On interpreting a royalty statement

Every six months it happens. Authors all over the country receive a communication from their publisher which, in brutally reductive terms, defines the state of their writing careers. It is called a royalty statement and, in many cases, has been carefully designed by experts to conceal rather more information than it reveals. This seems a terrible shame – after all, for many writers, receiving a royalty is the only contact they have from their publisher all year.

Because professional writers deserve, if nothing else, to know where they and their books stand, Endpaper proposes that a new form of code be included in future royalty statements – a code which will bring a spirit of honest transparency to relations between authors and publishers and reveal precisely how their books have been faring..

Statements would include:

A close relation of OP, or ‘Out of Print’, OD will stand for One of the Disappeared and will record how the book in question has, to all intents and purposes, vanished between the moment it was signed up and the day it was allegedly published.

This much is known about new titles that are ‘disappeared’. On the list of every major publisher, a significant number of books are commissioned or bought by editors which, through some mysterious process, later become invisible to a point of non-existence. They are excluded from lists of new books submitted to buying committees and are never shown to buyers in independent bookshops.

Occasionally, a daring and enterprising bookseller may be asked by a customer about a disappeared book – usually the enquirer is the author or one of his friends. ‘Has this actually been published?’ he will ask. The answer, invariably, is that it has been but that – everyone’s so busy these days – there had been no time to show it to booksellers. A definitive, terminal act of editing has taken place; it has become One of the Disappeared.

Opinions vary as to when this disappearing precisely takes place, where the Bermuda Triangle into which new titles vanish resides. Some believe that, even as they are taken on, some titles already contain the seeds of their own destruction within them – that they are signed up casually and absent-mindedly by editors who are vaguely aware that they have not bought much recently, and then, within moments of acquisition, are quickly forgotten. Others claim that something happens in an editorial, sales or even production meeting that infects the project with a deadly virus of failure and futility, transforming it from being a source of hope to one of weary embarrassment.

All that is definitely known is that, well before its imagined release date, an OD book is damned. Its publication date (an entirely virtual and theoretical thing) is of significance only to the author. Nothing – not even a favourable review from a hot celebrity – can save it. By the time booksellers discover its existence, the carnival has moved on and other, newer books have taken its place.

Over the past five years or so, publishers have discovered that something rather upsetting has been taking place. When, in the hope of making more cash, they abandoned the net book agreement, they unwittingly handed over the power and the profits that were once theirs to a small group of large, ruthless, profit-hungry bookselling chains.

They have moved quickly to remedy the situation by passing on their losses to authors. HDS, which will stand for High Discount Scam, will cover virtually any significant sale to booksellers – indeed, a sure indicator of how well and author is doing is how much of his or her royalties are reduced in this way. Those who object to HDS will usually be told that they are perversely opting against being promoted in all the big bookshops.

It is traditional among publishers, when they are negotiating with an agent or author, for them to declare sorrowfully that the last book ‘failed to earn out’, that it has ‘an unrecovered advance’. The unspoken implication is that, as result, the heroic but unfortunate publisher has lost money on it. URG, or Unrecovered Advance Guilt, will express this process in coded form.

The truth, of course, is that the amount paid as an advance form only part of the publishers’ profit-and-loss account. It is quite possible – indeed, probable – that they have made a healthy profit, even though the book has failed to earn back all of its advance, but they prefer not to share that information with the author. A little guilt goes a long way in negotiations.

Now and then publishers are startled to discover that they have made rather a rather large amount in subsidiary rights from an author’s book. The accepted view is that too much detail on royalty statements about these transactions will confuse authors or get them dangerously over-excited and bumptious. In no time, they will starting asking when their first author tour of Columbia will take place and ringing the film company with casting suggestions.

The more careful publishers will therefore cream off their percentage, then their sub-agent’s share, then any additional expenses that can be tacked on, put all additional revenue in one cryptic line in the royalty statement, marking it SRSO – Subsidiary Rights in Something or Other.

Surprisingly, publishers sometimes like to keep a book in print even though stocks have been gathering dust in the warehouse for several years. They have discovered that a regular reminder to an author that his book has, over the previous six months, sold -1 copy, earning him -26p, which from now on will be technically be known as TP, or Taking the Piss, is a relatively cheap way of keeping him in his place and reminding him how his publishers are doing their best for him in difficult market conditions and for heartbreakingly small profits.

Summer 2003