The Financial Ecosystem of the Writer
A while ago on the Facebook group The Beekeeper’s Apprentices, a discussion rose up about the ethics of buying second-hand books. Not old, out-of-print books, merely used books by active writers who are trying to make a living off their writing.
The discussion in some ways runs parallel to another question I am sometimes asked: which format of book gives an author the most financial support—hardback, paper, e-, or audio?
However, in both cases, my answer is more or less the same: you buy whichever you prefer. But since that’s not exactly a reply, here’s more detail.
The formats are complicated and vary wildly depending on contracts, number of books sold, and for all I know the phase of the moon:
Hardbacks—10% on the first 5000 copies, 12.5% on the next 5000, 15% of all over that (with tweaks on regular or deep discounts to the retailers)
Trade paperbacks—7.5% (except for promotional, book fair, book clubs…)
Audio—10% of physical CDs, 25% of digital audio
And so on, for many paragraphs in the contract. But basically? Don’t worry about it. Buy what you like.
As for used books, that depends. Most of us writers would agree that if your money is tight and that’s the only way you’ll get that book on your shelf, then bless you for indulging your 75¢ on my book.
What matters more to a lot of us is the question, are you buying that pre-read novel from an Indie bookseller, or maybe a charity shop? Great! If, however, you’re buying it—or indeed, buying any book—from a huge conglomerate that undercuts the community efforts of Indies… well, you might want to think about whether the hidden cost is worth the savings.
Hence the title of this piece, about the ecology of the financial landscape. Yes, I absolutely depend on people buying my books. That people like you have done so keeps me from having to live in my car and use the wifi leaking out of the local Starbucks. But I’ve been writing for a long time, and I sell a lot of books. That means there are a lot of peripheral readings of my words that don’t contribute directly to my bank account, but have considerable indirect benefit. Someone who falls in love with Mary Russell because of the recommended shelf in the library, or a used-book cart in front of the bookshop, or a neighbor’s Little Free Library is someone who is in love with Mary Russell. They might not have risked $15 for a crisp new paperback by an author they knew nothing about, but once they’ve met the characters, they may well want to fill in the gaps and even, when they’re feeling flush, pick up the new hardback. That person is also someone who wants to tell her friends how much fun she’s having with the stories, or who asks for the next hardback for her birthday… and there are your book sales.
Where the question becomes more relevant is when it involves new authors. If you find a new writer you really adore, someone you’d like to see writing thirty years from now, order their books from your local bookshop—and while you’re there, tell the bookseller how great that author is, and suggest that they might like to add them to their shelves. Pre-order the author’s next one—publishing houses really notice pre-order numbers. And if you spot their older books in a second-hand shop, buy those—and give them to friends. Maybe they’ll fall in love, too, and order the next one.
A healthy financial ecology benefits us all.