Ever since I began working on my first picture book 25 years ago I have been learning my craft. When I first began I saw this simply as the art of drawing a story, responding to text, shaping a page, a book. Then it was about working my own text and pictures together. And people would say how lovely it must be to work in the children’s book industry, as if somehow that wonderful time when you snug up with a child flows back to the process, and to the beginning of an idea. And yes, it’s wonderful to be able to make objects of desire, which is what I hope my books are. But it is work. It is an industry. And it’s not always nice.
I’ve two kids and a mortgage, though my children are grown now. I began my first book the week after my son was born. Since then I have learned a lot.
So, think of a book like a pie. Not a pie made by one person. There’s a whole team behind a book; author, illustrator, editor, designer, agents, production team, printers and binders. There’s shippers and sales teams, and warehouses and storage. And then there are bookshops and other booksellers. All of these people need to receive a share of the pie.
So, how is the pie cut. Well, author/ illustrator share 8-10% ( . although there are now publishers offering less these days to their ‘contributors). This is on the price the book sells to the bookshop/outlet, NOT as most people believe, the cover price. Agents get between 15-20% of that 4-10%.
A publisher will sell at full price from their website, though sometimes you will find the books offered at a discount from publishers websites. This, to my mind, undermines high street bookshops. They then deal with different customers. Now, I’m not party to my publishers’ deals, but it seems to me the most common price is 50% of the cover price. If they are lucky. More and more bookshops ask for 60-70%. If publishers sell through a distributor then the discount is 60-70% because the distributors have to earn their piece of pie too. The distributors offer a good service to the publishers, making it easier for them to get their books into shops, which is what we all wish to happen. And then there are sales teams, and if they are freelance then they too get a pie slice. For smaller publishers their share of a book profit, after production and shipping and design etc is around 10% also.
When some books are sold in large numbers and then fail to sell a publisher will be expected to pay for their return, or the books will be pulped.
And then there is Amazon. The only way they can offer books at the discount they do is to push as hard as they can for the biggest discount they can. When it comes to paying tax Amazon are careful to stand on the right side of the law but the taxes they pay as peanuts compared to their earnings, and they get huge tax subsidies to set up warehouses, tax breaks on rates, government money given to them without even a guarantee of a living wage being offered to their staff.
Many people think it’s the seller who takes the hit when a book is discounted. It isn’t. It’s the publisher and the author. So why do so many authors still partner their websites with Amazon?
The problem with this is that bookshops can’t compete with the massive discounts, and many of them don’t want to. They understand that authors, illustrators, publishers need to earn a living. Also small publishers find that they are increasingly expected to offer the big discounts to bookshops and there’s no understanding that the unit costs for them are higher so the profits are lower than for the big publishers who can print in larger numbers.
So why do all publishers sell to Amazon? Well, they don’t. But if something has an isbn it will inevitably be listed on Amazon. They list everything registered. There was a time when bookshops subscribed to the Nielsen listings. Maybe this was before the internet. But this costs money, so now many small indie bookshops use Amazon as a database. If your book isn’t listed on Amazon it then becomes invisible and no amount of marketing, appealing to readers, will make it show up. Not only this, but some bookshops will then see that Amazon are offering the book at a higher discount than they can buy it for from their wholesaler, and will order from Amazon and sell on to the customer. Who can blame them as they try so hard to make a living ( and how many bookshops have had people browse, photograph books and then walk out saying they would get it cheaper on Amazon. My worst case of this was a man explaining, or mansplaining, to Nick in Mr B’s how he should become an Amazon reviewer because they would send him books for free that he could then sell on in his shop. Argh. FACEPALM!)
If you are still with me, still reading, then you need to know that while some authors, a very few, earn a lot of money, many more who work very hard are struggling. These days sales are considered to be ‘good’ if you sell 2000 copies. If you take the sums above and do the maths it will give you an idea of average yearly earnings. Many authors supplement this income with school visits, and it’s good that now most literary festivals offer a fee. When people offer you ‘exposure’ as your fee at a festival think of mountaineers. People die of exposure. Exposure doesn’t pay the mortgage, rent, bills.
There is a movement towards fairer contracts for authors, illustrators. The Society of Authors is asking publishers to sign up to this.
So, when I say on twitter, please don’t buy my books from Amazon, but from your local bookshop, this is the longer argument.
I realise not everyone can get to a bookshop. I realise that for many books are a luxury. That used to be what libraries were for and perhaps if Amazon took their tax liability more seriously perhaps the public funding of services would be stronger. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to educate people into understanding the implication of the choices we all make.
A book isn’t a pie. I’ve read books that have changed my life, filled up my heart, challenged my thinking, soothed my soul. A book isn’t a product.
I’v met so many wonderful readers, booksellers who work so hard to make a living, keep their staff employed. We need to work together to level out the playing field before it’s too late. If we want diversity in publishing we need to share out that pie in a fairer fashion. Bookshops aren’t individual shop windows for Amazon. They are experiences. I’ve been to so many now as I travel the country. They have their own character, individuality, beauty.
I’m off on the road in the month of Oct, to London, Cornwall, through Somerset, across South Wales. In November I am heading to Lake District. My schedule is packed, but if you have an indie bookshop enroute then contact me via publishers and I will do my best to call in and sign stock for you. This is a link to my travels.
Thanks for reading ( a bit longer than 140 character tweet). All this talk of books makes me want to go and read. Please leave comments to add to this debate, whether you are a reader, a bookseller, a publisher. We need to keep talking, because we need to make changes.