It wasn’t when my out-of-print backlist, which the publishing industry deemed played out and worthless, started pulling in $70,000 a year for me in ebook royalties.
It wasn’t when I signed a 12-book digital, print and audio deal with Amazon’s 47 North imprint for The Dead Man, a monthly series of original books that Bill Rabkin & I created, and that we are writing with a dozen incredibly talent authors, and that we began in February as a self-publishing venture.
And it wasn’t last week, when I agreed to a two-book digital-print-audio deal with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint for my new novel King City and a sequel.
It was Tuesday, when I delivered Mr. Monk is a Mess, my 14th Monk tie-in novel to Penguin/Putnam and informed them that my 15th book, the last in my current contract and due this coming May, would also be my last book in the series.
In other words, I quit.
They were surprised, of course.
I am walking away from a hugely successful book series, one published in multiple languages around the world, and from the certainty of another three-book contract and an increase in my advance.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of ending a hit book series, in hardcover, with a major publisher would have been inconceivable to me and just about every author I know.
But the publishing world has completely changed.
The Monk books, like the Diagnosis Murder novels that I wrote before, were licensed tie-ins. That means I was hired for an advance, and given a tiny royalty, to write books based on characters that belong to someone else. I was a hired hand…albeit one paid very well by tie-in standards.
I had a great fun writing those books, took enormous pride in them and, until recently, considered myself very fortunate to have the gig.
And in that old world, I was.
But now, in this new world, my attitude has completely changed.
I am still very proud of the books…which is why I find it incredibly frustrating that I have written 22 novels that I dearly love but that don’t belong to me.
They belong to studios.
It’s frustrating because if they belonged to me, I could be earning so much more money from them now…and, more importantly for my family, in the future.
I won’t make that mistake again.
Instead of writing two books a year for Penguin/Putman, I will be writing that many books… or more…for myself that I own.
Some I will self-publish, others I will write for Amazon’s imprints.
But they will be mine.
I know what you’re thinking. What about those books for Amazon? Haven’t you just traded one master for another?
Every aspect of the deals that I have with Amazon’s imprints on The Dead Man series and the King City books are far, far, FAR more author-friendly and potentially lucrative than anything I ever had before…as are my chances at success with such a savvy partner, one who, incidentally, operates the biggest and most successful bookstore on the planet.
And I own King City. If I end up writing 15 books in that series, all of those books, now and in the future, will be mine.
Ah, but what about all those writers who are doing The Dead Man books for us? Aren’t we exploiting them? Aren’t they making the same mistake I’d have made if I’d signed to do more Monk books?
That’s because unlike the old school publishers (and, let’s face it, publishers are what Bill and I have become with The Dead Man), we have thrown away the old rules of doing business with writers on licensed properties.
In fact, what we are doing is revolutionary in the tie-in world.
We are splitting all of the publishing royalties from digital, print, audio, and foreign translations on The Dead Man books 50/50 with the writers.
Our success is their success…and vice-versa.
We’ve made them our partners.
(And publishers of tie-ins should follow our lead…or there won’t be any tie-ins anymore, because it won’t make any financial sense for writers to write them).
The Dead Man series relaunched on Oct. 24th and is already doing amazing business. Our next book comes out later this month.
And King City is coming in May.
It’s a bold, exciting new world for authors and I haven’t been this excited about writing since I was a teenager.
Joe sez: I've had several conversations with Lee where we discussed him making this move (both his wife and I have been trying to convince him for years) and it's great to see him finally embracing the future.
Work for hire, in this publishing climate, is a damn stupid thing to do.
Lee is also correct that publishers should follow his lead. It would be a smart, and fair, thing to do.
But publishers haven't shown any evidence that they are smart or fair in this new publishing climate. All they've done is make mistake after mistake.
They won't offer better tie-in terms, because there will always be young, hungry, eager writers willing to work for pennies just to be associated with a well known intellectual property.
Writers do fan fic for free. If given the opportunity to do a real book based on a property they love, they'll do it.
I can understand this. There are a few IPs which, if offered to me, I'd consider. It would be worth the pay cut.
But--and this is important--it would only be worth it to me because I already have a lucrative writing career and a known name. I write several books a year.
Lee can also write several a year, but he had sold his soul to the company store. Penguin/Putnam was making him write so many Monk books, he didn't have much extra time to pursue his own projects.
A company infamous for this is Harlequin. They keep offering multi-book deals with low advances and small royalties, and authors have to keep writing them just to stay afloat. But that leaves them no time to write other projects, where they'd get better royalties.
Because publishers have been in control for so long, they've forgotten their place. I'm happy to remind them:
Publishers get paper books into stores.
That is the main thing they do. The one thing that writers can't easily do.
But guess what? Bookstores and paper books are becoming a smaller and smaller share of the market, while ebooks are becoming bigger and bigger.
Why would anyone still want to work with a publisher? Especially while earning 17.5% royalties on ebooks?
Now, publishers may eventually wise up and offer 50% to authors, which at the agency model rate is 35% of the list price. This is better, but still not wise for authors to take when we can get 70% on our own.
Q: But Joe, legacy publishers still get paper books into stores. Isn't that worth something?
A: Not much.
Here are my latest royalty statement figures for my six Hyperion titles and my Hachette title, for Jan 1 - June 30, 2011. Paper sales are hardcover and mass market combined.
Whiskey Sour paper sales: $1450.00
Whiskey Sour ebook sales: $5395.00
Bloody Mary paper sales: $463.00
Bloody Mary ebook sales: $2591.00
Rusty Nail paper sales: $226.00
Rusty Nail ebook sales: $3220.00
Dirty Martini paper sales: $415.00
Dirty Martini ebook sales: $3370.00
Fuzzy Navel paper sales: $485.00
Fuzzy Navel ebook sales: $3110.00
Cherry Bomb paper sales: $224.00
Cherry Bomb ebook sales: $3864.00
Afraid paper sales: $1608.00
Afraid ebook sales: $12,158.00
Looking at those numbers for the first half of this year, you can see how much ebooks are outselling print in my backlist. Any author would be foolish to take a 17.5% ebook royalties from a legacy deal, or even 35% royalties, just so they can have a book in print.
Q: But all of those are old books. We all know paper sales are greatest at the release date, then they trickle off. Did your total paper sales beat out your total ebook sales for these legacy titles?
A: Whiskey Sour, which was published in 2004 in hardcover and 2005 in paperback, has earned me $52,474 in paper sales, and $11,453 in ebook sales.
So six years ago, paper sales made a difference.
Cherry Bomb, my last novel with Hyperion, was published in 2009 and has earned $20,782 in hardcover and $10,759 in ebooks.
But the ebook thing didn't really start taking off until 2010, which is when the Cherry Bomb paperback came out. The Cherry Bomb paperback has earned $3901. That's about 1/3 of what it made as an ebook, and 1/6 what Whiskey Sour made in paperback.
Q: Isn't that because your series is dying?
A: Shaken, the 7th Jack Daniels novel that I published with Amazon, is doing very well. This series is not dying at all.
Q: How well is Shaken doing?
A: I can't disclose details due to an NDA. But I'll discuss more about Shaken in a bit. First let me prove my point with paper vs. ebook sales.
Afraid, which came out in 2009 and had a hardcover release in the UK and a paperback release in the UK and US, has earned $29,183 in combined paper sales, and $27,657 in ebook sales.
Dead tree books are, well, dead. And any author would be foolish to release a book with a legacy publisher because they believe paper sales will make up for the lower ebook royalty rate. Especially when legacy publishers set the price, which is always too high.
If I had these above titles back, I'd be earning a lot more than I am now.
Q: Really? How much more?
A: I'm glad you asked. Here are my top four self-published books.
Origin (rejected by publishers) has earned over $72,000 since April 2009.
The List (rejected by publishers) has earned over $82,000 since April 2009.
Endurance (rejected by publishers) has earned over $71,500 since June, 2010.
Trapped (rejected by publishers) has earned over $85,000 since June 2010.
Why the hell would anyone want to continue publishing with legacy houses? Even if they raise royalties to 35%?
Q: But I heard that Amazon imprints like Thomas & Mercer and Encore also offer 35%.
A: First of all, Amazon is not a legacy publisher.
Second, even though I'm unable to discuss the royalty amounts in my Amazon contracts, or how much Shaken (published in ebook in October 2010 and paper February 2011) has earned, I will say that I'd absolutely sign with Amazon again.
And an extra word on Amazon's NDA, which some people on the internets seem to think is suspicious. As Lee mentioned in the comments below, Amazon is changing all the rules on how publishers deal with authors. I've never been treated better, or gotten better terms. If Amazon wants to keep those terms hush-hush because they think other publishers may try to emulate their contracts, I'm happy to remain silent on the issue.
But publishers will have to do MUCH MUCH BETTER than they're doing now if they want to even come close to offering what Amazon offers me.
Q: Would you ever sign with a Big 6 publisher again?
A: I can't say that I would never sign with a legacy publisher again. If they offered me a huge amount of money, I'd consider it. If they became really progressive with their contract terms, I'd consider it.
But they'd have to do a lot to convince me that they're worth the big chunk of royalties they're taking.
I'm not the only one who understands this. Lee Goldberg is the latest in a growing number of authors who are coming to this realization.
There will be many, many, many more.
I'm in this business to make money and reach as may readers as possible. I've got hard evidence that I can make more money on my own than I can with a big publisher behind me. This isn't speculation; it's cold, hard facts.
If you can self-pub, then also sign with an Amazon imprint, even better.
Q: But aren't you worried Amazon will gain so much control they become a monopoly and then start cutting royalties?
A: As Barry Eisler recently pointed out, and I've said many times before, why worry about what might happen in the future with Amazon when we're currently getting the shaft with legacy publishers? You need to be concerned about the tiger chomping on your leg right now, not the lion you might meet someday.
Q: I thought you're on a blogging hiatus.
A: I am. This was a guest blog.
But I will say that I'm getting tired of critics bemoaning my blog and attacking my guest bloggers.
I understand that this is a scary time. Change is frightening. This is nothing less than a revolution, and no wars are fought fairly.
But I still get irritated when some pinhead starts criticizing me, or my blog, and does such a poor job doing so.
Attack the argument, not the person. Focus on the facts, not tone. Offer counterpoints based on logic and experience, not feelings.
I don't care what you think of me. I want to hear you debate my points.
There are a lot of writers who have done well playing the social network game (I'll follow you if you follow me!) and are spouting their uniformed opinions, which amount to nothing more than masturbation and speculation.
I talk the talk because I walk the walk. Since 2009, I've made over half a million dollars self-publishing. I've worked with three major legacy publishers for novels, and half a dozen more with anthologies.
I know what I'm talking about. I've played for both teams, and the self-pub team is better, hands down.
You're welcome to post your numbers and prove me wrong.
Otherwise, take your pill. It's the one in the bottle marked "Shut the hell up."