Lawrence Gooley: Advice for Aspiring History Authors

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Dance Macabre dans l'Imprimerie by Mathias Huss, Lyon 1499For any readers or writers out there who have considered writing some type of history book, here’s some important information that comes from a piece I published elsewhere a year ago (and is presented here with a few modifications). It remains pertinent to the current state of publishing; applies to any region, city, or town where a “targetable” market exists; and begins with a question.

Would you rather have a book on the New York Times Best-Seller List, or a top seller in the Adirondack region? If you’re an aspiring author, I know, I know … stupid question. But humor me, and before you answer, let me further define the question in this fashion: your book appearing on the New York Times list was produced, marketed, and sold by one of the world’s largest publishing companies. Your regional book, on the other hand, was self-published, which means it was funded, marketed, and sold by you.

I asked my partner that question, with the answer appearing obvious to both of us―but it isn’t. Actually, your reply depends on your goals: bragging rights for making the Times list, along with a semblance of fame and perhaps some profit; or regional popularity and a realistic chance of much larger profit.

Modern technology’s incredible impact on the world of publishing has drastically changed the game, introducing choices that no one could have foreseen (which is why the industry remains unsettled, still trying to find its way).

The question of New York Times list versus regional best-seller was never a consideration until recently. It would still be impossible to answer except that an author who promised to reveal profit numbers if she ever made the list did, in fact, follow through. It is rare indeed that actual sales numbers and authors’ net profits are revealed.

Access to this sales and profit information allowed comparison to regional numbers, which confirmed what I have shared with several Adirondack authors in the past. The results will surely amaze at least some of you.

In 2008, fiction writer Lynn Viehl’s sixth book, published by the Penguin Group (#2 in the world), debuted at #19 on the New York Time’s list. About 9 months later, she received her first royalty statement and made it available to the public. Here’s a brief summary of the numbers.

As a known author, she had received a very large advance: $50,000. But don’t roll your eyes. This is very relevant, valuable information, as you’ll see.

The advance was provided in two stages: two-thirds initially, and the final third when the book became available for sale. Here’s a simplified description of what followed.

The initial printing was 88,500 copies, and the statement revealed sales of about 44,000―earning the author royalties totaling $40,484. To determine the actual value to her, begin with the advance ($50,000). Subtract 15% agent fees ($7500); income taxes (approximately $15,000); and $1594 for expenses (Viehl described these as office supplies, shipping, and promotional materials).

Those expenses come to about $24,000, which, when subtracted from the $50,000, yields a net profit of about $26,000. That means the 44,000 book sales earned her a check for―$0. Why? Because the book hadn’t “earned out” yet, meaning it hadn’t brought in enough author profit to surpass her advance.

Stage 2: the next statement, which arrived about six months later. Additional sales and book returns were factored in. The author then combined the numbers with those from the first statement to reveal the overall results.

Total books sold: 61,663. Total earnings for the author: $45,182―short of the advance, so still no royalty income. She expected the book would earn out in about another six months. Her final assessment: “After paying taxes, commission to my agent, and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30–40% of my advance. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.”

And Penguin Group? The publisher’s gross earnings from that book were estimated at $453,840. Net earnings, about $250,000—10 times what the creator of the work earned.

In comparison: during the same time that Lynn Viehl’s best-seller was making the rounds, a book of regional interest began selling in the northern Adirondacks. Total printing, 2040 copies. Cost to the author for producing the book, approximately $5500. During the same year that Viehl’s book was selling 44,000 copies, the Adirondack book sold 2000 copies.

Now brace yourself: net profit for the regional author―$32,000. Nearly all 2000 sales were conducted within the Adirondacks, a miniscule market by most standards. The yield? About $8000 more for the author than a Times best seller, which during the same period outsold the regional book by 22 to 1.

Consider this: that’s without selling the regional book via Amazon or any chain bookstores; without employing any social media; without selling through a distributor; without any advertising expenses; and without taking advantage of e-book sales (it’s important to know that even today, printed books still comprise about 75% of all book sales).

That’s one example of technology’s impact on book publishing. To ignore technology is to ignore the future. Producing one’s own book and attempting to sell it was once a guaranteed losing proposition. Unrealistic sales numbers were needed to even approach breaking even.

That’s no longer true. Various forms of technology are available, and there are many factors to consider, but even selling 1000 copies can now result in a tidy profit.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, hoping to become the next Stephenie Meyer or the hottest new author. But where it was once the only dream, it’s now one of many that are possible, aided by the advent of e-books, blogging, social media, and new publishing technology.

Tread carefully if you hope to write and self-publish: it can be very challenging, and it involves financial risk, probably in the range of $6000 to $8000 if you pursue printed books (which, again, are 75% of all sales, so think twice before deciding to just go digital).

But know that if you produce a good product, carefully assess your market, and apply real effort to selling, the rewards can be far greater than pursuing what was once the only option available: working hard at being “discovered” by even the smallest of traditional publishers.

That has changed, and it’s still changing. The proof is in the numbers.

Illustration: Dance Macabre dans l’Imprimerie by Mathias Huss, Lyon 1499.

3 thoughts on “Lawrence Gooley: Advice for Aspiring History Authors

  1. Sandra WeberSandra Weber

    Larry, you know that I am 100% with you on this. You are “rocking” the publishing industry into a new era. And I am joining you. I just started my own publishing company, Adirondack Timbre LLC. Why? I have written nine books and am fortunate to be able to say that ALL of those publishers (three national and one regional) were amazing people to work with in producing my books. However, marketing the books is really up to the author and takes considerate time and energy. So why should I expend that time and energy to put pennies in my pocket while wads of bucks are going into the wallets of big-city publishers and chain bookstores?

    As you so eloquently and bravely state in your article, Larry, the choice is pretty clear. And I join with you in starting a quiet revolution of the “write/publish/peddle local” (and distribute global) model. Hmmm…I am thinking those CSA farmers have a crop of tasty ideas.

  2. Louise Bernikow

    Thank you for this. It’s a wonderful conversation for us all to have. I’d add that “mainstream” publishers (those still existing) take forever to get a book “out”– if you sold it today, it would probably be in your hands in two or three years; university presses maybe even longer. But the “apparatus” around writing and publishing and intellectual life hasn’t changed at all — I’m thinking of reviews (which do help spread the word) but much more, the structure of grants, increasingly important to people trying to survive as writers or historians without university jobs. Every big granting org still responds more to “Knopf” or “Oxford University Press” than to small publishers they don’t know. Alas.


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