Authors Can Be Stupid: The Myth of Multiple Sales

This post was written by Michael A. Stackpole. It originally appeared on his Stormwolf website on 2/3/10, is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission, and is the first in a series we’ll be reprinting in the coming days.

I’m not going to name any names, but as we move into the digital era, there is a spurious argument that gets brought up from time to time by authors who really ought to know better. It pretty much points out that a) most of us are not good dollars & cents kinds of folks and b) why publishers have been able to convince a lot of authors that the digital age will be an apocalypse that will destroy them and their standard of living.

The discussion centers around epub, the ebook format that all major readers, including the forthcoming iPad, use (the exception being the Kindle). Supporters of epub and publishing in it maintain that if they buy a book once, they should be allowed to transfer it onto any new devices they get. So, a story purchased now, will still be readable on a device manufactured twenty years from now, assuming epub survives that long.

A number of authors have stood up and announced that having an eternal format is a bad thing. Their rationale runs like this: if a reader buys a physical book he loves so much that he reads it until it falls apart, and buys another, they get paid again. With epub books, it’s buy once and never have to rebuy. Therefore, epub sales are going to cut into their income. And they get lots of other authors nodding in agreement.

So let’s break this little myth down.

1) While some authors do have books that does get read so many times that they fall apart, this is not a common phenomenon. We’d all love to think it is, and we cherish readers who tell us they had to buy another copy of a book because they read the previous to death, but the ratio of repurchase to one-shot readings is pretty darned low as nearly as I can tell.

2) A repurchased book, right now, nets the author 10% of the cover price. Let’s say that’s 80 cents on an $8.00 paperback.

3) Under the current agency model, that same $8 epub book will net the author $5.60. (And even with the publishers taking half the electronic money if they’re selling the book, It’s still $2.80 due the author.)

4) Now, since I wasn’t a math major, someone might want to check my ciphering here, but it looks like the purchase of any epub would cover 3.5 to 7 purchases of a physical book. So epub and digital publication, even though it’s only going to be a one-shot, will make the author substantially more money unless this author is someone who, with everything he turns out, has people buying four or more copies of each book. (Doesn’t happen, unless you have a PAC that purchases your books in bulk for contributors.)

Some folks, who want to get absurd, could point out that if we forced repurchase of ebooks (through proprietary software choices and device-linked DRM) we could make that huge cut each time an ebook is bought. But this is assuming your book is worth repurchasing. Since most books are read-once and shelved, loaned, discarded or resold, this just isn’t a realistic argument by any stretch of the imagination.

Authors can, when hoping they have a winning lottery ticket, miss the fact that there’s plenty of money right at their feet. They’d do better to scoop it up steadily, than waiting for that jackpot that just ain’t going to come their way.

©2010 Michael A. Stackpole 

Michael A. Stackpole is a New York times Bestselling author with over forty novels published including I, Jedi and rogue Squadron. He was the first author to have work available in Apple’s Appstore. He has lectured extensively on writing careers in the Post-paper Era and is working on strategies for authors to profit during the trying time of transition.

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