Many traps for novice authors

October 3, 1997

Writing a textbook is no way to get rich quick, according to Lawrence Knowles

A friend recently received three contract proposals from publishers interested in a textbook he wants to write. He has never written a textbook. He teaches the proposed subject and imagines the book "will perfectly write itself". He sees it as an easy way to make a little extra money, perhaps more than a little.

After studying the contracts, and messages hidden between the clauses, my friend realised that far from providing royalty payments to finance the lifestyle to which he would like to become accustomed, his textbook will require significant expenditure of time and money, with an eventual return below even new Labour's idea of a decent minimum wage.

It is human nature to underestimate the time any task will require. According to one publisher, 90 per cent of manuscripts arrive late. Authors fail to allow time for revision in the response to editorial comments, confident they will get it right the first time. Many new authors overlook several ancillary tasks publishers expect them to perform including: * Illustrations: The author must provide ready-to-publish artwork for all illustrations. In scientific texts this can mean dozens, even hundreds, of drawings.

* Permissions: To reproduce copyrighted material you need permission from the copyright holder. Publishers expect authors to obtain permissions and pay any fees.

* Instructor's manual: A useful sales incentive that the author must write.

* Indexing. A nasty job, but somebody has got to do it. Standard contracts put the burden on the author.

Assessing the gains from writing a textbook is a jumble of psychology and economics, tangible and intangible benefits, percentages, projections and discounts. My friend focused mostly on the intangibles - personal satisfaction, prestige, joy of teaching. But these rested on a bubble of expectations of royalties. Once that bubble was deflated, the intangibles lost much of their buoyancy.

The promise of an advance can confuse matters. An advance is not a bonus but early payment of royalties to be earned later. Every pound paid as an advance is deducted from royalties.

Authors often evaluate royalties by comparing percentages: publisher A offers 12 per cent, B offers 12.5 per cent, therefore B is better. But if publisher A sells 1,000 more copies things come out rather differently. The publisher's ability to produce and market the book can be more important. A strong list in your field is the best indicator that a new title will succeed.

Predicting sales before a book is written may seem about as certain as picking lottery numbers. Publishers could not stay in business they relied on luck and authors can gain valuable insight into a publisher's sales expectations by analysing their royalty clause.

Royalties typically work on an escalator, usually in three steps. The publisher will not pay the author the most generous royalties until it has recouped its costs and made profit. It will not publish the book at all unless it expects to achieve those financial objectives. The sales level at which the highest royalty percentage kicks in therefore provides a good idea of the number of copies the publisher expects to sell. They would like to sell more, but are not counting on it. Neither should the author.

Calculating royalties based an this sales protection may seem straightforward - contracts usually estimate the cover price, but they also provide that royalty payments are based on the publisher's "net proceeds". Net of what? Bookseller discounts. These consume around 30 per cent of the cover price on sales in the UK and Commonwealth countries and 65 per cent in the United States.

Subtracting out-of-pocket expenses, such as artwork, permissions and a professional indexer (my friend could not face the prospect of doing the index himself), it can be disheartening to see the final net addition to your bank account. Economists would want to figure its discounted present value. Authors could divide the time estimate for the project into the net proceeds for an hourly rate, but that might be pushing the point too far.

My friend may still write his textbook, but not because he sees it as a painless way to augment his salary. He may try change some of the contracts' more onerous provisions, now that he knows what they are. Sobered, he is more likely to meet his obligations and his objectives should he proceed with the project - and he should not wake up with a nasty hangover afterwards.

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