Today the Guardian published You think writing’s a dream job? It’s more like a horror film.

But I couldn’t help noticing this comment:

my daughter has two books published my a major publisher which sell for 5.99 each. The publisher pays her 18 pence for each sale, of which her agent tales 15%. Unless you are a best selling author the pay is abysmal.

My gut reaction was – this author needs a new agent.

.18 over 5.99 is a royalty rate of 3% list, far below traditional royalty rates for a hardcover, trade paperback or ebook.

But then I thought, Wait a minute! This is the internet. Is there any way this could be both true and reasonable?

Yes! But here’s how:

If this is for a story in an anthology.
If these are for anthologies, in which there are multiple authors and the rate covers that author’s portion for one story, this would be reasonable. (Though I have seen better.)

If this was a work-for-hire.
If this is for a work-for-hire project, wherein the publisher or packager developed the plot and characters, and paid a flat fee for the work and is offering 3% list on top of that flat fee — well then, this is actually pretty good, depending on the initial payment. (Also pretty uncommon.)

If these are for book club sales.
Book club royalties are very low because they make up for it in sheer volume.

If these are for remaindered copies.
This still feels a tad low, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable if we were talking remainder sales.

But what if it’s none of the above?

If the author is actually receiving 3% list on regular trade paperback or ebook sales, then a couple things may have happened:

They’re working with a small press.
It’s my understanding that royalty rates are supposed to be an even split between the publisher and author, once the cost of production and distribution has been covered.

In other words, if an author receives $1.89 per book, then theoretically after the publisher has paid for the physical cost of the book, their editorial, marketing, publicity staff, the lights in the building, the distributors cut, taxes, etc. etc., that publisher would also have left approximately $1.89. (If this has changed, please let me know!)

I’m no expert in UK publishing, but if a small press is making 18 pence per book, then this sounds like an unsustainable business model. So I still wonder – where is the rest of the money going?

They have a bad agent.
An agent has to present all offers to their client, but they are also supposed to advise. If this offer was presented as a standard contract, then it’s possible this author needs to have a serious conversation with their agent and/or potentially terminate the relationship.

They took the deal against their agent’s advice.
If this is the case, then that would make me question the agent-author relationship if I was their agent. Sometimes, the smart thing to do is to walk away from a bad deal. And this might have been one of those times.

If a client is willing to take any deal, no matter how terrible, then you wonder if they’re really a client worth having.

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