A tale of two royalty statements

This is (one of) the times of the year when royalty statements from publishers arrive, and I just received mine.

I don’t intend this post to imply any moral condemnation of publishers themselves or of people who choose (for a variety of legitimate reasons) to publish with them. What I want to do is lay out two royalty statements: one for This Wicked Gift, my 2009 Christmas novella which was published by Harlequin, and one for Unlocked, my self-published novella released at the end of May in 2011. This is for informational purposes only.

This Wicked Gift was part of an anthology released with Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick. Both the Balogh and the Cornick had been released earlier, but Balogh is a perennially popular author, and she’s particularly known for her Christmas tales. The anthology spent two weeks on the USA Today list and sold a bunch of copies. Since then, it has been translated into three other languages and released in both the UK and Australia

In other words, for a relatively new author–and this was my first published work–this story had an amazing run.

Between 2009 and December of 2011–in other words, a little bit more than two years–my novella made me $23,593.78. Which–don’t get me wrong–is totally awesome. (I also want to make one thing clear: Different countries didn’t always pair the same stories together, so my earnings on this are not the same as Mary Balogh’s and Nicola Cornick’s. I’m okay with sharing numbers; the other authors who have been part of this may not be, so please don’t make any judgments as to them.)

Unlocked also had a pretty freaking amazing run for a novella. It spent three weeks on the USA Today list. It’s been translated into one other language (that would be German). And in the last 11 months, it has made a total of $46,970.03–almost exactly twice as much, in half the time.

Now some of you are thinking, “Sure, Courtney, but you have to compare apples to oranges. You had to bear the costs of production for Unlocked. That can’t be cheap.”


So to make this accounting more clear, I have to include costs.

I spent a total of $4143.48 on Unlocked. A good chunk of that went to producing the German version–I wanted a great translator, and that doesn’t come cheap. Also, I can’t proofread German, so the proofreading expense was higher for the German version. The rest went to covers, editing, advertising, proofreading, and a proportional amount of capital expenditures (computer costs, software costs, and the costs of various e-readers) that I charge to all my books in my internal accounting. (As a note: as I’ve self-published, my costs have gone down, as I figure out what’s necessary and what isn’t.)

But to make this fair, we also need to think about what I spent on This Wicked Gift, because there are expenditures involved with a book release. My accounting wasn’t nearly as good back then–today, I track every penny I spend. But I went back through my tax records and have reconstructed what I’ve spent. Ready?

I spent $6289.07. A decent portion of that is advertising. I also did a mailing to a large number of bookstores–around 800 or 900–which cost me postage, supplies, and printing. I gave away more than a hundred copies of the anthology (something that, by the way, I do not regret at all) on a variety of venues, which necessitated (a) buying more copies of the anthology, and (b) shipping them. I’ve also apportioned to the novella its costs for the excerpt book that I produced. But a good proportion of that expense is the cost of my agent, who gets 15% of the take. (And she’s earned it–and more. Really. One of the costs of traditional publishing is that it pays to have someone who will navigate the adversarial side of the relationship, leaving you to be friendly. And people can quibble over whether that is necessary, but it’s certainly necessary for me.)

So I spent more on my traditionally-published novella than I did on my self-published one.

Now the place it doesn’t even out is my time. I spent more time producing Unlocked than I did on This Wicked Gift. But it’s not a matter of zero to one: there are some things I had to do for This Wicked Gift that I never had to do for Unlocked. (From a personal perspective, I traded doing things that I hated doing–like remembering to do bookstore mailings–for things that I enjoyed doing–like organizing covers and the like.)

(Now, to be fair, there are some places where I simply didn’t have to spend as much money for Unlocked: by the time Unlocked came out, a handful of people had already heard of me, and so the promotional costs were by necessity not as large.)

I don’t want to imply that anyone who chooses Column A is making a bad choice. The fact that I had a traditionally published novella in an anthology that did very well absolutely contributed to my success when I went into self-publishing. And Unlocked benefited from a confluence of random series of lightning, striking often and repeatedly.

But for those who are looking for information, the bottom line is this: As an author, I spent 50% more on a traditionally-published novella. And I made half as much in twice the time.

39 thoughts on “A tale of two royalty statements

  1. I find this fascinating! Thank you for being honest about it, I know many would not. (Which like you said, is fine!) But to those of us wanting to enter the business, information like this is very valuable and definitely food for thought!

  2. Thanks for this, I’m not a writer, but I have friends who are and this will be useful information to pass along. I must admit that I find it kind of disturbing that you had to incur that level of marketting costs for This Wicked Gift on your own. I would have thought that the costs of marketting was entirely the publisher’s responsibility given the ridiculously low royalty rates they pay. If authors are required to bear such a high level of costs for marketting, what justification do publishers have to keep royalty rates so low (that’s probably a rhetorical question…)? The fact that you had to buy books for promotional give aways just floors me – at the very least the publisher should be making sufficient copies of those available to an author for free and should be covering the costs for shipping. I could understand that they might want you to report on how the free books were distributed as part of the process, but to make an authori pay for books for marketting purposes is just wrong IMO.

  3. Lynn,

    My publisher sent me 48 copies of each book. Those went to reviewers, booksellers, and librarians–I was usually out by the time the book came out. I gave away several hundred copies of each of my first books.

    As for the expense of promotion… I don’t know how much of that was necessary in the sense that it helped sales, but most of it was necessary in the sense that it sent a message to the publisher that I was promoting my work and growing my audience. There’s a good bit of authorial promotion that is designed not to sell books but to convince your publisher that they should push your books.

    And I also want to point out something that my friend Erica Ridley always mentions: I didn’t actually ask my publisher to send me more copies. They might have if I’d asked.

    I do want to make clear that of the money I spent on This Wicked Gift, most of that is my agent’s cut–I didn’t spend $6,000 on marketing.

  4. Very interesting info-and thank you for sharing so transparently! I’m about to self-pub my second and third novellas (although the first was really a prequel to an already traditionally e-pubbed series aimed at those who had read the series, so I sort of don’t count it)-so I’m very eager to hear what’s working and what doesn’t, what the possibilities are, etc.
    I’m finding a lot of people who are open about their self-publishing experiences, which I think is amazing and wonderful-I love that authors support each other in this way. 🙂
    Eden Bradley/Eve Berlin

  5. Hi Courtney, thank you for sharing such detailed numbers and accounting. I recently signed with Thomas & Mercer and it’s going to be interesting to compare numbers in 2013 for some of my books. This is very helpful…to know all the possibilities out there in this new digital age.

    Congratulations on your success! Your covers are amazing and your stories are too!

  6. Thanks for much for sharing. It’s so hard to get traditionally published, and it’s good to know that other options can be just as successful and even more profitable with the right business plan.

  7. Courtney, that’s fascinating! And I’m impressed at how well you break down your revenues and expenditures. This makes me rethink my “box accounting method”– throwing receipts into a box.

  8. Thank you for your candor with this post. One thing not mentioned, though, is that it’s easier for people to “risk” $0.99 as opposed to having to spend $8, even if you did get 3 novellas that way. What I’m thinking, more and more, is that the right answer is to do both. Clearly the ebook had it’s (major) advantages, but it also sounded like there is a readership of booksellers and other types of people who you reached with the anthology that you maybe couldn’t have with your ebook? I also appreciate you mentioning that you bought lots of copies to send out for review. I was planning on doing that (beyond the free/cheap copies the publisher provides) and it felt like I was the only one. Maybe we just don’t talk about it enough 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this info! As an aspiring author I am trying to learn as much business info as well as the craft side of things. Thanks =-)

  10. This is a simply amazing post! Thank you for your insight in this ever-changing publishing business model. I’m still working on releasing my first novel, so as I query, I think about the self-pub route all the time. A big leap of faith…but that’s what life and writing is all about! This post really revved up my engine about what is possible with a well-thought out business plan.

    Thanks again!

  11. Valerie, I would still have traditionally published my first book, knowing what I do now. I still would be willing to traditionally publish some of my output now, if I were offered the right deal.

  12. Hi Courtney – thanks for posting this. I was curious how you were finding the new world of indie publishing vs the traditional world. Everything you said seems pretty much in line with my experiences, too. People think that self-publishing is more work, but I certainly put a lot of time and money into promoting my traditionally published books and come out with figures similar to what you have shared here. And you’re right – half of that goal is to prove to your publisher that you are doing your part in order to convince them to invest in you.
    On another note, I just bought The Governess Affair and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  13. Wow, thanks for sharing this info. I tweeted about this. Courtney, can you tell us if you think that it was worth it to you to spend the money to have it translated to Germany? Would you do it again? Would you have done it if your book had just been an average-selling indie book, rather than break-out bestseller? Thanks! I’m so glad to see you’ve had so much success. Unlocked was awesome.

  14. Courtney,
    Best wishes for continued success with your publishing endeavors. It’s been a pleasure reading your stories.

  15. @Emeline Danvers: Yes, I think it was worthwhile. I wasn’t sure about it when I started–I saw that initial translation as a way to test the market for translated works, and figured I was paying some money for information.

    But the German e-book market really took off right after we published. At this point (seven months since release), I’ve made back the money I put in, received the compensation I pay myself for my time (which I always account for separately), and I’m now making a profit.

    I signed the contract with the translator before I published Unlocked, so the answer is “yes, I would have done it even if Unlocked hadn’t been a mega-bestseller.”

    But there are so many ways that authors can lose their shirts doing self-published translations. I strongly suggest caution.

  16. Courtney – Thank you so much for the transparency! I’m self-publishing my first novella this summer and can’t wait to compare it with my traditionally published books. So much more to learn!

  17. This is fascinating, Courtney. Congratulations on your success. I’m also curious about your German translation. Did you do any marketing there? Is your name already known there because of your traditional work?

  18. Hi Courtney, Thx for the fascinating post. I’m interested in what made you decide to choose German for the Unlocked translation as opposed to another language? Do you have a connection to the German market? Was the German market particularly ripe for your purposes at that time?

  19. Thanks for this, Courtney! Anecdotes like yours here are helping me to get a clearer picture than just the self-reported figures for my indie survey has done. I just received my first Harlequin statement that included e-books (they digitized three of my backlist Regencies in October) and for 3 MONTHS of sales on 3 books I earned a grand total of (are you ready?) $11.89. For reference, I earned a bit over $70 in the first 3 DAYS one of my other (reverted) Harlequin Regencies was available, self-pubbed by me. Go figure.

  20. As a former cost accountant, I find all these figures absolutely fascinating. Seriously! 😉

    Fascinating, but not at all surprising. Because it’s been like this since the days of Steve Zacharius’s presentations to RWA of how much it cost to print a book: The publishers were making out like bandits, and the authors were given a pat on the head.

    And of course you were fortunate that you ended up spending money to make money; I knew too many writers back in the day who spent thousands to make hundreds. I’m so glad I’m around to see the authors — myself included! — starting to make some money.

    You go, girl! (is that too dated?)

  21. Livia and Kaetrin: I picked Germany for a number of reasons.

    1. It was the first non-English country for which Kindle was announced.

    2. I speak German–not precisely fluently, but close enough to have a sense of when someone’s doing a good job on a translation.

    3. Tessa Dare (who also did a self-published novella translation around the same time) had a relationship with the translator who had done her traditionally-published trilogy in German–and that translator regularly works on luminaries in romance, like Stephanie Laurens and Teresa Medeiros.

    I did almost no marketing of this. The one thing that I (we) did was this: Tessa Dare and I swapped excerpts in the back of each other’s stories. I think that really helped to cross-sell the books.

  22. I’m from Austria and I’d never heard about you before when I stumbled into your books (and I’m very fortunate that I did). I didn’t even know that they were published in German tbh (having said that I try to read the English original whenever I can) – and I’m an avid HR reader. I have no idea how to make you known over here not being a PR woman but I think all those Germans and Austrians and Swiss people are missing out on great stories and characters because people aren’t aware that you exist. It’s sad because I want to boast about how I’ve found you first 😀

  23. Hi Courtney,

    I’m not at all surprised that you’ve earned more by self-publishing Unlocked than This Wicked Gift. As you stated, I think having built up a readership definitely helped sell more copies of Unlocked.

    But here’s the thing: how many publishers nowadays would publish a novella in paperback? Very few. It’s just too risky of a venture because they might not earn enough to recoup their investment.

    I have not paid $7.99 for an eBook (and I would not pay $2.99 for a novella – although I think $1.99 is a fair price at the right page length). That is just way too much. Publishing electronic content is much cheaper than publishing the traditional way, and publishers should pass along those savings to readers.

    Overall, I think you’ve had such success with Unlocked for three additional reasons: (1) You produced an entertaining read; (2) You set an affordable price; and (3) Publishers wouldn’t have released your novella by itself – they probably would have requested another novella to accompany it.

    But there is one more reason why I hope you continue to self-publish: you have more at stake in seeing your work succeed than any publisher will. You (and others) may argue that point, but the bottom line is that you’ve put in the time and energy, while a publisher could put up some capital and hope it turns a profit. The difference is that you need it to turn a profit!

    Congratulations on your success. I’m looking forward to reading all of your upcoming novels.

    (P.S.) A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about meeting you at the Spring Fling Writer’s Conference in Illinois. (It was a thrill for me!) Feel free to check it out.

  24. Thank you.

    Everytime I see an author show the numbers, I’m more convinced that I’ve taken the right step by ‘going Indie.’

  25. Hi Courtney. Thank you for this informative post,but one thing that isn’t mentioned is that one is a Christmas novella and you refer to the other as a novella. I’m assuming it’s not seasonal which makes a difference. Lots of people only buy Christmas books around Christmas.But I do agree that self publishing can be more profitable than the traditional route. I think Amber is right. It’s good to use both options depending on the project.

  26. Beth, I really don’t think that’s relevant for two reasons.

    1. Most mass market paperbacks are only on the shelves for 3-4 months in any event, and so the fact that one is seasonal is really dwarfed by the fact that it’s just not in bookstores any longer.

    2. I wrote a Christmas novella in December of 2012. Last month, it sold 7,000 copies. I’m not seeing a hugely seasonal effect in sales, but I’ll surely report back within a year.

  27. Courtney, thanks for providing such clear and accurate detail here. I think that a real advantage for indie-publishers of having traditionally published is credibility (though I’m not sure readers care much), and self-confidence. But it’s not about quality. Good books start in indie publication now too, and more and more, good new authors aren’t wasting a lot of time auditioning for a shrinking number of open slots with the big publishers– they’re going right to keeping their rights and publishing on their own.

    Hugh Howey has a great article today in Salon (he’s the “Wool” author) — http://www.salon.com/2013/04/04/hugh_howey_self_publishing_is_the_future_and_great_for_writers/

    Your experience is so helpful to see the real possibilities. Not that everyone will be so successful, but as you show, the cost is smaller and the upside can be limitless.

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