---- Garrison Keillor
in The New York Times
WON'T TELL YOU
A few years after I published The Starlite Drive-in, people asked me how many books I had sold.
I had to admit I had no idea. I know I sold through my advance before the book hit the shelves. Starlite came out in hardcover and three paperbacks from William Morrow and Berkley, and it was released in seven countries.
All right, I should have asked my agent about my sales record, but I suspect she didn’t have the answer anyway. It’s difficult to get accurate information from publishers unless you audit them. I was so giddy with delight that my novel was published in any form, I didn’t want to poke the bear.
I should have been able to figure out the numbers in my royalty statements, but I’m convinced they are written in Greek. You sell some books but one of the stores returns a bunch. Who can keep track? Fortunately, my agent, who understands Greek, discovered the publisher forgot to include Germany. That was taken care of.
A New York Times bestselling thriller author told me that every time he had his publishers audited, they owed him money. He shall remain nameless because he went on to say a sizable number of their accountants should be in federal prison.
I’m telling you all this because you need to understand publishing is a business and not a particularly lucrative one unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King or a similar shining star. The sad truth is that, according to industry sources, seventy percent of all books released by the Big Five traditional houses don’t make a profit. Although I was considered a mid-list author, I was one of the fortunate ones.
So, how about all those books that blare BESTSELLER on their cover? In a post on priceonomics.com, author Carter Phipps said his publisher told him his book just barely missed making The New York Times Bestseller List. Phipps said, “In part, this was because the list, whose exact algorithm is a closely guarded secret, includes much more than Amazon sales. An author must also sell a significant number of copies in Barnes and Noble and selected independent bookstores across the country.”
Apparently, it’s easier just to pretend you’re a bestseller because no one knows the exact definition anyway.
The titles of novels that don’t sell through their advances are legion. Sometimes that advance is only ten thousand. Sometimes it’s a million or more. Remember Charles Frazier, author of a real bestseller, Cold Mountain. Frenzied publishers vied at an auction for his second novel Thirteen Moons. Random House won — or in this case lost — because the advance was eight million dollars and readers coughed up only two-and-a-half million in profits. This is risky business.
While most writers just want to see their books in print, some still yearn for the credibility major publishers give them. After all, that’s where the quality resides, right? If you believe that, take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey. If you want quality, you can’t always find it in the big houses.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for traditional publishers because they’re forced to take gambles daily, and they’re facing a monster high tech revolution they still don’t understand, but a lot of writers over the decades have felt the sting of their rejection. There's some satisfaction in knowing they've lost their glow.
Occasionally a self-pub (such as E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey or Hugh Howey's novel, Wool) breaks through the financial glass ceiling. Then the major houses are happy to take it on.
Here's what Keith Donohue wrote about Wool in The Washington Post:
"Well before any print edition rolled off a press, Wool had sold more than 400,000 e-books and was optioned by Hollywood. But what sets it apart from hundreds of thousands of self-published e-books is that it’s a good and compelling story, and well told. It seems as if there should be a marketing trick responsible or some blatant appeal to prurient interest, but this is no “Fifty Shades of Wool.” It’s the real deal."
Simon and Shuster snapped it up but self-pub writers who get offers from the Big Five usually insist on retaining certain rights, especially digital rights because they’re so lucrative.
The average self-pub author earns $10,000 a year, but despite Garrison Keillor's gloomy prediction, the real stunner is that more self-pub authors today earn a living wage than authors published by the Big Five traditional houses.
Here's a graph from authorearnings.com that shows where the money is going.
For the first time since the early writers chipped their words into stone, you can get published! You have more choices than ever before, and if you still desire validation from the big guys, read my last blog about the “Power of Persistence.”