of her dreams; this is a photo that’s designed to attract the male gaze.

And then there are photos of black women wearing wedding dresses that have no counterpart in all the 77,000+ photos for white women. I’m talking about this:

shutterstock_90214876

 

Attribution: Rob Byron | shutterstock.com

I do not have enough NO in the world for this. Fuck this shit.

Even if that last image did not exist (and it does), it doesn’t change the fact that there are disproportionately fewer pictures of black women in wedding dresses, and a smaller percentage of that tiny number intend to send the message that black women deserve to look beautiful and be happy.

And that’s horse shit, plain and simple.

 

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Jackie Barbosa’s “Can’t Take the Heat”

March 25th, 2014

Last night, I read Jackie Barbosa’s novella, called Can’t Take the Heat.

This is a beautifully written, emotional, sexy novella about Delaney Monroe, a firefighter, who broke up with her fiancé, Wes Barrows, three years ago when he couldn’t handle the dangerousness of her job. She suffers a traumatic injury on the job and–since she’s never updated her medical paperwork–Wes is the one called to her side in the hospital. When she awakes, she’s lost all memory of their breakup.

Now, I know what you’re thinking about amnesia books. You know how this is going to go: They’re still attracted to each other, she doesn’t know the truth, sexy times happen and she gets mad when the truth is revealed. That’s what a second-chance-amnesia story is, right?

Wrong. I love what Jackie does with this trope. I enjoyed the immediacy of the writing and the emotions in the first part of this novella, but there’s a point about half way through when something happens–something that I wasn’t expecting, because it’s not how second-chance-amnesia stories generally go. It was something that changed the story from enjoyable to flat-out lovable. The story is both sweet and emotionally devastating. The side-characters are fully fleshed out.

The only bad thing I have to say about Can’t Take the Heat is that I wish I had the next book in the series to read right now.

If you want to get a feel for what I mean by “immediacy” in this story, go read the prologue on Jackie’s website. After I read that, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep until I finished the book–that’s how utterly gripping it was.

You can get this book here: All Romance eBooks | Amazon | Apple | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo |Smashwords

This post is part of Blog About Jackie’s books week.

I’ve known Jackie since I first started writing, many many years ago. She was part of a little group of not-yet-authors who were new to writing, and who are now multi-published authors who have written historicals. Jackie has been a friend and a support to me. Our debut New York published books came out within a year of each other. I was devastated to hear that she’d lost her teenaged son, and heartbroken for her.

If you have a chance, please consider donating to, or letting others know about, the Julian Fraire memorial fund, which is being set up in her son’s name.

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A little something for Jackie Barbosa

March 23rd, 2014
Author Jackie Barbosa recently lost her teenage son in a terrible car accident. No parent should ever have to live through this, and you can imagine how devastating this has been for her. Online, there’s no way to make someone a casserole or take her flowers, but there is something we can do to help ease her burdens and to send her the message that she is supported in this time: that is, for a short space of time, to take over the burden of talking about her books.
Between March 21st through Monday, March 31st, we’re asking people to talk about Jackie’s books. You can find a list of her books here: http://www.jackiebarbosa.com/books/. Your support can be as simple as a post to your Facebook page or twitter stream, or as long as a lengthy discussion of a particular book on a site. You can blog about a specific book, or just choose one to mention. Let us know about the post by e-mailing me at contact@courtneymilan.com. We’ll update this post with links on a nightly basis.
Reviews are always welcome. Given the occasion, however, if you post a negative review of Jackie’s books, please don’t ask us to link it here–we want to make sure that it’s a safe space for her.
We would also appreciate it if you’d link and/or donate to the scholarship fund being established in her son’s honor, the Julian Fraire memorial fund.
Thank you all so much.
(note 5/26, I’ve just discovered that I only previewed the updates, but did not  save them. Eek. My bad!)
Here’s an incomplete list of links. I haven’t been able to capture them all, and I’m not linking to individual tweets (because it would be unwieldy). If you want to be added to the list, e-mail me above:

 

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Traditional versus self publishing: official death match 2014

February 23rd, 2014

On twitter the other day, Smart Bitch Sarah remarked that it’s sad that the discussion about ways to publish has turned into an official death cage match where each side has to sneer at the other. There are enough people on both sides of this debate who do that. I try not to. Sometimes I fail, because I don’t give enough disclaimers.

For a number of reasons, a lot of authors who are traditionally-published and curious about self-publishing talk to me about their careers when they’re up for contract renewal. Over the last 2 months, that number has been extraordinarily high—I think I’m up to 11 right now—but if I count over the last…three to four years, I’ve probably talked to dozens and dozens of authors. These range from people with print runs big enough to send a book to everyone in entire cities, to people with mass market print runs that are under 10K.

Believe it or not, I really do not push any of those people to self-publish. There really are benefits to both sides. (Although, fair warning, I have been known to say things like, “Holy crap, that advance is ridiculous, you’re worth more than that.”)

This blog post is for people who are traditionally published and who are thinking about self-publishing. It’s not intended for people who have not published yet. (That’s not to say it’s irrelevant to the unpublished; just that that is a slightly different ballgame, and one I’ve never had to play.*)

I want to note at the outset that a lot of this sounds like I’m assuming it’s an either/or question. It isn’t.  I know and respect plenty of people who do both, and more power to them! I personally don’t write fast enough to do both effectively. I could traditionally publish a little on the side or self-publish a little on the side…or I could just go for broke. So while there is no theoretical reason why anyone has to make a choice, writing speed and career demands pose a practical limitation on me, and other authors as well.

This is a really, really massive blog post. Some caveats: my experience skews towards romance. I have made a personal choice about what I do, and it’s gone really well for me. Even though I try to be evenhanded I’m sure where I come from colors what I say. Take this all with a grain of salt.

With that being said, if you find yourself in an official death match between traditional and self-publishing, here are 11 points you should consider.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Some thoughts on author earnings

February 16th, 2014

I’ve written several parts of blogposts on this multiple times. This blogpost started its life as a comment on this post on Dear Author and then became way too long so I moved it here.

Hugh Howey and a mystery coder released a report on author earnings a little more than a week ago. It has been hailed as everything from total genius to utter crap. I’ve thought about writing about it since it was released. Lots of people have written about this, and I will sum up what they say: The study has convinced almost everyone who already believed what Howey said in the report, and convinced almost nobody who did not already believe it.

This is an ambitious project that is likely taking a lot of work on the part of Howey and his mystery coder. They’ve aggregated a bunch of information that people have discussed only anecdotally up until now. That’s pretty cool. That being said, it’s pretty obvious to me that they desperately need someone with some kind of background in science and statistics and data collection, because right now they’re spending a ton of time sifting through data without any sense of how to properly quantify things.

A note about my background: I spent three years doing computational modeling of physical events. I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff and don’t feel competent (at this point) to actually quantify things myself without spending months relearning everything I’ve forgotten, but I remember enough to tell when things are running off the rails.

A note about my bias: I have been self-publishing exclusively since late 2011, although I’m technically a hybrid author. Given the current market, I find it unlikely that a publisher will offer me something for digital rights for future books that would be even remotely close to the value of the rights they would want. I’m open to any sort of publication but I am deeply skeptical that anyone other than me will ever maximize the value of my rights. At this point, my bias in publishing would (you think) skew me to take Howey’s point of view on things.

With those two things out of the way, I’d like to make some points that I don’t believe have been made at this juncture, although I have not trawled the entire internet to see what everyone is saying.

1) Some people are saying that the study bases author earnings for a year off of sales for a day. I believe it’s incorrect to say that the authors are using a days’ worth of sales. As best I can tell from the methodology, they used a single snapshot of sales rank–so that would be ranks for one hour on Amazon, not one day.

2) The study is not actually providing raw data, and it is a mistake for it to use those words to describe the Excel spreadsheet that is included at the end. The raw data used by the study is book rankings, as that is the only data that is used as input. (Technically, there must also be raw data used to determine unit sales–that’s what formed the KDP Calculator in the first place–but that is not disclosed at all.) The excel spreadsheet provided at the end of the report provides us with the information produced by his algorithm–in other words, the Excel spreadsheet tells us what the study’s model suggests for author earnings. This is not raw data. This data has been chopped up and boiled.

[Edited @2:37PM CST: Okay, my point number 2 was based on the Excel file I downloaded. I downloaded pretty much the instant I saw the report, and that was at a point when the server was wonky. Apparently, I didn't get a full download, so I didn't have the full data, but assumed I was seeing everything there was. That's my bad. I was wrong on this point--they do include the full data in the Excel file. I'll update this and some of the points below on that basis.]

3) I don’t think Howey or his mystery programmer have ever done any kind of scientific modeling, or they would probably refer not to their results as “author earnings”–which they do not in fact poll–but as “the Howey model of author earnings.” They are not giving us actual data about author earnings. They are giving us author earnings as calculated by their model, which takes as input data from Amazon which is loosely correlated with author earnings.

Note that saying that something is a model is not an insult, nor is it intended to be one. Models are extremely useful–they allow you to collect and aggregate data you might not be able to get from reality, or to try to ignore extraneous circumstances. For instance, when you use high school physics to calculate the speed of a falling bowling ball from a tower, you’re modeling reality: your model neglects electromagnetic effects, quantum effects, relativistic effects. It probably assumes a smooth bowling ball. It also probably assumes that the effects of gravity are equal throughout the fall even though the distance from the earth changes. Data would be an actual measurement of the speed of an actual falling bowling ball. A model is when you plug the measured weight of a bowling ball into an equation and come up with a number.

If your model works well under the circumstances you use, the measurement and the model will provide very, very similar answers.

(Aside: I spent three years working with a guy who believed that almost everything interesting in the world could be modeled with an Ising model. I actually wrote a final class project in law school using a modified Ising model to test assumptions about free speech. I am not a person who is opposed to models.)

This brings me to…

4) One of the reasons you need to differentiate between reality and a model is that every model has limits. High school physics equations are awesome at calculating the speed of a falling bowling ball from a tower, or a frictionless ice skater going in a straight line. They are total crap at calculating the behavior of quarks. If you tell me what your model is, and do not tell me what the limits of the model are, you’re not telling me when I can take your results seriously.

It’s a model. You can’t take it seriously all the time. If you think you can take your model seriously all the time, you are engaging in the practice of religion, not science.

So, for instance, if your model is that author earnings can be calculated by looking at sales on Amazon US, and you neglect print sales entirely, you should mention that your model does not account for print earnings. And boom. There you are. You have a model. You explain when it works best and when it fails, and you try to use it only in situations where it works well, and only to the extent that the model gives good results. That’s decent science.

If someone else has to do that for you, you’re not engaging in science; you’re engaging in opinion fluff. At that point, you’re not going to convince anyone who is on the fence; you’re only providing fodder for the people who agree with you.

5) Note that you are not slamming yourself if you disclose the limitations of your model. In fact, that’s how you come up with legitimate models that you can use to make reasonable approximations about reality in the first place. The biggest failure, in my mind, of the author earnings report was its failure to try to figure out how and when it was wrong.

6) The study hasn’t disclosed some important elements of the model, and that makes it impossible for other people to make educated guesses as to how good it is. Specifically, how it is that the study comes up with a single number for unit sales when the KDP Calculator (which he cites for changing sales rank into sales data) gives a range, and in some cases, a very broad range? For instance, the KDP calculator says that books ranked 201-1000 all sell between 100-300 copies a day. How many sales does this study attribute to a book ranked at 300?

We aren’t given a range of unit sales or author earnings in the report. We’re given a single number, and I can’t tell how that number is derived. Do the authors use the midpoint of the range given? Are they linearizing over the entire range, so that a book at sales rank 201 will be credited with 300 sales, and a book at sales rank 1000 will be credited with 100 sales? Is there some kind of a non-linear best fit formula? I don’t know. I’m guessing that they are linearizing sales between data points, but I don’t really know that that’s true because I’m not given enough information to reproduce their results.

[Edited @2:42 PM: Okay, now that I have the full spreadsheet, I can see what they're doing. They are linearizing around the data ranges of the KDP calculator.]

(Sidenote: I’ve found the KDP calculator to be a little out of date; Theresa Ragan’s range giver is usually more accurate. But assuming that I’m going to take this as a given, we know the instances in which they fail (the rank calculators assume steady sales at that rank over multiple days; when you’re rising quickly in rank or falling quickly in rank, the tend to underestimate sales and overestimate sales respectively)–and this is usually because the range given is broad enough to swamp effects on the sales rank that are due to things other than that days’ sales.)

7) If you’re going to use your model to make suggestions about reality, you need to spend some time demonstrating that your model gives results that are comparable to reality. A model that is not tested against reality is just a thought experiment.

I’m sure Howey could get hundreds of people to donate actual data on author earnings to compare against his model on the self-publishing side, and probably can find dozens willing to sacrifice old royalty statements from traditional publishers to check the other end of things. Historical Amazon ranks are available to authors through Author Central, too, so there could absolutely be attempts to determine what sort of error his model introduces.

But the report never makes one comparison between modeled author earnings and actual author earnings. That, in my mind, makes it almost impossible for me to take it seriously. If Howey had taken his model and compared 5% of the data points in it to actual earnings, he could have gotten some kind of an idea how good the model was. That didn’t happen.

8) [Edited 3:01 PM: Note that I'm adding a point 8.5 below this now that I have the full spreadsheet.] I tried to do this in a limited form. I took a calculation for a single book of mine–Unraveled. As a side note, this book is MOST LIKELY to fit his data calculations, because it’s been out for a long time; it’s self-published and has been out long enough that there are essentially zero print sales; I haven’t been trying to promote it much, mostly because I don’t control the first two books in the series, and so there are very few big jumps; and I had a new release about two months ago, so the book in January is at about the “average” rank in its release-to-release lifecycle.

This book, at this time, is probably one of the more likely books to fit the Howey model of earnings.

On January 30, 2014, the rank was 9,990. According to the KDP calculator, I’m selling 1-10 books a day–specifically, it gives that response for sales ranks from 8,001-40,000. If we linearize around those points, I should be selling about 9.44 copies a day on Amazon US, meaning that I’m making $26.36 every day according to Howey’s calculations, or $9623 every year.

As it is, I know the actual amount I made on Unraveled last year on Amazon US from February 1, 2013 through January 31, 2014, and it’s $13,831. In other words, for a relatively stable book with very few jumps, in income–a book that’s MOST LIKELY to be correct under this analysis–the model is off by 44%.

Of course, this is drastically dependent on the day in which the observation is made. If I’d used January 25 instead of January 30, my sales rank would have been 5,895. The KDP calculator tells me that the range 3500 through 8000 gives us 10-30 sales per day, and so assuming linear behavior, we get 19.3 sales per day, which is $53.90 per day, or $19,675 per year–or off by about 30% in the other direction.

(Yet another side note: I don’t think that error on the order of 30 to 40% for a book most likely to fit the model means that the model is inherently crap. Like I said, I spent years using Ising models as models of glassy behavior, so I know what it’s like to work with a model where if you’re within an order of magnitude, it’s all good. But this does tell me that the model is unlikely to be capable of making fine-grained comparisons in author earnings, where “fine-grained” means the model is unlikely to be able to distinguish between $10,000 and $30,000.)

And that’s where I think we have some problems. No attempt was made to figure out how closely the Howey model hews to reality, but the authors discuss the results as if they were reality instead of a model. They give author earnings results to two decimal places without knowing if their model is giving them any significant digits. As best I can tell, the Howey model of author earnings is at best quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, which is at best useful for an order of magnitude estimate.

Measurements of actual events must be the ultimate arbiter of reality, and this is a place where we have the capacity to make measurements. The failure to compare the model’s results to actual measurements before making pronouncements is a huge problem.

[8.5) Added around 3:24 PM.

Now that I've played around with the full spreadsheet, I'm even more confused. The full spreadsheet gives enough information for a relatively dedicated searcher to find her own books in the mess, which I thought I did.

I believe that the following books are mine: #356 on the spreadsheet is The Countess Conspiracy, #564 is The Duchess War, #591 on the spreadsheet is The Heiress Effect, and #1059 is A Kiss for Midwinter. These lines fit the rankings for the day polled, have the right number of reviews on the relevant days, and the right review averages. No other books of mine, either indie or traditionally published, appear to be included in the spreadsheet. This gives me 4 books, with a total of $1153.98 in author sales per day. Hypothetically speaking.

There is no author on the spreadsheet with that daily sales total.

I checked to see if perhaps I had misattributed one of those books to me, but there is no author on the spreadsheet whose earnings are a combination of any of those three numbers. I thought maybe I'd missed one or two of my books on the spreadsheet, but there is no author whose earnings are higher than $1153.98 per day who could rationally be me, unless the author data includes more books than are included in the title data. So who knows how this goes?

Assuming that I'm right about identifying my titles above--and if I am, their author data is royally screwed up--this model would say that I earned $117,238 on The Duchess War, $11,384 on A Kiss for Midwinter, $115,198 on The Heiress Effect, and $177,383 on The Countess Conspiracy.

I can't evaluate that estimate for The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy, since they haven't been out for a year. It's too high by 15% for The Duchess War (on Amazon US; if we include global earnings on the title, though, it's too low by 42%). And at this point, I'm too tired to add up earnings on A Kiss for Midwinter. In any event, I'm coming up with the same gut sense: there's a pretty massive margin of error on these numbers, and my innate guess at it is "big." I don't have the data to get better than that.]

9) This doesn’t mean I think the methodology is useless. But I think that until the study authors start really talking about sources of error, and finding ways to quantify those errors, the study isn’t going to be much use to anyone except people who already believe it. If you can’t tell me how wrong you are, you haven’t taken the effort to figure out how right you are.

Determining how wrong you are is what makes your work believable.

10) I do think there are useful things in that report–aggregate measurements are probably more likely to have individual sources of error cancelling out, as long as we recognize that they’re likely crude. So I would feel safe pointing to that report and saying unit sales of indie books on the bestseller lists on Amazon are on the same order of magnitude as trade published books on the bestseller lists on Amazon. I would feel more comfortable about that if those numbers were drawn on a daily basis for a lengthy period of time and aggregated, as compared to looking at a single slice of time, and if individual model results had numbers that were tested and compared with reality on a regular basis. I’m willing to send Howey and his team my royalty statements for months in order to help them come up with that estimate, and my guess is he could find many multiple authors who would be equally willing.

11) In short, I think someone using similar methodologies could, if careful, make reasonable, cautious statements, that would have some value. But they’d have to be damned clear about how they’re calculating unit sales, would have to aggregate sufficient data so that they had an error estimate in their calculation, would have to poll for lengthy periods of time, and would have to test their results against actual data to see how the model (and this is a model of earnings, not data about earnings) corresponds with reality.

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A note on historical romance sales in print

January 18th, 2014

Jeannie Lin writes really awesome historical romances. These historical romances  are also set in China. I want to commend her publisher for publishing those books. I’m so glad someone recognized her brilliance, and decided to publish something awesome even if it was out of the standard mold. Jeannie has announced that there will not be a print version of The Jade Temptress because print sales weren’t very good. I’ve seen lots of explanations and finger-pointing–but oddly enough, almost none of it is directed at the most obvious culprits.

So let me list the usual reason why print sales are low. It’s not because there’s not enough buzz about a book; a book can get great online buzz and have extremely meager print sales. (More on that below.) It’s not necessarily because people don’t want to read the book–especially for newish authors, most people don’t know that the book exists.

No. The usual reason that print sales are low is that there are very few print copies of a book in a bookstore. If a major chain takes one copy per store and shoves it on the back shelf, guess what? Sales are 99.99% likely to be terrible, and it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Once that happens, there is almost nothing an author can do to recover. Even if, against all odds, you sell a good portion of your meager print run, no store is going to be impressed by your luke-warm streak of selling 200 copies more than anticipated. They’re going to see a book that sold 700 copies total, and since they’re shrinking shelf space again, by the time your next book comes out, they’ve decided they don’t have room for books that sell under 1,000 copies in their chain. Your print career was finished before your book even hit the shelves.

That’s the reality for most authors who get squeezed out of print, and there are a a lot of historical romance authors who are getting squeezed out of print right now–not just Jeannie. The major bookbuyers are just not giving a lot of new historical romance authors shelf-space.

So I see a lot of blame going on for how this author lost print distribution, but nobody’s mentioned the fact that historical romance shelf-space, in general, is falling precipitously. There are other amazing authors who are having the exact same thing happen to them as we speak.

Now, do I know that this happened with Jeannie? No. As of the writing of this post I have not talked to her about the situation. And that’s because of what I’m going to say next–I didn’t want to talk to her because I wanted to write this next part and say, very clearly, “She had nothing to do with this part at all.” Because she didn’t.

I am not (currently) an author of historical romances set in China. But I wrote books for HQN–historical romances that were set in England, books about a marquess and about a man who was going to inherit a dukedom. Books that had amazing buzz and fantastic reviews in all the trade journals.

I know there’s a narrative out there that suggests I was hugely successful for Harlequin before I walked away to self-publish. The Code of Being Nice about your publisher means that you don’t bitch about stuff in public. You put a good face on things and smile and say, “I’m so happy with how things are going!” I’m about to break that code, a little bit, but I’m going to try to do it nicely.

Every year I was with Harlequin, I felt sick about what was happening to my career. Everything Jeannie described in her post about her print sales happened to me. I felt sick to my stomach, and all I could do was keep swinging as hard as I could and hope that something connected. When I wrote Unveiled, I had a handful of people email me saying that this was my break-out book, the book that was going to put me on the map. I had amazing online buzz.

So what did that look like in print?

The following screenshots are from the royalty periods through June of 2013, but the amounts in the first column are cumulative for all sales.

Unveiled was released in February of 2011. Some people still say it’s the best book I’ve ever written. It was nominated for a RITA, had amazing reviews and a great following.

Here’s a partial snapshot of my royalty statement showing my English language retail print sales. The left-most column is the one we care about. The first line is the number of units that were shipped to stores; the second line, the number of units that were stripped and reported as returned. There are no reserves at this late point in the game, so that leaves that final line, which is the net units sold.

Yep. You read that right. Those are return rates of about 60%, with 9,768 copies sold in print–and this was in a world where Borders existed. (And yes, my royalty statements really do come in that small a type).

Here’s Unclaimed:

You’re seeing that right, too. That’s a 67% return rate, a commensurately smaller print run, and less than 6,000 copies sold.

I give Harlequin all the credit in the world for good intentions. They did a lot of things to build me as an author, and really wanted to do so. But good intentions don’t matter. I could draw a straight line through my print sales with every book, and they were going to hit zero sometime in 2012.

So before we talk about why Jeannie’s next book isn’t getting a print run–please try and keep this in mind. Harlequin sold less than 6,000 US retail print copies of Unclaimed in 2011, after I had hit the New York Times list with Unlocked. 

I know that this post could potentially annoy people at Harlequin, and I hope it doesn’t. They tried to tell me my books were at fault, but…I think I’ve demonstrated that they were wrong about that. People do want to read my books. Lots of people. My print sales did not reflect that. I hope that Harlequin takes this criticism for what it is–not my attempt to say that they suck and I hate them, but that they need to recognize that they have a problem selling historical romance in print. They’re not good at it, and I hope they figure it out before they run more print careers into the ground.

Jeannie’s books mean a lot to me. It almost physically hurts to hear people saying, “This is proof that Chinese-set historicals don’t sell.” When I wrote my English-set historicals and had craptastic print sales, I had the benefit of other authors’ experience to prove that English-set historicals can sell in print. Nobody pinned the hopes of the entire subsubgenre on my shoulders. Using Jeannie’s books as a stand in for an entire sub-genre is really, really unfair to both her and the class of Chinese-set historicals. It’s disturbing to take a book that features non-white people in a non-European setting, to have it perform precisely the same way as books that are written about white people in a European setting, and to then say that this is proof that books about non-white people do not succeed.

Before we say that readers won’t read Chinese-set historicals, we should give Chinese-set historicals a chance. And that chance has to be bigger than one author, writing in a subgenre where the bookbuyers are already wary, publishing with a house that has a less than sterling-record with historical romance.

If you’re reading this, go buy Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace. She is one of the most brilliant new historical authors to come on the scene in recent years–and at some point, I really believe that bat is going to connect for her and her books are going to start flying out of the park.

Edit: I just wanted to add one thing. I refer to “Harlequin” as a monolithic entity, but it’s really one that is made up of people. Not all people in it are alike, and sometimes, when making broad statements, that paints with too broad a brush. I always felt like my editor loved my books and worked with me to make them the best books possible; for what it’s worth, the pushback came from higher up.

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Know what your rights are worth

August 19th, 2013

Note: Here there be mathematics.

There’s a calculation I’ve been breaking out dozens of times in the last month or so–in innumerable conversations at RWA, in e-mails back and forth with several people asking me for advice. I mentioned it in my talk to the Golden Network, and mentioned it again at the PRO retreat at RWA’s national conference. Usually the question that has been asked of me looks like this: “I got an offer from my publisher for $3,500 for my next book,” someone says. “Should I take it or self-publish?” (Note: I’ve seen similar numbers from five different people in the last month, so if you think I’m talking about you, I’m not–I picked the advance that was the aggregate offered.)

I never answer that question. I can’t know what your circumstances are or what you should or shouldn’t take, or what you value and what you need or where you are in your career.

What I can do is tell people how to think about money earned over time in a semi-rational fashion.

First, we need to talk about time, and specifically, how long a time. When people say that ebooks are forever, that may be true in the strictest sense of the word. But your ownership rights in your ebook will terminate seventy years after your death, and that will undoubtedly restrict your commercial ability to exploit things. Second, the implication is often that if you sign a traditional publishing contract, you tie up your rights forever. But you don’t. All U.S. authors have the statutory right to terminate a grant of rights 35 years after publication under 17 U.S.C. 203. 35 years is a long time, but it’s not forever. (In fact, in my calculation, it’s about 50% of forever.)

Furthermore, even if you had the right to your ebooks forever, money earned today is worth more than money earned next year. That’s because you could take the money you earned today, put it in the bank, and have more money waiting for you next year. What that means is that if someone offered to give you $50 a month every month forever, with no stopping, they aren’t offering you an infinite amount of money. You can actually put a finite dollar value on how much that costs. (For math nerds, it’s because the calculation of how much that is worth is a series of form x^n, where x <1, and so the series converges.) (How could you get something that paid you $50 a month every month forever? You put an amount of money in the bank, one that pays $600 a year in interest, and look–you’ve got money forever!)

So if you are going to think about the value of the rights you are giving up, you should (1) be thinking about their value for 35 years, not for infinite years and (2) be taking into account the time-value of money.

Luckily, economists have been doing this kind of calculation for years. It’s called a net present value calculation.

Here are the things you need to do to figure out the net present value of your rights.

1. You need to have some idea of how much money is worth to you over time.

There are a lot of things that people advise using here, and I’m not going to get into that much. I will just point out that if you owe the mafia money, and they’re going to collect on it in November, and you need $20,000 or you’ll lose a finger… Don’t think too hard. Money today is worth a lot to you. Money earned post-November is not worth nearly as much. Likewise if you are on the verge of losing your house or if your brother needs bail money.

If you’re carrying credit card debt at 17% interest rate, money today is worth a lot more to you than it is to someone who has no debt at all.

For the calculations that follow at the end, I’m going to use 2% as the rate. This is actually high when you compare it to today’s discount rate, but interest rates are historically low, and we’re doing the calculation over 35 years, so. Economists might quibble with this choice, but frankly, this is the smallest of the sources of error in my calculation and so I’m not going to weep about it.

Just be aware that what I say may not apply to your situation, and you might need to jigger the calculations accordingly.

2. Figure out what you’re being offered.

This is just going to be the starting point, but it’s a good starting point.

Let’s take the example I started with (not an actual example, by the way)–someone who is offered $3500 for a book. What would it take for the net present value of your self-published earnings to come out to $3,500? Using 2% as the discount rate, a contract that offers you $3,500 is the equivalent of earning $139 a year for 35 years–that is, making $11.58 a month. That’s what $3,500 a book means.

Now let’s up the ante. What if you were offered $500,000 for a book? That’s a huge advance. A self-published book that has the same net present value is one that makes $19,750 a year, $1645 a month…which means selling about 633 copies at $3.99 a month every month. Put another way, a book at $3.99 that falls somewhere between Amazon rank 5,000 and 10,000 for 35 years is worth $500,000 today.

For reasons that I’ll get into below, and that some of you are screaming about now, this is a really, really rough estimate of actual earnings. But it’s a decent rough guideline. Take the advance. What kind of steady sales would you need to equal that advance over time?

This tells you, by the way, that a $3,500 advance is an absolutely pitiful investment by a publisher. They will earn back what they put in without even batting an eyelash.

3. Compensating for unknowns and earning over time.

Of course, this calculation isn’t phenomenal. For one, it’s a rare book that earns the same in Year 35 as it did in Year 1. We don’t have a clue what the self-published tail looks like in Year 35, because we’re really only in Year 3 or 4 of the self-publishing era, and that’s been coupled with the growth of digital publishing, too. Whether your books are still performing well in Year 35 will probably depend on whether you are still writing new books in Year 35 (35 is a long writing career), and what you’re doing to promote and push your books in Year 35.

We have literally no data, and while we can make stuff up, be aware that this is all we can do: Make stuff up and hope our assumptions are reasonable.

Second, you have to take into account that you can earn out your advance on your traditionally published books, too. And, in fact, if you’re offered $3,500 for a book, you will earn out your advance over the course of your publishing career unless your book was incompetently produced and priced. (In which case, I hope your contract allows you to get your rights back earlier.) So you need to add the money you make upon earn out into your calculation. How long will it take you to earn out? How much will you earn per year after that? This poses precisely the same problems that I just mentioned.

Luckily, since you’re comparing the value of two income streams performing under similar conditions, as long as you make similar assumptions about each one, you won’t be prejudicing one over the other. So let’s do something more complicated. Imagine that for the person who is offered $3500 for a book, she’s paid 50% on signing and 50% on delivery. Imagine that she’ll have a print run of 8,000 copies (based on a number of authors I’ve talked to, this is about right–if you’re getting more books printed than 8,000, and your advance is $3500, you’re being seriously low-balled on the advance figure), and she’ll sell 6,000 of those in the first year at 8% of the cover price of $7.99, giving her $3835.20 in print earnings.

Imagine that she’s going to sell 2,000 digital copies of her book a year, every year, for five years, at which point it tails off and she sells only 500 digital copies of her book a year for the remainder of the life of the contract. Imagine that the cover price is $7.99, the publisher is making 70% of the cover price, and she’s getting 25% of that.

In year 1, the author makes the advance of $3500. In year 2, when she gets her first royalty payment (assuming the book is published relatively close to turn in and there isn’t a huge reserve per year–in actuality, this might hit in year 3 or 4, but we’re going for simplicity), she gets $335.20 (the excess over her advance from print earnings) + $2,796.50 for her portion of the digital earnings.

In years 3-5, she gets $2,796.50 per year.

In years 6-35, she gets $699.12.

If this is the case, the net present value of that contract offered to her by the publisher is $28,827. Not bad.

So what’s the alternative? Let’s suppose that she self-publishes the book at $3.99. That she sells 2,000 copies of the book a year for the first five years (the lower price point combatting whatever marketing *cough* the publisher may or may not do for the book), and 500 copies a year for the next 30 years of comparison. And let’s further suppose that she must spend $2,000 to get her book on the market.

The first year, she makes $3200: $5,200 in income minus $2,000 in expenses. (I’m using $2.60 as the income for the book–Amazon gives 70% minus a delivery charge in most circumstances, 35% in others; B&N gives 65%. $2.60 is a little on the low side, but not a lot on the low side.)

Years 2-5 she makes $5,200. Years 6-35 she makes $1300.

The net present value of self publishing that book is $49,685.

Now, of course, there are an infinite number of corrections you can add to that. I’m not insisting that this is the way to do it. I’m only claiming that if you want to know what your rights are worth, you should think of the value over time for 35 years. Make your calculation as simple or as non-simple as you want.

4. Ask if it’s worth it.

I hear a lot of reasons why people go with traditional publishers. They don’t want to do the work. They want books on the shelves. They want the prestige. They think the publisher will do a better job in marketing. They want reviews in major print publications. I could go on and on. Some people want the advertisement that a big print run will give them. Some people think it’ll help them break out to the next level. Some people think that diversification is important in income, and so want to diversify. And so on.

None of these reasons are invalid, bad, illogical, or in any other way awful. In fact, all of them are important and worthwhile.

I do think, though, that you should have at least some sense of what that thing is costing you. If your calculation suggests that your publisher’s contract is worth $28,000, and you’ll make $49,000 if you self-publish, and you’re going with your publisher because you want to have books on the shelves, ask yourself if it is worth $21,000 to you to put 6,000 copies on the shelf.

If you think your publisher is going to do a better job marketing, ask yourself if that marketing is worth the difference in price. (And think about the value of the marketing as well as the cost for you to purchase it in both time and money. And be frank–don’t imagine you’ll get the kind of treatment a bestselling author gets if you’re not a mega-bestseller. If you’re getting an advance of $3,500, look at people from your publisher who are similarly situated, and ask what kind of marketing they’re really getting. How much is it worth? If you’re talking getting a book on NetGalley, you can do that for a very small amount–and that’s about all that some publishers are doing for their authors.)

There are absolutely some publishers who are putting value into their author’s books, and it’s definitely rational to accept less money in exchange for other things that have value to you. But you should have some sense of how much less money you’re accepting, because at some point, the thing you’re getting in exchange for that money just might not be worth it. And if you haven’t run net present value calculations before, you might be surprised at precisely how much it’s costing you.

If you want my spreadsheet that does these calculations on a year-by-year basis, you can download it here.


Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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