The unpublished writer was pretty excited to receive our offer and as part of standard negotiations I advised her to find an agent or at the least, get advice from The Australian Society of Authors.
Now, I’m not a member of the ASA nor the Australian Writer’s Guild nor the Victorian Society of Editors because of philosophical differences. They say that working for free is NO NO NO and I say that it’s a valid entry route into a writing career (and my own entry route). The ASA has ridiculous guidelines like freelance writers earning $846 per day. Are these people mad?
Anyway, despite my philosophical disagreements with these various organisations that claim to work on the behalf of writers and editors, I recommended the writer seek out advice on our offer.
She did receive advice and that advice exploded the publishing agreement.
The explosive clause?
Our company paid royalties on net receipts. Net receipts are what the publisher receives in sales. Say a book costs $12.95 in the shop. The publisher very likely sold it for about 40% of this amount – so about $5.18 per copy. The author royalty is then based on this figure. A 12% royalty for example earns the author $0.62 per copy sold.
The other method of royalty calculation is as a percentage of RRP. 12% of a $12.95 RRP earns the writer $1.55 per copy sold.
You can see for this example that RRP royalty earns the writer a lot more money.
Ah, net receipts and the shiftiest move in publishing history. There was some point a while ago when publishers started paying royalties on net receipts rather than RRP for various reasons. A big one is that publishers sold books at varying discount rates and so wanted to pay out royalties based on these changing rates. A set $1.55 per title meant the publisher couldn’t deep discount to move stock. Another reason: they wanted more money (or greed, as we call it).
Where did the big shifty move come in? They said “Hey writers, you’ll still earn 12% … on what we earn, not RRP”. In one move, writers went from earning $1.55 per title to $0.62. Because the 12% royalty is standard, there was a lot of pressure for writers to not now ask for 20-30% royalties to make up for this loss.
Back to our writer and the ASA. We paid on net receipts and our entire business model was set up to pay on net receipts. When I say business model I mean computer systems, financial reports, accounting methods, stock valuation, everything! We did not have the capacity to pay on RRP.
Ah, but the ASA told the writer to only accept a contract that paid royalties on RRP.
I explained our position and offered a high royalty so she’d make that $1.55 on a standard sale but still the answer was no. More discussion went on with the writer, with her shuttling back and forth between us and the ASA. I offered more money up front and a higher percentage. Not only that but we paid out royalties monthly rather than every six months.
We reached the end. I couldn’t convince her to accept a net receipts royalty and she couldn’t listen to anything but the ASA. The deal was off and the book went unpublished.
I wished her the best, gave her the names of some other children’s publishers and moved on.
That was 2004 and this writer is still unpublished today. She didn’t get a deal with anyone else and on her website for a while she talked about writing and publishing but in the last two years has gone dark.
I can’t help but think that the ASA ruined her career. I can’t help but think that had she taken the deal she would have made money (we published some other children’s picture books which earned out) and had a published work to her name. I even saw a second picture book manuscript that was excellent and this would have been published I am sure.
But no, thanks to the ASA.
If I had taken their advice back in 2003, I never would have done writing work for free. Would that have lost me the job? Absolutely. Would I have been replaced by someone else willing to work for free? Yes. When you’ve got nothing but talent and no credentials, you’re a small fish in a giant pool. A single credit lifts you out of the pool. My first credit was a Pinocchio storybook for Penguin Publishing and it lifted me above every other writer of my age and project list. My entire career started by ignoring the advice of the ASA.
I wish this picture book writer had taken the deal and I really wish the ASA was more open to the realities of writing and publishing.
You can hire a writer for $200 via ifreelance to complete a job that takes five days. The ASA says this should cost $4320. Market rates says it costs $200.
My advice: if you’ve got no credits, take the job. Don’t worry about the professional writers (like me) who you are undercutting. When you’ve got no credits, your only bargaining chip is money.
There are many reasons to charge money (including that you’ll have to eventually if you want to, you know, eat food) but if you’re at the start of your career or trying to break into a related field (like from freelance writing to script-writing) then take. the. damn. job.