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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Many unhappy returns

Print-on-demand (POD) technology and, especially Amazon.com, has changed book royalty reporting and payment dramatically. A Butler's Life was first published by Frederic C. Beil Publisher, and as in most traditional publishing practices, I received a royalty statement twice a year, roughly three months after the end of the reporting period, to allow for returns by bookstores to be deducted from your sales. Bookstores, that pay roughly half the list price to begin with, are also given the option of returning unsold titles at little or no penalty. So if Barnes & Noble orders six of your title and after a set amount of time determines that your book isn't likely to sell out, they cut their stock losses and ship your book back.



What is Amazon.com greatest at? Data collection. So being able to generate a report that tracks sales, borrows, etc. is a no-brainer to them and doesn't require three months of sorting through invoices to tabulate. Amazon Kindle, which represents all four of my "main" books in e-book form, pays royaties monthly on sales lagging two months.

Over the past few months, authors were notified by Amazon that their Kindle Unlimited program (for a set monthly fee, you "borrow" the books for free) will begin paying authors by number of pages read. (We don't even want to think about the creepiness of the level of data collection that allows Amazon to know exactly where, and when, you quit reading that ebook.)

July statements were the first to reflect this new system.  On one hand, it's gratifying, because due to their algorhythms, someone who borrows and finishes Choice will actually make me a few more cents than someone who buys it outright.

On the other hand, someone who doesn't finish a book sets off all sorts of author insecurity. What happened on page 40 that stopped the reader in her tracks? Was it the topic? The writing? The characters? WHY DIDN'T YOU LIKE ME?!?!?!? (sob)

But the real gut kicker in Amazon's monthly royalty report is the column labeled Returns.

Wait, what? Isn't one advantage of ebooks that there won't be any returns? I mean, you're transferring data, no trees have been cut down, etc., right?

Um, no.

In the traditional publisher's distribution model, you had no idea which bookstores returned your book, but the "why" was clear: It didn't sell (fast enough). Now that decision is made by an individual, and the presumed reason is simply that they didn't like your book enough to pay even a paltry $4 for it. Or--equally likely--they took advantage of a little known policy that allows one to return an ebook within a set amount of time even if already read. (Kind of like the woman who buys a party dress, saves the tags, wears it to the wedding, then returns it the following day. Really, who does that?)

Recently, there was an article about how a Michigan bookstore, Brilliant Books, offered a refund on Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman. This unprecedented move was not because the store thought it a disappointing book after all the hype, but rather because the the owners felt the public had been misled about the book's origin. Go Set A Watchman is not, as the publisher's website had trumpeted, a "new" manuscript unearthed among Lee's things but rather her originally-submitted manuscript, suggested revisions to which became To Kill A Mockingbird.

If bookstores took back books that disappointed, there would likely be a far fewer copies of Fifty Shades of Grey in thrift shop racks. But ebooks, as we continue to learn, are a whole 'nother animal, still in the evolutionary stage. While ebook authors make a larger percentage of royalties over trad pub contracts, it's evident that e-publisher will still find ways to chip away at those pennies. The winner will not be the author.

I need to grow a thicker skin...

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