Paying authors more might be the best economics for publishers in the long run
If you imagine the publisher’s business as one that divides most of the consumer’s dollar between two core stakeholders in the supply chain — the retailer and the author — you’d have a pretty accurate picture. The publishers, at least theoretically, decide what the retailer’s “working margin” will be with their discounts and agency agreements. And they decide what the author’s share of the proceeds will be by the advances and royalty rates they offer and agree on through their contracts.
These are the essential, and basically non-substitutable, trading partners for a publisher. They can choose a different printer or publicity firm without changing the character of their business or their economics. But the author relationships are existential and defining and the intermediaries who reach the public and enable the consumer transaction are indispensible.
Plenty has been written, by me and others, about the challenges trade publishers face due to the decline of shelf space for books. But, in some ways, it looks at the moment like those (also including me) who have said that publishers are in big trouble as bookstores decline are mistaken. Sales in stores are declining and sales of print books are declining but total sales, including ebooks, are holding pretty firm and the big publishers are reporting pretty healthy results. So if declining bookstore shelf space, which we have clearly seen over the past few years, doesn’t weaken trade publishers’ commercial performance, what will?
I have written before about asking my friend and sometimes-collaborator Mark Bide a similar question about another segment of publishing. As a John Wiley stockholder, I was worrying 15 years ago about their reliance on journals for their revenues and profits. We thought way back then that journals were likely candidates for disintermediation. After all, the university pays the professor’s salary to write the journal article that the publisher gets for free and then monetizes by charging the same university’s library for a subscription to the journal. Even in the early days of the web, we could see the potential for professors to post their own articles and for peer review to be crowd-sourced, delivering the IP to the academic community faster and saving universities a boatload of dough.
At the time Mark said the thing to watch was whether the publishers stopped getting the submissions. If the professors didn’t need the journals, they’d stop getting the raw material that feeds the whole engine.
So far, it hasn’t happened (and I still own the stock). Despite lots of open source academic publishing, the journals remain important brands in their fields and the professors want the journal publication as a credential. (In books we know that lots of people read the book and have no idea who the publisher was. In journals it is the opposite: more people will know the professor published in the journal than will read the article.) The business has changed and library budgets grow considerably more challenged, but most of the journals, including Wiley’s, remain highly profitable and highly desirable to the authors.
In fact, Mark identifed the point of vulnerability for trade publishers. If the stores and other intermediaries they rely on go away, they have to find other ways to sell their books. That’s a challenge, no doubt.
But if the authors don’t play along, they have nothing to sell. Making deals with authors is the publishers’ price of admission to the game.
As the central player whose contracts and sales terms manage the distribution of revenues throughout the supply chain, how publishers view the commerce of our business is central to how it operates. This has, historically, been challenging. The activity of publishing is complicated and its economics are complicated.
A couple of months ago, Michael Cader pointed out to me that the big publishers were making a serious tactical error in the way they were accounting for sales under the agency arrangement. (Quick reminder: under agency, the publisher is considered the “seller”, not the retailer. The publisher sets the price which the retailer can’t change and pays the retailer, or sales “agent”, a fixed 30% of the set price paid by the consumer.) Publishers simply imitated their convention from the wholesale terms transactions they’d always done before. They book as revenue the 70% they keep of the sale, not the full price the consumer pays (and which, if they did, would make the 30% paid to the retailer a “cost of sale” like printing or shipping is in the physical world or like DRM costs might be in the digital world).
Cader spelled out two important benefits that would flow to publishers if they made a different choice of how to account these sales. (He says, and I trust him, that GAAP rules don’t require them to employ the methodology they do.)
One is that that their “top line”, their “total revenue” line, would be higher. That’s critical to foster a helpful perception in the investment community, which worries when they see declining revenues. And if publishers insist on sticking to booking only the 70% they get on the ebook sales as the total revenue, they’re locked into declining revenue for years to come as competition drives down ebook prices (probably) and as ebook sales continue to replace hardcover print sales (for sure).
The other perception publishers are manipulating against their interests is within their negotiating community. Both agents (on behalf of authors) and the big accounts publishers sell through look at the publishers’ margins as a percentage of sales to decide if there’s more there for them to get. Reporting ebook sales as they do, publishers are achieving about 75% margin on ebook sales (because they give 25% of the take to the author.) If they took the full price as the revenue, they’d be achieving 52.5% margin on those sales (although, of course, nothing really changes.)
There are fewer knock-on problems for the publishers when the big accounts move to convert this (apparently excess) margin into changed business terms than if they allow agents to change the author deal. Changes forced by Amazon or Barnes & Noble could conceivably affect only them, depending on how the change in terms were framed. But were an agent to succeed in pushing up the contractual ebook royalty, that change could affect a whole host of other contracts because of most favored nation clauses. That could mean royalties are suddenly due on contracts that under the previously-negotiated royalties hadn’t earned out their advances.
So we acknowledge that the price of raising contractual ebook royalties could be high. But it still might be worth it. As we will see later, more margin given to accounts achieves no incremental gain for the publishers; more margin to authors does.
There’s one more very big reason for publishers to change their accounting in the way Cader’s insight suggests. Right now, every big publisher’s life is being disrupted by state, federal, and international investigations into the legality of agency selling, which is characterized by some as “price fixing”. The defense is that the publisher, not the retailer, is the seller and it isn’t illogical for somebody selling something to charge the same price to every customer no matter how they reach them.
If “I’m really the seller” is the defense, it would be much more persuasive if the accounting supported that paradigm. As it stands, the accounting contradicts it.
The total situation not only argues for publishers to change their accounting, it also argues for them to give a bigger percentage to authors and to do it now! Doing so would deliver them two important benefits. It would reduce the apparently excess margin that their retail trading partners are noticing and coveting. But — of much greater importance — it would also reduce the differential between what Amazon (and who knows, perhaps B&N in the future) offers an author and what the publisher offers, making it more difficult for Amazon to lure their authors away with higher royalty terms.
In fact, they might even get some sympathy from Barnes & Noble about having less excess margin to trade if they can make it clear that giving more to authors is keeping them out of Amazon’s clutches, which B&N and all other retailers absolutely need them to do.
Part of what prevents publishers from seeing merit in paying more to authors is their high cognizance of another accounting element they track: unearned advances. Unfortunately, either publishers aren’t looking at that category of expense in the right way or they’re eliding important distinctions when they discuss those unearned advances with agents.
Because all unearned advances are clearly not created equal. All of the biggest authors pile up unearned advances because they are intended to be unearned. When the agent for a megaselling writer sits down with a publisher to negotiate the advance, they are often negotiating around dividing up what they both see (perhaps without explicitly saying so) as the total revenue pie likely from the book. That leads to agreement on the advance against royalties, which divides the revenues at what is effectively much higher per-copy royalties than standard contracts call for.
But then, for reasons of “not establishing precedent” and, perhaps, not kicking in “most favored nation” clauses that could exist in other contracts (all in the publishers’ interest), the actual contract has conventional royalty splits. The book would have to sell a big increment over expectations to “earn out” on conventional royalties. That’s very unlikely because these are deals done with highly established authors where the track record is a good predictor of future performance.
So some of these “unearned” advances were never intended to be earned; they simply measure how much of a premium the publisher was willing to pay to get certain revenues into the fold.
In other words, publishers aren’t trying to manage all unearned advances down, just some of them. And if they don’t make that distinction (and some further nuance to their measurement) when they analyze this, they’re doing themselves a disservice in a number of ways. Right now, one of those ways is that it is persuading them not to pay higher royalties when doing so could well be in their interest, both because it will keep the author away from Amazon and because it leaves less margin on the table for their trading partners to pursue.
Declared royalty rates that are closer to what Amazon can offer are critical for publishers to turn around a PR war for new authors that they have been losing. The focus of a great deal of the author community buzz is around the ebook royalty differential. Disadvantages of self-publishing — the biggest three being the actual financial cost of necessary editing and core marketing (like a cover); the difference in risk between taking those costs versus taking a revenue guarantee in the form of an advance; and the additional marketing and sales a publisher generates (right now largely through the merchandising and additional revenue from print) — are too easy to ignore or elide. The royalty comparison is straightforward and apparently persuasive when it is as stark as it is now.
A 50% ebook royalty from an agency publisher on revenue after agency commissions would match the 35% royalty that Amazon pays when they pay advances and publish. But publishers don’t actually have to reach that number to be offering a better deal because they offer sales through other channels Amazon currently either doesn’t reach or actually prohibits employing when they pay an advance to publish. It’s just a tough argument to make when they offer half that number.
One more reflection on unearned advances to bend your mind in the other direction, and then we’ll stop. When the publisher sells a copy of a book that has an unearned advance, the cash flow for this month on the book is better, because no payment to the author is triggered. If publishers paid authors higher royalties on ebook sales, they’d have fewer dollars in unearned advances (because books would earn out faster) very quickly. Of course, that’s not “good” for them because it means they have to pay new royalties on those books as they sell. This is just to say reiterate what I said above: publishing economics are complicated. Anytime you hear them oversimplified, like by somebody lumping together all “unearned advances” into a number or a percentage and wielding it like evidence or analysis, have your grains of salt handy.
I make no secret that my view of the world is publisher-centric. I was brought up that way and I’ve spent 50 years learning about the book business with that point of view. And I also make no secret of my high regard for the current leadership of the biggest publishing houses. With all due respect to the executives of my father’s generation and since, the current crop of leaders is the smartest and most thoughtful and innovative group I’ve ever seen in those slots. But (unless I’m missing something, which is, of course, always a possibility…) they all appear to be making the same mistake at the moment. I would sum up the observations from this post with three suggestions for today’s biggest publishers:
1. Change the way you account for ebook sales in the way Michael Cader suggests: call the consumer payment the top line revenue and the payment to the retailer a cost of sale.
2. Recognize that no excess margin will go unpunished. The forces of big author agents and powerful retail channels will assure that. You know there’s a minimum margin you need to survive; in fact there will also be a maximum margin you’ll have any prayer of holding onto.
3. Pay authors more so you can pay retailers less. There will be a direct connection between the two.