Your Book Will Not Sell

Another Great Authorial Self-Delusion popped: if you’re publishing with an academic press, don’t expect to get rich from it.  Heck, count yourself lucky if your book doesn’t get remaindered.

Yes, fine, you’ve seen the numbers, you get it, your contract offers you royalties of 5-10% on every sale—but academic books are expensive, right?  That money has to add up!

No, no it doesn’t.  Here’s the sad fact of the matter: you, being the author of an academic book, are probably horribly excited about it.  Even if you hadn’t spent three years researching, writing, and revising, you’d probably still read it.  Heck, all your colleagues are excited about it too—doesn’t that mean lots of people are going to buy copies?

Sad truth: if you’re publishing an academic monograph, you have probably met every single person who will buy your book before it goes out of print and we have it remaindered.  If you work in, say, medieval logic after Aquinas, you probably know the names and institutional affiliations of every single Scotist who does logic—and also what they’re like when blitzed out of their skulls.  You may even have met their grad students.  Those three groups—professors, their institutions, and their grad students—are the only people who will ever pay good money for your book.  The only way to increase your audience is to get more grad students into the system—but selling one or two copies of a title each year isn’t worth the price we pay to store it and keep it in stock.  Until a whole new generation takes over (or until used copies of your book break $100 on the Internet, which is probably about the same amount of time), your book stays out of print.

You, of course, will probably be dead by then.

Your estate, of course, might not see the money from the second printing, though, even assuming we can track them down, which is an awful big assumption.  Publishing houses go out of business, rights and permissions get sold, and, at times, publishers just plain tell the authors that they’re unilaterally changing their contracts and paying half the royalties or none at all, you’re okay with that, right?  Your royalties are contingent on the continued good fortunes of the press that published you; if they run into financial trouble (which can happen to even the best of ’em), don’t believe for a second that it won’t somehow find its way down to you.  It might just be that a press in trouble can’t effectively market your book, or is more likely to remainder it to focus on more profitable segments of the market—textbooks, for instance—but sometimes presses will play the “be a dear and be okay with us unilaterally changing your contract” card.

What can you, the author, do about it?  Well, not much.  An ethical, well-run press will pay you your rights and royalties and stick with it until the bitter end.  It may not get you much more than a nice dinner with a significant other, but it’s something.  A less ethical one (like an unnamed but still boycotted journals publisher) will argue that they’ve done you a service by allowing you to advance your career through them.

The other thing is see if you can accept a one-time payment, instead of a cut of the sales.  This way, you’ve got your money, no matter what happens in the future—and, for that matter, you know exactly how much you can expect.  Don’t expect it to happen, though; whoever thought to pay royalties to translators (rather than lump sums as for, say, copyeditors) was a publishing finance genius.  Every translator thinks their new version of Augustine will be a Thing of Genius that’s going to be the next Hunger Games; the sad reality is that the market’s either oversaturated (how many editions of the Confessions are you competing against?), or you’re writing to the people you go drinking with at conferences (you know, the people who would read the recently discovered cache of Augustine’s letters).  We just have to conveniently fail to disabuse you of the notion your book will sell like hotcakes and we end up running a very ethical scam.

Umberto Eco described it best in Foucault’s Pendulum when he put only an out-of-the-way back door between the academic publisher Garamond and the conniving, profiteering Mantinus vanity press.  Academic publishers aren’t out to take your money, but we sure won’t make you much either.

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One thought on “Your Book Will Not Sell

  1. Pingback: An Education for Academic Writers, Part II: Money vs. Honor | Intentio Lectoris

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