About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Balticon Schedule

I have a nice schedule at Balticon this year, with seven panels, all looking interesting, and I hope I'll have a chance to meet some of you this year.  And if you don't see me at a panel -- hey, I'll be around the bar or the dealers room or looking for a game of something in the games room.

Balticon 48 is a four-day extravaganza that takes place from Friday May 23, 2014 thru Monday May 26, 2014 at the Hunt Valley Inn, in Hunt Valley, MD.  Of the long-time conventions in the Northeast, I think it's done the best job of integrating games, anime, podcasting, and all sorts of other things of interest to the newer generations of sf fandom with the classic elements of regional sf conventions as they came together in the years after World War II.  I always have a blast, and this looks like one of the best personal schedules I've had at the convention.  Though they do seem to have a lot of the publishing panels in the early hours.

All times are Eastern, and all room assignments are at the Hunt Valley Inn:

1700 Saturday May 24:  In the Hot Seat (Panel) (Participant), Sat 17:00 - 17:50, Belmont Room

1800 Saturday May 24: Forgotten Works in Sci-Fi / Forgotten Works in Fantasy (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0800 Sunday May 25: Finding an agent (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0900 Sunday May 25: Editors Q&A (Panel) (Participant), Salon B (lower level)

1000 Sunday May 25: How NOT to Break into print- The Bad Advice panel (Panel) (Participant), Salon A (lower level)

1100 Sunday May 25: Dealing with Problematic Authors (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0800 Monday May 26: Long-term Career Planning for Creatives: Surviving the Next 10 Revolutions (Panel) (Participant), Chase Room

Several other JABberwocky clients will be attending Balticon this year.

Brandon Sanderson is the Author Guest of Honor.

Myke Cole is the winner of last year's Compton Crook Award, given at Balticon.

Jon Sprunk celebrates the launch of Blood & Iron.

Joshua Palmatier celebrates the launch of Zombies Eat Brains, ahead of the fall publication of his new novel Shattering the Ley.

Peter V. Brett may not be on the programming, but will be around the con.

Our friends at Graphic Audio will be around for Brandon Sanderson's signing on Saturday, so you can sample their dramatic abridged audio editions of his work.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Devane and I

Watching the premiere of 24: Live Another Day earlier in the week gets me to thinking where it is that I have heard the name of William Devane before...

Once Upon a Time, 24 years ago strangely enough, in September 1990, a client of mine named Barbara Paul called to say that there was a TV movie on NBC by the name of Murder COD being previewed in TV Guide that sounded a lot like her book Kill Fee.

The TV movie and a perfectly respectable cast.  Patrick Duffy, still on Dallas, starred as a police detective, and one William Devane was the bad guy.  Devane was on Knots Landing.

And if it sounded a lot like Barbara Paul's novel Kill Fee -- well, that's because it was.

The book had been under option for a while.  The option had, if memory serves, expired on September 10, which was now a few days in the past.  The producers of the TV movie had not quite forgotten to pay the purchase price for the TV movie, which they should have done months before when the started filming the movie.  And now, the check really was in the mail.

I don't know how it would have played out if they had sent their late check even a coupe of weeks or a month sooner, when the check would have been late but at least within the option period.  Had it come in before we knew the movie and actually been shot and delivered we almost certainly would have cashed it and then been a little perturbed to find put two weeks later that they had screwed us a bit.

But here, the option had expired, the producers had no rights to the movie, and they were planning to show it on NBC in a few days.  So of course the check was returned.

We ended up getting a few dollars more.  Not a lot, I wonder if we could have held out longer and gotten more, but as little as it was it represented a 60% increase in what they needed to have paid had they done so just that wee bit sooner.

So this is my William Devane story that had absolutely nothing to do with William Devane.

You can give a listen to the Audible audio edition of Barbara Paul's novel Kill Fee.

Friday, April 4, 2014


Not sure I would have seen Noah otherwise, but there was a preview screening at the Museum of the Moving Image.

It's an interesting movie, in a better way than when your spouse is saying your banana bread is interesting, but I'm still not sure it's actually a good movie.

But interesting.

The first interesting thing is the complete lack of sugar coating.  We can spend so much time with bible stories growing up, the idealized kinds of stories suitable for children of all ages, that we can forget that most of the people in those stories are kind of crazy.  Cain, Abraham, Joseph, Noah certainly.  And the director Darren Aronofsky doesn't let us forget that about Noah.  Nor does the portrayal by Russell Crowe.  There isn't a thing about the movie that lets us forget that you have to be a certain kind of crazy to build an ark because God tells you to, and to do most of the things that Noah goes around doing in the classic bible story of Noah.  It's an interesting choice, and I respect it.  I'm so tired of heroes in cinema that I was kind of delighted here when Noah forces his son Ham to abandon his girlfriend, who doesn't fare well in the immediate aftermath.  Not what we're supposed to do, not what we're used to seeing, not what we like to think of when we think of God and doing God's work and being Godly.  But it's actually true to the nature of the Old Testament, where bad things happen to people.

It's interesting to see the use of classic elements of sf/fantasy to provide the presence of God in the movie.  You need the hand of God to make the story of Noah work.  To make it rain for those 40 days. To get Noah to build the ark.  To keep the ark from being attacked and destroyed by the saner people in Noah's universe.  So if you've got to have a supernatural entity casting its gaze and spirit over the movie, why not have it be a cross between Tolkien/Peter Jackson's ents and Brandon Sanderson's koloss.

The movie has a bad guy, and the bad guy isn't the strength of the movie in cinematic story terms.  But in the bibliical sense, the character makes for some itneresting parallels with the story of Adam and Eve, providing temptation which mankind has to either embrace or resist.  The decision on what to do in Noah is much more interesting than asking what card you have in your wallet.

I dozed off only briefly, and I could easily have gotten sleepy-eyed for a lot more of the movie than this.  It's an interesting movie.  I'm hesitant to give it a recommendation, but I wouldn't warn anyone against.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

the royalty jar

Over the course of these royalty season posts, I have spoken a lot about the reserve against returns, and this entire post will deal with this.

The idea of the reserve is rooted in reality.  The books the publisher sends out can be returned for full credit by booksellers.  The publisher has to ave some protection against paying royalties on copies that might be returned.

But the reality of the reserve is that it is the publisher's cookie jar, a source of abuse, and like many things in the publishing industry a relic of a past age that doesn't want to come kicking and screaming into modernity.

Once upon a time, the fate of a book really was a mystery.  It isn't any more. With Bookscan and other direct ties between major retail accounts and major publishers, the big publishers know the fate of a book.  Maybe not by June 30 for a book that came out in May, and I can understand a bit if the reserve against returns on that first royalty report is high.  Yet, I will occasionally see publishers taking such large reserves that they pay royalties for fewer copies than Bookscan reports as sold through the end of the royalty period -- and way fewer than we know are sold by the time I am getting the royalty statement.  In those instances, on general principle, I complain to the publisher even about very small numbers of copies.  Paying my client a royalty for 2536 copies when we know the book sold 2682 -- that's not a reasonable reserve against returns.

I mentioned how DAW used to hand-write "too early to tell" for the rest report on every royalty statement.  Now, their default is to take a 100% reserve on print sales on the first royalty report, whether a book has been on sale for  six weeks or six months.  This used to matter less because the books would often not earn royalties on the very first statement even if the reserve was closer to 50% it becomes more likely that the client could get a small royalty check even from known activity on a short period of time.

25 years ago, retail distribution for books was hugely inefficient.  It could take months for information to flow from the corner drugstore to a small independent distributor to the publisher's warehouse.  Shipping fully returnable books into distribution channels that ranged from highly inefficient to somewhat inefficient with long lag time on information reporting -- you could understand why reserves had to be high in the early going.  Now, Amazon has a low return rate, and channels with higher returns like Costco and Walmart have pretty good IT and can provide Point of Sale information on copies sold to publishers very quickly.  But reserves are often still held as if average return rates are still what they were 40 years ago.

The purpose of a reserve against returns was to keep the publisher from being on the hook for paid royalties on copies subsequently returned.  But even though the typical novel is now published in multiple formats, including audio and ebook formats sold as digital downloads with few returns, reserves are held on each print edition as if the others don't exist. If you know a book is being published hard-soft, can't the reserve on the hardcover be moderated in anticipation of paperback royalties?  Many of our authors now sell over half their copies in ebook, so why take a print reserve at all when there will always be ebook royalties to make up the difference?

I don't expect publishers to do away with reserves entirely, but I sure think they should be held with a lighter touch in 2015 than in 1985.

We try in current contracts to specify that reserves not be held on digital products or after the first few royalty periods, or at least be justified upon request. But I feel like we need to get more aggressive in evaluating reserves held with a broader perspective with regard to the range of editions published.

But book by book, do you or your agent look at all your reserves against returns every period?  Do you check them against Bookscan?  Do you check the size of the reserve against actual returns? Do you peek inside the publisher's cookie jar to see if there are cookies?  In many instances, even if the reserve is reduced you may still have a negative royalty balance or be due so little money is isn't worth the fuss to complain rather than waiting for the reserve to be reduced on the next report. But sometimes you can get decent money in your hands months earlier if you just take the time to look in the cookie jar.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spread 'Em Wide

One of the reasons I have spoken a lot this week about royalties:  well, information is the mother's milk of literary representation, and along with the quality of the book itself, the three most important pieces of information we can use to sell an author are (1) the author's bibliography and biography (2) reviews (3) sales history.  Furthermore, if you want to gauge how much the market might pay for an established author you have to have a handle on actual expenses for printing books vs. actual revenue from selling them rather than royalties paid. And how do we figure out what an author's sales history is or how much revenue and expense the publisher has in printing and selling books, in both print and electronic forms?  Well, we gather that information from royalty statements.

And I learned early in my career at Scott Meredith that sales information isn't well kept by stacking piles of paper in a filing cabinet.  Those Penguin statements I was telling you about, that told you only the quantity of books "sold" in any given six month period -- well, back then we had many Ellery Queen books available in Penguin doubles, and if someone wanted to figure out how many Ellery Queen novels were sold, it meant collecting years with if little sheets of paper and manually adding up columns and columns of figures.

Suffice to say when I finally had a computer at my desk in the early 1990s, things changed.  I could at least put the figures into a word processing document so they could be added without having to retrieve little pieces of paper from the filing cabinet.  Eventually that gave way to tables within the word processing program, and eventually to tables in a spreadsheet.

And for a variety of reasons, not just out of habit, we continue today to process every incoming royalty statement on to our computers, just like I started to do over 20 years ago when I first had a computer on my desk.

Some of those reasons:

Publishers make mistakes.  It doesn't hurt to check their math, and spreadsheets enable us to do this.  Assuming, of course, that we set up the spreadsheets correctly.  There is this tendency to trust that the computer generated very official looki royalty statements the publishers provide always have the correct royalty rates.

As discussed in my previous post on current royalty statements, most are still seriously lacking in cumulative information on copies shipped and copies returned, and it's still very 1989 in needing to track that information someplace other than on piles of paper hiding in a file drawer for years or decades.

A spreadsheet will take the information I enter for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas and start to turn that into a series total for the Sookie Stackhouse novels and an overall total for Charlaine Harris, and this information can then be used in our marketing of translation rights and film rights, or be of use when the Wall Street Journal calls to do a major profile on the author.

In that sense, I get a lot more out of what I put in than when I started to do this over twenty years ago.  Spreadsheet, and the world if ours!

All that said, there are times when I and my employees who now have to do a lot of the actual spreadsheeting work probably wonder why we bother.

Each publisher's royalty statements are different, and the royalty scenarios can be different within a publisher for mass markets, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, audios and e-books, so we have to have lots of different spreadsheet formats.

The benefits are invisible.  The company that is doing the Mistborn video game needs to go to its bankers and needs information on Mistborn copies sold for Brandon Sanderson, or the screenwriter with an option on Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population needs some information to present to producers with her screenplay, or we want to rough out a profit & loss statement to try and guess how much money DAW books can pay for the new Jim Hines, and we can do those things quickly and easily because we have impeccable spreadsheets.  But it is very easy to separate out those benefits from the time, heavily concentrated during the twelve weeks of royalty season, when it seems like we do nothing all day but spreadsheet royalty reports.

We can't predict.  It's our policy to do spreadsheeting for every piece of paper for everyone, because we don't know when Alan Ball will stumble across a novel in a B&N while waiting for a dentist appointment and be inspired to produce True Blood.  For more of our authors than not, the effort we do in spreadsheeting is ultimately futile. In that sense, even I must confess that I can't be sure that we wouldn't be better off doing time-consuming forensics to produce information when it's actually needed, rather than to have so much up-front investment to have good information for all of our clients.

It's just another variety of gibberish.  We can read our spreadsheets very well because we put them together.  For the many publishers that don't provide cumulative information on copies shipped and returned we like being able to give clients our spreadsheets as opposed to the underlying publisher reports.  But the fact is that our spreadsheets can still use some tutorials for people who don't know their way around Excel.

High maintenance.  The information doesn't flow up-hill on its own, so every time a publisher comes out with a new edition of a book we have to set up a new table and then plug the information from that table into at least one location in a summary table.  Dead Until Dark has had an e-book, a mass market with many different prices attached, a True Blood tie-in mass market, a hardcover, a trade paperback, another trade paperback, etc.  Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn a hardcover, a paperback, a promotional paperback, a YA trade paperback, an e-book, an audio.

But all that said, I like that we are able to get all this information to flow uphill to a nice single sheet of paper that gives the actual global sales totals for Brandon Sanderson or Peter V. Brett or Elizabeth Moon or Simon R. Green, based on actual publisher royalty reports, and that we can send that out to anyone who asks whenever they want it.  I doubt we'll stop spreadsheeting any time soon, certainly not for as long as the royalty statements we get are as generally unhelpful as they often still can be.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Apocalty Now

Yesterday I told you what royalty statements looked like at the start of my career in the mid-to-late 1980s.

As we progressed through the 1990s, publishers slowly started to provide "better" royalty statements.  As with the Random House portal, which has been around for two years now, I am always surprised when publishers make it easier for authors and agents to find information, though maybe I shouldn't always be because even publishers can sometimes recognize the cost of keeping secrets.  Unlike, let's say, the NSA

That said, the additional information is often provided in a "watch what you wish for, you might get it" kind of a way.  It's sometimes so hard to find the information and so difficult to interpret it that the improvements are less significant than I would wish.

Before continuing, this post's reminder that in major trade publishing that most of the books publishers send to bookstores can be returned to the publisher for full credit.  Hence, the publisher is entitled to take a reserve against returns to guard against paying royalties for books that are later returned. 

Furthermore, your profitability to the publisher is dependent in some ways upon the efficiency of your sale, i.e., how many print copies the publisher has to send out into the world in order to sell one copy.  This is a little less the case today than twenty years ago because of ebooks, but it is still important,  If it costs $2 to print a $25 hardcover, and if the publisher gets $12 of that $25, it is harder to make money if the publisher has to print three copies in order to sell one,  $6 of the $12 is already out the door to the printer, $2.50 or $3.75 to your royalty, and there could be $2 or $3 left from each copy sold for the publisher to pay for your cover, the copy-editor, the editor, etc.  If the publisher sells four of every five copies, then the printer gets $10 of every $48, your royalty is $10 or $15, and the publisher can have over twice as much money left per copy sold to pay overhead and direct expenses.

Because of this, it is very important if you want to judge how big an advance you should get from your publisher to know your "sell-thru" percentage,  Higher sell-thru equals more money for the publisher equals more money to pay you.

I am simplifying a little bit.  The publisher can make decisions that can artificially inflate or deflate your efficiency.  As an example, for Brandon Sanderson's debut YA novels in 2013, The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both Tor and Delacorte decided to invest in shipping more books into channels like Costco, Walmart and Target that generally have higher return rates.  However, each publisher still had expectations on what the size of the investment would look like after the final numbers came in, relative to their profit expectations and their overall marketing budgets for each book.

Since these things are important, I think any decent royalty statement today should clearly tell you how many copies were shipped, how many copies were returned, and what the reserve against returns is.

Penguin started to provide that information only as we got into the mid 2000s; even for Dead Until Dark which the Berkley Publishing Group published in 2001, the earliest royalty statement was the old-fashioned (your number) Berkley royalty statement.  I feel they provide the gold standard for royalty reporting.  Each print format or ISBN gets one or two clean concise pages that give the current information for copies shipped and sold, for the reserve against returns at the start and finish, and at the bottom, summarize that information cumulatively for prior, current and ending totals.  If you want to figure out your sell-thru percentage for the life of your book, you need to pull only that one most recent piece of paper.

Pretty much every other publisher falls short of this in one way or another.

Scholastic is surprisingly awful for a big US publisher in the 2010s, and their statements are relics of a last age, with the reserve against returns still hidden, and no information given on copies shipped and returned.

St. Martin's is slightly better, but only slightly.  They provide cumulative total copies sold by channel, while Scholastic provides only a grand total, which is a little better.  As an example, if you are a Canadian author, you might want to know how much of your business is coming from Canada, and St. Martin's is a little better for this.  And St. Martin's does give the reserve against returns, albeit only in dollars and not in units, which is something I will discuss in more detail in a later post that deals exclusively with reserves.

St. Martin's is owned by a big publishing conglomerate Macmillan, and strangely other Macmillan imprints like Tor provide information on copies shipped and returned that the St. Martin's statements do not.  We are told this is because St. Martin's purchased the new royalty system earlier and got the budget version.  But same conglomerate, same warehouse, same computers tracking everything, and they haven't had a chance to upgrade?

Even the better statements from other Macmillan imprints have a tragic flaw.  They only provide a cumulative total for net copies sold, and not for copies shipped and copies returned.  Hence, if you want to know what your vitally important sell-thru is you still have to collect information from many pieces of paper dating back many years, and there is no positive change there as against the royalty statements I saw in 1988.

Other publishers are unable to present information on one page.

Simon & Schuster was one of the first publishers to provide more "informative" royalty statements, but the statements could take three or five pages to tell you that three or five copies had sold.  If you are wondering why I have a "watch what you wish for, you might get it" approach to these newer royalty statements, look no further.

Other publishers have layering problems.  i.e., like airline security they took their old systems and loaded new stuff on top of it.

Historically William Morrow and Avon had provided slightly better detail on their royalty statements, and when HarperCollins purchased Morrow/Avon, they just added more pages without looking at the overall quality of their reporting.  It's a mess, spread over many pages.  Perseus, which had been distributed by Harper, has a similar-looking statement that looks a little prettier but isn't any easier to use.

Random House made a big fuss when they switched from putting "your number" on a computer-fold oversize piece of paper to putting it on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, but it was the same information or lack thereof only more manageably presented.  When they finally got around to providing information on copies shipped, copies returned, and reserves against returns, they kept that same 8.5x11 sheet of paper around as the first page of the new royalty statement.  To put it less politely, the first page of your Random House statement is the same utter bullshit that we got 25 years ago.  They do provide more information but you have to go hunting for it.  And they don't automatically provide information on copies shipped and returned for the life of your book.  They automatically provide a sheet with that information for books that have reserves activity, but if they stop holding a reserve on your hardcover after two or three years that page suddenly disappears.  They provide that information by price point, so if your mass market price changed from $6.99 to $7.99, you may now only get the page for the $7.99 copies.  If you ask them by ISBN and price point to provide the missing pages, they will provide them to you, but only if you ask.  Or, you can ask them to provide you with all the "Print Summary" pages every time.  Since e-books can be sold at many different prices, this may result in you receiving a 40-page royalty statement.  Every time.  You can choose to drown in information, you can choose not to have information, or you can choose to add a semi-annual e-mail request for select additional information while also being sure to archive sheets of paper from several years ago.  The one good thing in these statements:  Random House is on of the only publishers that will tell you how many copies they print and when they print them.  On the other hand, the calculation of actual royalties earned is on a different page than the detail of how many copies were shipped and returned.  At its best and simplest, you'll still have three pages of information (summary, royalty calculation, ship/return/reserve detail) vs. the one page from Penguin.

Penguin has one layering issue of its own.  Early in the e-book era each e-book format had its own ISBN, and their system was designed to generate a page for each ISBN.  Suddenly, we would have six pages of royalty reports for e-books.  For less popular formats, those pages might list a handful of copies if any.  The pages didn't have a place to tell you which ISBN was the Amazon one and which was the B&N one, so there were no benefits to having the information spread over multiple pages.    Over time, ISBNs have been consolidated, but they do not have a way to purge the inactive ISBNs from the ongoing reports.

Especially now that the ebook ISBNs are consolidated, I clearly prefer the Penguin reports to the Random House reports and am curious to see which will prevail as the combined companies merge operations.

So on the one hand, we've come a long way, and on the other hand not.  After two or three years the old statements were reasonably accurate for what they were, and you had just one page that anyone could understand.   Now, we generally have much better visibility on reserves against returns, but there are still serious problems across the industry in giving basic cumulative information on copies shipped and returned, and the royalty statements are differently annoying with each publisher in their layers, pages, complexity and presentation.

We shall continue this series with a discussion of our internal processing of these pieces of paper,  Suffice to say just sticking these pieces of paper in the file isn't going to be very helpful when we actually need to make use of the information that is hiding within these reports....

Monday, March 24, 2014

Royalty Season, Spring

We are settling in after our move just in time for the arrival of royalty season.  In fact, some German royalties from Heyne, which were the first buds of the season or sprinkles of the monsoon or flakes of the blizzard arrived almost simultaneous with the move.

And I realize in six years of having Brillig, I've never spoken much about royalty season.

First, royalty season in the publishing industry doesn't arrive at the same time for everyone.  It isn't like spring or fall, but rather more like the last frost.

When I was at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in the early years of my career, royalty season arrived on February 1 and August 1.  Random House was due to send out reports the last day of January and last day of August, and they were very nice about it.  They didn't entrust their big checks to the Post Office in order to get another day or two of float, but rather would messenger them over, though late in the day so the check couldn't make it to the bank for that day's deposit.  Carl Sagan -- Random House author.  Norman Mailer -- Random House author.  Margaret Truman -- Random House author.  All of the many Scott Meredith clients published by Del Rey -- Random House authors.  The Mists of Avalon -- Random House.  Blade Runner -- Random House.  2010 Odyssey 2 -- Random House.  So when Random House reported royalties, that was when we had royalty season.

At JABberwocky, the vast preponderance of our authors are published by the Berkley Publishing Group part of Penguin, which reports on/about March 31 and Sept. 30.  Charlaine Harris, Jack Campbell, Simon R. Green -- all NY Times bestselling authors with many many books, all Berkley Publishing Group.  Along with some of our Roc authors.  And DAW, with many of our other authors, usually sends statements along a few days after Penguin in April, and a few days before in September.

I think Scott Meredith had the better of it, because the Random House statements were a bit off from everyone else's.  It wasn't one super big season, but rather helped to spread it out a bit more.  For us, it's not just Penguin on March 31 and Tor on April 30 but most of our big German and UK statements that want to come in then along with lots of miscellaneous others.  Just about everything comes in between March 20 and May 10, and between September 15 and November 10.  Less than a third of the year with two-thirds of our royalty paperwork.

So that is royalty season.

This is going to be a series of posts, and if that's the introduction let's put up Chapter One now as well, which is to talk about what I saw when I looked at royalty statements at the start of my career.   It was a lot different, if also in some important ways not so different at all, from what I see now.

One very important thing to keep in mind in this entire discussion, so I will say here and repeat often in different keys:

Most of the books publishers send to bookstores can be returned to the publisher for credit.   So a book that is sold might not be.  To protect against paying royalties to authors for copies that bookstores might return, publishers are allowed to hold a reserve against returns.  We sent out 30 copies, we will reserve 10 or 20 that we feel have a reasonable chance of coming back.  So I am going to use "sold" in quotes here, because it was very much the case twenty years ago that the number of copies on a royalty statement was the "in quotes" version.

For Penguin or for Kensington, the number might be the number of copies "sold" in a given accounting period.  That number came on a little 5x7 (maybe, don't have any at hand) piece of paper that came off of a computer.  And there wasn't much more than that one number to look at.

Random House gave multiple numbers, the number of copies "sold" over the six months and the total number of copies "sold" to the end of the period.  Their number came on a big oversized piece of computer print-out paper which made it seem especially important and true.

Berkley gave their numbers on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper which made them easier to file.

DAW gave many numbers, since they did things by hand on a piece of paper that would be passed down from royalty statement to royalty statement like a revered scroll..  That paper would have rows, and the rows would have the date of the period, the number of copies sold to the end of the period, and then the next row either gave that number followed by the new number, or the number of copies "sold" over the six months which you would add to get the new number, kind of like one of those Scrabble score sheets that comes with the fancier sets.  The first number was always "too early to tell."

There wasn't a lot of mentoring or training at Scott Meredith, so it took me a long time to learn that all these numbers, from all these different publishers, no matter how official looking the sheet of paper was, were utter bullshit.


Well, the number was the result of an equation, and the equation itself was hidden.

The equation used to generate the number was:

(actual copies net after ship and return) (minus) (reserve against returns) (equals) (your number)

And all we got was (your number), either as a total at the end of the period or as the difference between (your number) in one period and the immediately prior period.

You'd walk into bookstores and see a book all over the place and wonder why (your number) was so small.  Well, (your number) was maybe a half or a quarter of the actual number of books the publisher had put into the marketplace.

A book would come out, not appear to sell, and when you got the second royalty statement (your number) went up.  Not because there were more copies, but because the hidden reserve against returns was reduced by more than the hidden copies shipped less copies returned.

It would take around four royalty periods, or around two years, before the magic number that appeared on the royalty statements was close enough to the actual performance that the statement could be considered reliable.

I got in the habit of calling my debut novelists when their first statements came out to tell them, very excitedly, that I had their first royalty statement, I would be sending it to them, and when they got it they could put it in the trash or use it for toilet paper or do pretty much anything except pay much attention to it because it was utter bullshit.

Now it's different, and we'll move on to that in the next post, tomorrow.