Ch. 11: Bad Publishing Experiments

Amazon's exclusive subscription service is a bad deal for publishers

Recently HarperCollins UK announced that it will be making some of its backlist titles available via Kindle Unlimited.

“The publisher confirmed that as of today (1st October) 100s of backlist titles had been released as part of what was described as a ‘strategic and tactical’ push…HarperCollins UK is the first of the big corporate UK publishers to participate in the subscription scheme, first launched in 2014.” [The Bookseller, paywall]

To be included in the Kindle Unlimited program, self-published authors must make their titles available exclusively through Amazon’s program. The article does not clarify whether this is part of the terms of HarperCollins’ arrangement.

Authors who include their books as part of this program aren’t paid a fixed rate, but receive a share of the Amazon global fund, a pool of money worth $25.8M in September 2019, according to Amazon communications. Amazon sets the amount of money in this pool, and portions it out based on an author’s share of the total pages read in that month. It is not clear whether HC is being compensated this way or whether they have struck a different arrangement for inclusion of their titles.

I’m the first one to suggest that book publishers should experiment with new models and ideas. It’s the only way that the industry will remain competitive and relevant as technology and business norms change.

But there are also problematic experiments. An experiment where the end result is giving more power to the most powerful player in the publishing space, decreasing competition, and undermining the value of the book is a bad experiment.

It’s especially galling to me to see this happen at a time that the US Big Five publishers are harshly curtailing library access to ebooks, and increasing the prices charged to libraries for this access.

“HarperCollins has argued that, based on a limited number of titles included, the service can be used as a discovery tool to drive à la carte business.”

Libraries can also be a discovery tool for readers, with the added benefit that libraries aren’t directly in competition with book publishers, as Amazon’s imprints are, nor are they profiting off the data they gather, as Amazon is.

This is the type of experiment that will likely work out in the short term for HarperCollins UK. It is in Amazon’s interest to make this experiment seem successful, so that HarperCollins becomes addicted to the dribble of revenue this will generate and the increase in visibility this will likely create for the authors whose books are included. If HC UK declares this a success, other major corporate publishers will almost definitely follow suit.

But Amazon has the ability not just to change the terms whenever it suits them, but to decrease the amount of money in the pool, or not keep pace with an increase in subscribers, reducing the amount of pay for writers and publishers versus the benefit Amazon receives for that content.

What’s more, if readers can get access to tons of high quality books published by the major publishers for the cost of buying a single ebook per month, it will continue to decrease the value they place on ebooks, and possibly even on print books.

Publishers should experiment with pricing, with format, with direct sales, with innovative partnerships with libraries and other organizations, and so much more. But experiments that benefit the biggest player in the book sales game, that play by the rules that Amazon sets, are likely to end up harming writers and publishers in the long term. As an industry, we have already ceded so much ground to Amazon. Let’s try to avoid ceding even more in pursuit of minimal short term benefits.

Ch. 10: Money tips for authors

Demystifying the mysterious

An essay is making the rounds on publishing twitter right now that talks about how an author found herself completely up a creek, financially, after being paid $350,000 for her first few books.

“If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.”

How to lose a third of a million dollars without really trying by Heather Demetrios

Chuck Wendig responded with advice:

“I feel deeply for the writer, because this shit we do comes with no real map. No creative map, no story map, no industry map, no money map.”

How to be a professional author and not die screaming and starving in a lightless abyss by Chuck Wendig

(This was the alternate title for the book I’m working on.)

I absolutely understand where this writer is coming from. I have literally worked full time in book publishing since 2005 and some of this stuff is still tricky for me. Being a professional writer is a bit like being a pro basketball player or an investor: current success is no guarantee of future returns.

This is why I’m writing Don’t Steal This Book: to help demystify how money works in our industry, and create a bit of a roadmap for authors. It’s also why I advocate for financial transparency, since it’s easy to see the number $350,000 and assume that Heather D. had it made for life.

A few pieces of advice from me:


A good agent can be your biggest fan and ally in this business. Make sure you find someone reputable who you can trust. (Google is your friend here - run their name through the internet to make sure there’s nothing glaring, and consult Writer Beware.) Don’t be afraid to ask the agent questions—before you sign, before they pitch your book, and even after the book has been published. It’s their job to help answer your questions and set you up for success. If you have a hard time remembering, you can write all the questions down so you are sure you cover them all. If it’s hard to ask them over the phone, send an email instead.

But it’s also important for you to do your own research. The agent is an advisor and collaborator but they aren’t your mom. They also have dozens of other authors they are helping. So don’t expect them to tell you everything you could ever possibly want to know about the book business. Their primary job is to sell your book and represent you well. And your financial decisions ultimately rest with you.


Find a tax professional you like and trust, who understands freelance and contract work. I use Brass Taxes, tax pros who specialize in working with artists and freelancers. They totally get where I’m coming from, and didn’t blink when I deducted a pair of roller derby knee pads one year.

But in addition to finding tax help, do some research on your own so you understand how taxes work when you aren’t (or aren’t only) a W2 employee. There are a lot of strategies that can save you money, and a lot you’ll need to know to avoid running afoul of the IRS. Ex: in some scenarios, you’ll need to make quarterly estimated payments rather than just paying everything at once in April. Or, you can file for an extension on your tax filing but that doesn’t mean you don’t owe the IRS money in April. (I’m not a tax pro, find someone who is and listen to them.)

Day jobs

I am writing my third book right now, and I have a day job. I don’t honestly ever expect to be able to write full time. The phrase “don’t quit your day job” is a cliche for a reason. It’s not just an insulting assessment of a creative person’s talents, it’s a real piece of advice that acknowledges how hard it is to make a full-time, permanent living from any artistic pursuit.

Mid-career authors often find themselves in a situation where they aren’t making enough money consistently enough to quit their full time job, but they can’t make more money writing if they are dedicating 40+ hours a week to a day job. If there are ways to cut back to part time as you scale up your writing work, that could help. Freelancing is another way that you can keep some steady(ish) money coming in while devoting more of your time to writing, though that comes with its own challenges. (Setting up a part-time freelance business can be a full time job!)

N.K. Jemisin posted the following when she launched her Patreon:

I have a full time day job, and a writing career. Unfortunately the writing career -- like any small business -- has become more than full time over the years.  Between travel, constant meetings, affiliated side-gigs, and promotion (e.g. interviews, speaking engagements, signings), I'd say it takes up about 50-60 hours per week.  The day job is 40 hours. There are 160 hours in a week.  You do the math.

I love my day job... but I'm getting tired. Working 9-7 most days doesn't leave me with a lot of energy to write at the end of it, though I do anyway because that's how you finish a book a year. Doing this forces me to choose between competing needs, however:  write, or get some stress-relieving exercise? Write, or research home health care agencies for my mother?  Write, or do book promo work like blog posts or interviews? Lately I haven't been able to choose "write" as much as I should, so I'm behind schedule on book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy.  But really, the time crunch is taking a toll on every part of my life.

Sound familiar? Her story has a happy conclusion, as she reached the milestone she needed to be able to quit her day job and still pay for her rent and health insurance. So that is one way to approach it. But she also had a huge career under her belt already when she asked for support from her readers, so don’t assume Patreon is a silver bullet.

Health insurance

For writers from the USA, health insurance is a huge issue. Most of us who are lucky enough to have health insurance get it through our jobs, or spouses if we have them and they’re lucky enough to have health insurance. It’s possible to pay for it via the exchanges, but from what I’ve heard, that’s extremely expensive. (Even insurance through a job can be expensive!)

This is a big impediment to writers quitting day jobs and writing full time. If you live in the US and want to be a writer, advocate for single-payer health care or Medicare for All and this becomes less of a problem.

I’ll continue to talk about this in On the Books, and as I said, it’s a main area of focus for Don’t Steal This Book. If you are a writer and have any specific questions about money and publishing, feel free to reach out to me by leaving a comment or by email (margotatwell at gmail). Heck, anyone who has any questions about money and publishing can get in touch.

A bit more advice on money for writers from some other smart people:

Agent Kate McKean responded to this article in her newsletter, and also shared a previous newsletter she had written about how to quit your job and write full time.

Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek is the real-talking publishing outsider/insider in your pocket that every writer should subscribe to.

Publishing is Hard by Dongwon Song is a newsletter by a fantastic agent who really knows what he’s talking about.

Ch. 9: Self-publishing costs

A snapshot of the costs and challenges of self-publishing

I recently published a very transparent look at the costs and financial realities of self-publishing my book, Derby Life, after running a successful Kickstarter campaign. Trying to pull the numbers together for what I had spent on pre-production, production, and marketing, and the financial figures for sales and more was very eye-opening for me.

Financial transparency in publishing is something I care a lot about. If we don’t publicly talk about costs and payments, that leaves a lot of power in the hands of platforms and big entities, and makes it much harder for writers and small outlets to make ends meet. So I encourage folks to share information about what we earn and what we spend in relation to writing and publishing, to help create a better picture of what is normal for other writers.

This week, my agent, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, will start the process of pitching my book proposal for Don’t Steal This Book: Why Paying for Words is Radical and Necessary to publishers. I have so frequently been on another side of this process—as an agent’s assistant, an acquiring editor, or a freelance editor; as a semi-self-published or totally self-published author, but this is the first time I’m doing things the “traditional” way.

I’ve been exploring and researching the subject of money and publishing formally for years, and informally for my entire career. But it’s still pretty exciting and nerve-wracking to stand up and say “I have something to say on this subject, and you should pay me for that knowledge.” It’s pretty meta, actually, since the book is about how people (readers, publishers, etc) should pay for words.

So, fingers crossed, and stay tuned. I imagine I’ll have an update sometime in the next…year?

Finally, I’ll be at Digital Book World this week, flying out in a few hours. I’ll be speaking about inclusive publishing and Kickstarter on Wednesday afternoon. Let me know if you’ll be there and would like to grab a cup of coffee.

Lunchtime Links 8.9.19

Bonuses for booksellers, more tariff talk, & how to hold clients responsible for late payments

James Daunt of Waterstones (and the new CEO of Barnes & Noble) announced “a company-wide 4% bonus for Waterstones employees, following a "pretty good" financial year "driven above all by better book sales"

“The bonus comes three months after more than 9,000 Waterstones employees delivered a petition calling for the real living wage. At the time, Daunt said the chain could not afford to shell out for the real living wage, which stands at £10.55 an hour for the Greater London area and £9 an hour for the rest of the UK. The Bookseller understands that many of the booksellers who attended a two-hour meeting with Daunt to discuss the issue have since left the chain.” [The Bookseller]

“President Trump announced yesterday afternoon that he is prepared to impose 10% tariffs on $300 billion worth of goods.” It’s still unclear whether books will be excluded from this. [Publishers Weekly]

I wrote about how tariffs could impact the book publishing and bookselling businesses a few months ago, if you’re interested in revisiting that.

Presented without comment, except a little bit of a wail and gnashing of teeth:

“At its most extreme, Amazon Publishing is a triumph of vertical engineering: If a reader buys one of its titles on a Kindle, Amazon receives a cut both as publisher and as bookseller—not to mention whatever markup it made on the device in the first place, as well as the amortized value of having created more content to draw people into its various book-subscription offerings.”

The Amazon Publishing Juggernaut [The Atlantic]

On a lighter note…

“Polydactyl Typewriter wants work that will set the world on fire. We want work that devours the bloody afterbirth of the Beat Generation, then vomits it up on the tedium of modern literary fiction. We want to read your work and be driven to madness, clawing our shirts and crawling on our hands and knees into the sewers, where we will weep and reflect on your genius until we are killed by the filth that surrounds us. As long as it’s less than 500 words.”

How Dare You Submit to Our Literary Journal [The Belladonna]

And finally, some Friday afternoon inspiration from a total boss:

Journalist Wudan Yan charged her clients 20% late fees on past-due invoices. [Link here, h/t Where to Pitch newsletter]

Ch. 8: Career paths in publishing

or How I came to work at Kickstarter

Last month, I was pleased to be invited to give a talk at the New School Publishing Institute, a weeklong introduction to the publishing industry led by John Oakes. In the wake of The Next Page, I’ve been thinking more about who gets access to information in publishing, so I have decided that as much as possible, if there’s interest, I’m going to start recording and sharing my talks.

At the New School, I gave a talk on how I got into publishing, the career path that led me to Kickstarter, how Kickstarter works for publishing, and specifically how I used it to fund and publish two books, and a few other thoughts about publishing. You can hear the talk here if I haven’t somehow botched the link.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first Kickstarter project recently, which was to fund Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby, which I published almost exactly four years ago. It’s pretty unusual in book publishing to get to do a book exactly the way you want to, and be beholden only to yourself (and your readers!) for the choices you make. I’m incredibly proud of the work I did on that project, and I’ve been thrilled to see that the book seems to have become what I set out to make, which is the book I wished had existed when I first discovered roller derby.

I’m especially thinking about this since I got a chance to do an interview with Jennifer Harlan of The New York Times for a story about the past and present of the sport of roller derby. When I was writing Derby Life, I ended up doing a lot more research than I had intended to do on the history of the sport, since it was really fascinating to me.

I also did half a dozen interviews with the people who had reinvented roller derby in the early 2000s and Jerry Seltzer, the son of the man who invented the sport, and the guy who kept the whole thing going for decades after his father retired. Jerry passed away earlier this month. Aside from sadness for the passing of a brilliant, generous, and fascinating person, I have been feeling a lot of gratitude that I got a chance to learn from him, and build a real connection with the history of the sport.

Jerry Seltzer and me as Em Dash, my roller derby alter ego, at Rollercon 2015

Finally, one last piece of exciting news: I’ve signed with an agent! I’ll be working with Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary to represent my new work in progress, Don’t Steal This Book: Why Paying for Words is Radical and Necessary. It’s an exploration of how money works in the publishing industry, and how that impacts who gets to write and whose voices are heard. The second part of the book includes solutions and suggestions for how readers, writers, publishers, and society can create a more diverse, vibrant, economically sustainable publishing industry.

If you happen to be an editor or publisher who’s desperate for a book like this on your list, well…talk to my agent! Otherwise, expect to hear a lot more on the subject in the coming months as I continue to research and write the book.

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