What is a writer’s time worth?

How will writers and publishers continue to supply you, the reader, with new books? How will you, the writer, earn a living and protect your intellectual property? Who is really ripping off writers: publishers, pirates or libraries?

I’d like to hear your opinions about what publishing models might work for readers and writers.

How you get books What the writer receives
Borrow a printed book from a public library Writer receives small compensatory payment for lost royalties (in countries that have a lending rights scheme).
Buy a new printed book from a bookshop Writer typically receives around 10% of the Recommended Retail Price (RRP), but the percentage increases if the book sells in higher quantities. If the writer is established, s/he may negotiate for a higher rate.
Buy printed book from second-hand bookshop Nothing
Download pirated e-book Nothing
Buy e-book from a publisher or online retailer This varies widely depending on whether the book is being released in print and  e-book form, or only in e-book form. If the book is only being published in electronic form, the writer should get somewhere around 35 to 50% of the net receipts. The Australian Society of Authors is campaigning for fairer writer royalty rates for e-books.
Buy a self-published (Kindle Direct) e-book from Amazon Depending on which country the reader comes from, the writer will receive either 35% or 70% of the list price (or of the retail price if Amazon drops the price to compete with other e-tailers). “Amazon.com reserves the right to set the retail price at our sole discretion.” I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences of publishing with Kindle Direct.
Pay a subscription fee to support small publishers (e.g. And Other Stories Publishing) who release books you value, trusting them to select the best Unknown. If you’re a writer published through And Other Stories, please leave a comment about your experience.
Fund your favourite writers directly through Unbound. Writers pitch their ideas; you decide which books you’d like to support. Unknown. If you’re an Unbound writer, please leave a comment about your experience.
Buy an e-book directly from the writer Writer claims 100% of any profit if s/he isn’t reliant on a publisher or retailer.

The figures above are based on my experience in the Australian book publishing industry and my own research; percentages may vary from country to country.

Libraries versus pirates

What is a writer’s time worth? Those who download pirated e-book files evidently think the answer is ‘nothing’. I can’t imagine telling a plumber who has just fixed a burst pipe that I’m not going to pay him for his expertise “because I believe all knowledge should be free”, but this is the kind of “let them eat cake” argument that writers hear. Under these circumstances, who can write? Only the independently wealthy or people who hold down other jobs to pay for their writing time, which demotes writing from the status of a profession or a trade to that of a hobby.

Many people can’t afford to buy books and that’s why public libraries are an essential service; everyone should have access to information, not just the wealthy. This may seem to contradict what I’ve just said about the aristocratic arrogance of piracy, but there is a difference between file sharing networks and public libraries: when you borrow a book from most public libraries, the writer receives compensation for lost royalties. It’s not much but it’s better than nothing.

It was in public libraries, under the influence of my parents, that I first became a book addict. I went on to become a book buyer. Families and libraries create readers and book buyers. It’s the local community that first introduces reader and writer to each other.

Writer Terry Deary has recently blamed libraries—or at least the rationale for  libraries—for robbing authors of their income. Deary has received public lending rights money for his books being borrowed. It may not be nearly as much as he’d get for book sales, but it’s better than what Deary gets from second-hand book shops and pirated files: nothing at all.

I think Terry Deary’s wrong in seeing libraries as the enemy; the real enemies are the e-book pirates and the people who download the pirated files. Deary says that public libraries foster an attitude of expecting books to be free, and compares this to people’s willingness to buy cinema tickets. The trouble is that a huge number of people no longer need to go to a cinema or a bookshop; they can steal films and books from home. The ease and ubiquity of piracy has made theft socially acceptable in some circles. It’s on peer-to-peer networks that the expectation of getting something for nothing is nurtured, not in libraries.

Successful writer Neil Gaiman suggests that when his books are downloaded illegally, this is a form of publicity and leads to more book sales, but I don’t know of any figures that prove this is true for any writer other than Neil Gaiman. I would suggest that Gaiman can afford to take this view because he’s already successful and his early career was backed by publishing houses.

My experience in the book publishing industry taught me that I’ll probably never make a living from writing. I saw writer royalty statements and I can tell you that most writers need a day job. The Stephanie Meyers, John Grishams, Stephen Kings, Dan Browns, El.Jameses and J.K. Rowlings of the writing world are the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, the existence of these writing superstars gives some readers the impression that they needn’t pay for books because they think all writers are riding in gold-plated limos. I hope to make some money to defray the costs of things like maintaining my laptop. In my craziest dreams, I imagine earning enough from writing to reduce my day-job hours.

Corporate sponsorship

Fay Weldon was paid by the jewellery firm Bulgari to write a novel, The Bulgari Connection, and fill it with Bulgari product placements (no, I’m not making this up), just as films are often partly financed in exchange for the hero using particular products. Obviously this model is only available to you if you’re already a successful writer!

Reader sponsorship

On her Word by Word blog, Claire MCA talks about an interesting publishing model: pay a subscription fee to support small publishers who release books you value. I presume the writers have a traditional publishing contract that gives them about 10% of the book’s Recommended Retail Price.

Similarly,  you can fund your favourite writers directly through Unbound. Writers pitch their ideas; you decide which books you’d like to support.

Traditional publishing

Why do publishers give writers such as small share of the profits? In exchange for taking the lion’s share of the profits, publishers take on costs that include:

  • editing the manuscript
  • typesetting the manuscript for computer-to-plate printing (even though the text is prepared on a computer now instead of with metal type, it’s still called typesetting)
  • creating the e-book version and making it available to retailers
  • designing the book cover and paying for images used
  • purchasing the paper
  • printing the books
  • warehousing the books
  • distribution and shipping (i.e. getting the printed books from the printer to the warehouse and then to retailers and overseas distributors)
  • paying sales representatives to convince bookshops and department stores to order the book and display it prominently
  • invoicing retailers and tallying books sold
  • marketing and publicity.

Frustrated at having their manuscripts rejected by publishers, or being offered a pitiful advance and a royalty rate of just 10%, some writers are going their own way.

Independent e-publishing

Many writers are now independently publishing e-books because they can cut out the middle men (the publishers and booksellers) and use cheaper electronic distribution instead of printing and shipping the books.

The biggest problems indie writers face are getting their books noticed and fending off pirates. How do you find readers when your book isn’t in the shops and a publisher isn’t promoting you? E.L. James started out independently and managed to find an audience and make direct sales, but her sales increased again when she got a traditional deal with a publisher.

If you know where your primary audience lives online, you may be able to reach them, but you have to become a one-person marketing, publicity and sales machine.  If your primary audience prefers printed books, however, independent e-publishing may not be for you as a writer.

What do you think? Where do we go next?

© JD Ellevsen


  1. Thank you for the mention and link. It’s interesting to see the effect of what is perhaps a generational shift in reader behaviours, which accounts for the decline in reading via more traditional routes and forms. I think people will always find ways to publish stories and those in the middle if not the authors themselves, either are part of the new wave of how they like to read in this young age or they will adapt to ensure the work is accessible, (or disappear). Thus some publishers are even publishing e-book only versions of some books an attempt not to be left behind, this allows them to test a book I guess before committing to a print run.

    We will look back in the many years to come and see this transition as something logical for the time given the shifts that are occurring in technology and the increasingly diverse ways it is entering into the way we navigate and organise our lives. I don’t think printed books will die out, but they will become more valued and we will see more attractive versions of books that people are prepared to pay more for in the first instance, especially with the current older generations who love to read, entering their nostalgic years.

    I think many unpublished writers will continue to try the traditional route, but maybe won’t stick it out as long as they have in the past, now that there are viable alternatives and avenues for self-promotion, which if they are successful, could lead them to a publisher anyway.

    Libraries are essential, we would never want reading to become elitist or only available to those with wealth and for children they are such a wonderful gift, there are so many people who discover their joy of reading through having access to a library.


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