(Apologies to Judith Viorst and the Alexander books for the title.)
Finally, the number-crunching post!
However, before I start throwing math at you (I know, I’m such a tease), I want to go over a few terms regarding the different kinds of publishing out there. I’ve seen a lot of people equating self-publishing with vanity publishing, and while sometimes vanity presses try to sell their services as self-publishing, they’re unfortunately smearing their bad reputations all over the people who have truly self-published.
SFWA has an excellent page devoted to it, and the Writer Beware team puts it far better than I ever could, so first I’m going to point you here.
You might have noticed here that I try very hard not to use the term “traditional publishers” when I’m referring to what SFWA correctly defines as “commercial” publishers, as “traditional publishing” is a phrase coined by a scam publisher who I’m not going to link to here. So, Random House, Tor, Little, Brown & Company, HarperCollins, and, yes, even the advance-paying, editorial-having, books-on-bookstore-shelves part of Harlequin, those are all commercial publishers. So, SFWA’s defintion of commercial publishers:
A commercial publisher purchases the right to publish a manuscript (usually together with other rights, known as subsidiary rights), and pays the author a royalty on sales. Most also pay an advance on royalties. Commercial publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of manuscripts submitted. They handle every aspect of editing, publication, distribution, and marketing. There are no costs to the author.
Next, let’s look at self-publishing — true self-publishing, that is. SFWA again:
Self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to bear the entire cost of publication, and also to handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together himself. Because every aspect of the process can be out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing; it can also result in a higher-quality product. All rights, the ISBN, and completed books are owned by the author, who keeps all proceeds from sales.
Is self-publishing easy? No. It requires a whole lot of work from the author that chooses to go that route, and I’d venture that the more successful self-published titles are put out there by people with an idea of how the industry works. Author Teri Woods went the self-publishing route, selling books out of the trunk of her car. Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader, self-published and sold her book in and around Salem, MA, where it takes place. Both Woods and Barry sold enough of their books to make major commercial houses take notice and offer them book deals, but neither success story happened overnight.
Also, they self-published.
Still Alice author Lisa Genova (who commented here once omg /fangirl /squee), published through iUniverse knowing she’d have to do all the marketing and publicity legwork herself. She used their services for printing and shipping the books, period, the end. The rest, she did on her own, with an eye towards being picked up by a commercial publisher:
It’s important to know that a self-published book was not my goal. I self-published because I couldn’t make any headway on the conventional road to a book deal. My self-publishing goal was to demonstrate that Still Alice had an enthusiastic and sizeable audience. I wanted to give my book a chance to wave its arms in the air and yell at the top of its lungs, to create a buzz loud enough for the literary agents and publishing houses to hear. And at the end of my self-published day, I still wanted a book deal from a traditional publishing house.
Again, someone with an idea of how the publishing industry works, making the model work for her. While normally I’d put iUniverse squarely in the vanity publisher category — their “editorial services” echo Harlequin Horizons’ in a lot of ways, and surprise, they’re owned by Author Solutions, too — Ms. Genova used them as a self-publisher. As she said in her reply to my previous post (/re-squee!): “I fully realized that I was not going to make a living off of the self-published version of Still Alice.”
So what is a vanity press, precisely? What differentiates them from honest-to-god self-publishers? Back to SFWA’s definitions:
A vanity publisher relies on its authors as its main source of income–whether by charging fees for publication or other services, or requiring authors to buy or pre-sell their own books. It often presents itself as a publisher (sometimes claiming to be a “traditional” publisher and concealing its fees) rather than a self-publishing service, claiming to be selective despite employing little meaningful quality screening. Adjunct services (editing, marketing, and/or distribution) are generally minimal or of dubious value. A vanity publisher claims various rights by contract, and owns the ISBN and the completed books, which remain in the publisher’s possession until sold. Payment to the author is in the form of a royalty.
See that bit about claiming to be a “traditional” publisher? From Harlequin Horizons’ “Our Advantages” page:
Harlequin Horizons is a division of Harlequin Enterprises Limited, a global leader in romance and women’s fiction. The intent behind creating Harlequin Horizons is to give more aspiring romance writers and women’s fiction writers the opportunity to publish their books and achieve their dreams without going through the submission process with a traditional publishing house.
However, we understand you may aspire to be published with a traditional house – a noble aspiration. While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.
Bolding mine. Four counts of “traditional publishing” in two paragraphs. Awesome. Though, I do have to concede that Horizons isn’t claiming to be the traditional publisher here — they’re using the term to describe commercial publishers. It’s still frustrating that they’re perpetuating a phrase coined by a scam publisher, though.
Where they do hit the vanity-press criteria, though, is just about everywhere else.
Relies on authors as its main source of income? Check.
Presents itself as a publisher? Check — they have a page dedicated to “The Five Chapters of Publishing” and while they call their business “Assisted Self-Publishing,” they tout the ability to “retain more control over the editing and artistic process” as a perk. Guys, it’s not. If you’re the average first-time author, chances are you know precisely jack and shit about the editorial and artistic processes.
Adjunct services of minimal or dubious value? Big gorram check. Minimal in the packages, dubious in the add-ons.
They don’t seem to be claiming rights (though I haven’t seen the “non-exclusive contract” they offer, so that’s still up for interpretation). However, I’m uncomfortable with the way they spin it:
When you self-publish with Harlequin Horizons you only pay for the services and packages you need and you retain all the rights to your book. Retaining the rights to your book is a big difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. With traditional publishing, a publisher will buy the rights to your book up front and then print your book. With self-publishing you, the author, remain in control through the whole publishing process. You can also continue to market your book to other publishers and outlets at your own pace.
There’s that “traditional publishing” thing again. Yes, a commercial publisher buys the rights to your book, but sweet flying spaghetti monster, that’s not a bad thing! When a publisher buys the rights to publish your book, you get paid. And if someone wants to buy the rights to produce it as an audio book, you get paid again. And if a publisher in Spain wants to translate it and publish it there? You get paid again. Also, let’s look at the weasel-wording here: the author retains the copyright, always, always, always. If anyone asks you to sign over your copyright, run the fuck away.
What commercial publishers buy is the right to print and sell your book. So you can get paid. Go to your bookshelf and pick up a book published by a commercial publisher. Turn to the title page. See the copyright line? Does it say “Copyright <author’s name here>” and the year? It should. Why? Because authors retain their copyrights. I can’t help but feel that Harlequin Horizons is counting on new writers not knowing that, and intentionally helping them to confuse copyright with rights to print and sell.
Okay, I’m done digressing. Last couple of checkpoints: It’s not clear whether or not Harlequin Horizons owns the ISBN that you “buy” with your package. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the author owns it at that point, but there’s a big ol’ question mark beside it in place of a check mark.
And, since they only print on demand, they’re not housing the completed books. They are, however, largely controlling how information about the books gets sent out to online stores.
Lastly, of course, payment to the author is in the form of a royalty. Check! This royalty is, of course, based on net sales, not off of the retail price, as it would be at a commercial publisher.
So, after a very long way to get to it, let’s talk about what those royalties might actually look like, shall we?
I’m going to put the math behind a clicky here, because I know I’m already looking at my own scrollbar and cringing. So, go refresh your coffee, grab a snack, and click on through for fun with math!
Still with me?
Okay. For starters, let’s try to figure out the average price of a book published through Harlequin Horizons.
Since we don’t have any Hh books to look at yet, we’re going to have to look at other, similar titles. The packages offered through Hh are closest in pricing tiers to those of Author House, which is another vanity press owned by Author Solutions, though they mix and match their services a bit differently.
Interesting to note: the same services offered by AuthorHouse are much more expensive through Hh. For example, AuthorHouse charges $500 to send your book to Foreword Clarion or Kirkus Discoveries. Hh charges $600. Both are far more expensive than sending your book to either service directly. Why the jump in prices? My guess is you pay for the prestige of having a business association with Harlequin, even though you really don’t get the Harlequin brand on your books (plus, Harlequin has to pay Author Solutions for their services somehow, don’t they?) I was going to go into a point-for-point comparison, but in the end, I’m going to leave that for you cats n kittens to poke around and see for yourselves. We’ve got more math to do here first!
AuthorHouse’s retail prices are the closest we’re going to get for now, so onward!
First disadvantage: these books will not be mass market sized, like most of the commercially published Harlequin monthly titles. Mass Market is roughly 4×6. Harlequin Horizons offers 5×8 and 6×9, which are trade paperback sizes. (Thursday I said they were mass market sizes, and I apologize for that. #falconessefail) Commercially published trade paperbacks can run anywhere from $9.95 to $18.95 if it’s a big ol’ tome. Most of them I’d say settle in around $14.95, so I’ll use that as my standard trade paperback price.
A commercially published author receiving a 15% royalty rate will earn $2.24 per book sold. That’s 15% of the cover price, by the way, not the net price.
Writers publishing through Harlequin Horizons don’t earn anywhere near that. They earn royalties at 50% of the net price, according to Harlequin’s Digital Director Malle Vallik’s response to that question at Dear Author (comment #18).
(Also disturbing in that is Vallik’s response to hapax’ question #4 about whether publishing through Hh means authors lose first publication rights. Vallik responds that authors own their own content. Yet again confusing copyright with publication rights. The answer, by the way, is yes: by publishing a book through Hh, first publication rights are gone. If a commercial publisher picked up the book, they would be buying reprint rights. It’s kind of disturbing to me that someone representing Harlequin either doesn’t understand the difference between copyright and publishing rights or is deliberately obfuscating/dodging the question.)
I digressed again, didn’t I? Sorry, back to the math!
Now, Hh lets you set your own retail price for the books.
Some 6×9 paperback prices:
Six Plays of Drama, Mystery and Comedy, $12.80
Martian Panahon Virus, $14.95
Rememberance of Things Past, $9.80
To Seek a Newer World, $13.00
Some 5×8 paperback prices:
Leyala’s Search for the Sphinx, $11.00
Eye for an Eye, $12.20
A Parallel Trail, $13.50
So, average price of the 6×9 books from my samples: $12.63
Average price of the 5×8 books: $11.52
Reasonable prices, right? Here’s where it gets tricky: we don’t know what the production price is on these books, as AuthorHouse doesn’t have an online calculator. Neither, of course, does Harlequin Horizons. The best I can do (unless someone else can give me a hand here and point me somewhere more accurate), is to use the calculator at lulu.com and find out what they’d charge for a similar book.
Choosing “publisher grade” for the paper, I can price out a 5.5×8.5 book (the closest I can get to 5×8). I’m going with 350 pages. That comes out to $7.75 per book.
Assuming that Hh’s price will be close to Lulu’s (and boy is that a huge assumption, when you see how cranked up Hh’s prices are even compared to what AuthorHouse charges for the exact same services), an author selling her book at $11.52 would make…
$11.52 – $7.00= $4.52. (This is your net price).
A commercially published author at 15% royalties would make $1.73/book at that rate.
However, also notice that this is based off of Lulu’s “Publisher grade” paper option, which they describe as the most economical (aka cheapest). I can’t see if Hh has that option at all. My guess is probably not.
In the spirit of doing all the math here, though, how many copies would someone who bought just the $599 Basic package from Harlequin Horizons have to sell to break even?
$599 / $2.26 = 265 copies. Hrm. What was it SFWA said?
The average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies, mostly to “pocket” markets surrounding the author–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order–and to the author him/herself.
So, not only does this author need to outperform the “average” book from a POD service by 65 copies, when you look at the numbers for average AuthorHouse author sales quoted in the SFWA article, that number she’d have to overachieve by jumps to, oh, 224:
According to a January 2009 article in the New York Times, AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008–which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 41 sales per title.
This does not bode well, does it?
Meanwhile, the commercially published author might only be making $1.73 per book, but you know what? She’s already getting paid! Let’s assume the commercially published author got a $3000 advance on her book from her publisher — not a bad deal for a first time genre author. That’s $3000 in her pocket. Now, she doesn’t make any more money until she’s “earned out” that advance, which means selling…
$3000/$1.73= 1734 books.
That’s almost eight times as many books sold than the Harlequin Horizons author!
But you know what? She’ll do it. Because the comercial publisher’s going to start her off with a print run of, let’s say 20,000 copies, which is pretty modest, actually. And they’ll put her books in their seasonal catalog. Their sales reps will show those catalogs to book buyers in honest-to-god bookstores. Hell, I’d bet Barnes & Noble alone would order 2000 copies. Would they sell all 2000? Not necessarily. But there are 18,000 other copies out there, and only a tenth of them have to sell for the author to earn out. Starting at the 1735th book sold, she starts earning even more royalties.
For the rest of this exercize, I’m going to use the 6×9 prices, as they were far more abundant on the AuthorHouse site, and because my guess is that Lulu’s prices with standard paper offering will be much closer to what AuthorHouse offers. Again, anyone who can supply me with more accurate numbers, please do!
More things about the math here:
I am using the price of one book on the Lulu calculator. I am also calculating only for books sold through the future Harlequin Horizons bookstore — not for author orders, or books ordered via Amazon/B&N/Borders online or books ordered through a bricks and mortar bookstore. This is because it’s pricing information that I do not have. The same goes for eBooks — most of the eBooks listed on the AuthorHouse site seem to be around $4.95, and Harlequin Horizons authors receive 50% of the net profits from eBooks as well, but… I have no idea what their base price is for eBooks. (Lulu, I believe, starts at about $4.)
Now, an author ordering copies of her book directly through Harlequin Horizons might be able to make a greater per-book profit, depending on the discount Hh offers. But understand that every time she orders books, that adds to the amount she’s in the red. She starts out at $599, say, then orders 100 copies of her book. Let’s say Hh offers her 50% off of the $7.00 manufacturing price (still with the 5×8 here, and I really doubt they’re going to offer that much of a discount). That’s another $350 out of her pocket before you figure in shipping (do they charge shipping on author orders?) Also, there’s no information on whether or not authors receive royalties on their own orders. My money’s on no.
So, as you can see, there are more variables here than I even know how to start accounting for. If my head is spinning, as someone who at least has the tiniest idea of how these things work, how is a new author ever supposed to sort them out?
Which means, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to keep the math as simple as I can.
The figures, once again:
6×9 trade paperback, with a retail price of $12.63. According to Lulu, one copy of a 300-page, perfect bound, 6×9 trade paperback has a manufacturing price of $11.50.
For a commercially published author making 15% royalties, that’s $1.89 per copy.
For a Harlequin Horizons author:
$12.63-$11.50=$1.13 (There’s your net price.)
$1.13 x 50% (the Hh royalty rate)= $0.56
Fifty-six cents per copy sold. That’s your Hh royalty. For an author who has purchased only the $599 Basics package and paid nothing else on her own to promote the book, in order to break even she needs to sell:
Since you can’t sell .642 of a book, that brings us up to 1070.
One thousand seventy books to break even.
Five times as many books as the average POD title sells. Twenty-six times as many as the average AuthorHouse book sells.
Are your heads exploding yet? I know mine is.
MORE MATH! MORE!
Because you know authors aren’t going to just order the basic package and call it good. The language throughout the Harlequin Horizons site suggests that of course you need to add bells and whistles if you want to be truly successful.
Let’s assume an author buys the package that’s smack in the middle of the offerings. For $999, she gets the basic package, a slightly nicer cover (where she can use that great picture her cousin took last year instead of a stock photo), the Google and Amazon search inside features, and an “editorial review” of the book.
Of course, as we discussed the other day, the “editorial review” isn’t quite what it sounds like. Or, as Jackie Kessler puts it (if you’re drinking something, put it down):
Our books will get Harlequin editors working on them to help us become stronger writers!
Ah. Um. No. But if you pay for it, you can get an editorial review through Author Solutions, the company we’ve partnered with to form Harlequin Horizons.
Pay for it? How much?
An editorial review is only $342.00.
You know. A sample edit. Of the first chapter. To let you know where Harlequin Horizons believes you need editorial help. But don’t worry! After the two-plus weeks it takes to get that editorial review, we’ll tell you all about the oodles of editing services you can pay for through Harlequin Horizons!
Pay more? This is after the $342?
Well, sure. That was just a review.
How much are we talking about to get Harlequin Horizons to edit my manuscript?
For line editing, that’s $0.035 per word. For content editing, that’s $0.042 per word. And if you want full-blown developmental editing for plot, pace and content, like the kind authors get for free when they’re published through the real Harlequin, that’s $0.077 cents per word.
Uh…doesn’t that mean for an 80,000-word manuscript, it would cost me more than $6,100 to have my manuscript professionally edited?
Look! Shiny book with your name on it!
So, let’s go in the middle again, and say our aspiring author is confident about her pacing, but wants more than just a spelling and grammar check. She pays $0.042/word on her 80,000 word novel, costing her an extra $3360.
Let’s assume she has a blog already, and accounts with facebook, flickr and goodreads. Or that she sees that thousand-dollar package offering to set those things up for her and thinks, “No thanks, I can do it myself.”
Advertising and reviews, though, that’d be keen. She shells out $600 for a Foreword Clarion review.
Now, this is curious. Thursday, Hh offered an ad in the Romantic Times for $999. That option is now gone, replaced by the option to buy an ad in The New York Review of Books for $875. Did RT tell them thanks but no thanks? And while the title page says the (25-word) ad will be in the New York Review of Books, the actual content refers to placement in The New York Times Book Review.
They are not the same thing.
Let’s have our author skip that for now. I’m sure she can always buy an ad later on.
However, she chooses instead to spend $839 on their “Booksellers Return Program.” Because they make it sound pretty essential, don’t they?
When you attach the Booksellers Return Insurance program to your book you are sending a clear signal to potential retailers that you are serious about selling your book. Retailers are interested in making a profit, so they want to know if your book doesn’t sell they can return it to recover their purchase costs. Some retailers even have policies that prohibit them from buying a book without Booksellers Return Insurance.
Additionally, if retailers know you have this insurance they will be more likely to stock your book on their shelves, and set up book signings and speaking engagements for you, all of which require book sales. Don’t miss out on the many benefits this insurance provides – buy it today.
I mean, if you don’t have it, it says right there in the first sentence that you’re not serious about it. What are you, some kind of lazy-ass dabbler? Again, let me reiterate: there is no such gorram thing as Booksellers Returns Insurance. It is a term made up by Author Solutions, or Harlequin Horizons, or AuthorHouse, I’m not sure which, to sell their returnable option. All it is is a way to strike fear into their potential authors: “If I don’t have this, booksellers won’t carry my book.”
Let’s say she stops there. That’s quite enough money, don’t you think? Maybe she goes and has some postcards and business cards printed up on her own, but we won’t include that in the sale. Ready to tally?
$ 999 — the Aspriations Package
$3360 — “Content Editing”
$ 600 — a Foreword Clarion paid review (which doesn’t guarantee a nice review)
$ 839 — Enrollment in the Booksellers Return Program which no matter what they say isn’t insurance RAWRSMASH.
$5798 — the author’s out-of-pocket total.
So, how many books does she need to sell through the Harlequin Horizons store before she’s recouped her expenses and can start turning a profit?
$5798/$0.56 = 10,353.71
This author would need to sellTEN THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FOUR BOOKS before she could even start making any money.
Fifty-two times the average POD book’s sales.
Two hundred fifty-four times the average AuthorHouse book’s sales.
Harlequin Horizons yanks writers’ money away and giggles all the way to the bank.