Writers as Salespeople

sales chartA question from my ex-publisher stimulated me think about the pay structure in traditional publishing. The question she asked was: Why couldn’t you sell all those books when you were still under contract? Many factors came into play at the same time to quickly boost my e-book sales. Pricing strategy, volume of books, and massive effort all played a part. But one of the biggest issues was motivation, aka incentive.

In the business world, salespeople work for a small base pay and most of their income is in the form of incentive pay and bonuses. The more they sell, they more money they make. To some extent, this is true in traditional publishing, except that after the initial advance, writers (aka salespeople) only get paid every six months. If other businesses functioned that way, they’d have a hard time hiring and keeping salespeople. It’s hard to stay motivated when you wait half a year for a paycheck… then realize your publisher has kept most of it.

The other factor is information. Most salespeople get constant feedback on their performance. They know at any point exactly how their sales numbers are adding up. They can use that information to tailor their techniques and improve their sales. In traditional publishing, sales information comes too late to be effective and is often hard to decipher.

When you self-publish on Amazon, through both the Digital Text Platform and Create Space, after the initial six-week wait, you get paid every month. You also have access to hourly, daily, and monthly sales data. This information is direct feedback that you can use to figure out what promotional techniques work best. It can also function as incentive. When you see the sales bump up, it’s exciting and motivating.

Together, the steady income and the sales data provide a great incentive to spend time everyday blogging, tweeting, posting comments, and writing press releases. Wouldn’t it be interesting if traditional publishing houses followed Amazon’s lead and incentivized their writers to be diligent salespeople as well?

Publishers will say: It’s not possible. It’s too much bookkeeping. We’ve always done it this way. But Amazon knows what it’s doing, and it’s kicking ass in the publishing world.

What do you think? Would you work harder if your publisher gave you more sales data and paid you more often?

  1. Since I’ve never had a publisher I don’t know if I can really answer your final question. However, from what I’ve heard about payment through publishers it seems to me that working for yourself gives you not only more control but a higher payback for your efforts without having to share the largest percentage with a big business. And that, to me, is a major incentive!

  2. I’d absolutely work harder if I saw immediate sales data. One of the reasons I chose the indie author route is because I saw that authors with small and large publishers alike were expected to do the bulk of the marketing and sales work. Even though I’m just starting, I love seeing the royalty data even though I’m still in that first six week phase.

    My day job is in high tech and it can be a challenge to motivate the sales force to focus on larger systems with a long sales cycle when they can sell more moderately priced equipment and receive commission in that quarter.

  3. I’ve always been indie but I don’t think I would be very motivated to work hard for a publisher. I would be wondering just what my publisher was doing for me that justified their taking a huge percentage of the list price. If they can’t at least provide up to the minute sales data, they aren’t doing their job.

  4. As I mentioned before to you, I think having at least one more or less legitimate publisher gives a writer a foundation of verisimilitude. Of course, my first publisher didn’t provide anything at all, so it soured me on that. Now, I’ve got five self-pubs out, one with a small epress, and four more with another small epress. I’ll have enough books from both self and publisher to make a comparison.

    But since I’m not a salesperson at all, my success rate will most likely be small.

    Some days, I’m all over tweeting, blogging, and all that stuff. Other days, hiding under the covers in bed seems a better use of my time.

  5. I work with a couple of epubs. One does monthly updates, two are quarterly and the last just sorta forgets to send me updates until I email them and ask. The one that does monthly updates and royalty payments (Lyrical Press) certainly motivates me to promote more as well as sub to them more often.

    I’m sure, even if moment by moment bookkeeping is difficult, monthly updates could be done. There isn’t a crew at Amazon constantly updating figures, it’s all automated. Big publishers just need to figure out how to automate updating across various spreadsheets so that the info can be accessed easily. I know this can be done because when I worked as a circulation manager, I did it. I had spreadsheets linked so that when the circulation data came in all I had to do was input it on one page and it appeared and calculated on the other sheets so that when I had to fill out paperwork I just pulled up the right page and there it was. And I’m a technophobe working with Excel.

  6. I think it’s doable as well. Traditional publishers need to rethink their business models. Also, if they stopped taking returns from booksellers, their royalty statements and bookkeeping efforts would be so much simpler.

  7. I suspect the traditional publishing world will change almost beyond recognition over the next ten years, insofar as author’s sales feedback is concerned.

  8. I so agree that traditional publishing needs to substantially rethink its business model. Frankly, I made a conscious decision to become an indie author, in part, because the publishing business seems so screwed up to me.

    I’ve spelled my views on the matter out before: http://midlistlife.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/the-publishing-business-is-fraked/

    Just sayin’. :)

  9. Thanks for such a stimulating post, LJ. Gives us a lot to think about. Written out this way, it seems obvious that authors would be under-motivated! I’ve heard so many say that they have no clue which promotional efforts work, so they keep spraying their efforts all over the place with a machine gun approach. Writing is so time-intensive by itself that authors end up wasting so much time. More info would help everyone work smarter. We’re in the technology age–we should be able to do this!

  10. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I even did an open blog telling Random House I’d pay THEM royalties if they gave me the rights back to some of my books. It’s a Catch-22. They want to hold on to the rights, do nothing to promote the books and I have no incentive to promote any book that hasn’t earned out.
    It’s so much nicer to look at the books I have the rights to and immediately see my Kindle, LSI, PubIt, etc. sales any time. I’ve got tons of incentive to promote and market those books. I’ve got a series called Area 51 and a major film, Super 8, is coming out this year featuring Area 51, yet RH won’t do a thing to use it to promote the books. If I had the rights, it would be a different story. My Atlantis series, which I got back from Berkley, sell more eBooks in one month, than my Area 51 books do in 6 months with RH. The difference is my motivation to market and promote. And I’m the world’s worst salesman. I have to watch Alec Baldwin from GlenGary Glenrose every day to motivate myself not to get the steak knives.

  11. Initially, I couldn’t get a pub to take me on, so I self-published and made a decent income. Still in search of a traditional publisher, though, I found one and the road has been downhill and filled with pot holes ever since. Yikes! When I received my last 2 payments from my publisher of .34 and $12.00, I thought “This is it! I’m taking my life and my work back!” Thanks to the article you wrote about Amazon, I am now on my way to pubbing my own work again and proud of it. So many authors love to be able to say “I publish with —“, but honestly, it just doesn’t pay the bills. I want to be a well known writer, but I also want to make money from my efforts. I was doing all the work to sell my books and making nothing for those efforts. Now, I will make the majority of the money and am willing to work even harder.

  12. I think the biggest thing is the flexibility to experiment and see what’s not working. If you, as an indie, want to tweak your description, rework your cover, or play around with price, you can do that. And it doesn’t take too long to see what works.

    My first book is with Lyrical Press. They pay faster than most epubs, but once a book is out there, everything is set in stone: the cover, the advertising material, the price… and I have no say at all.

    I’m willing to work hard, and I’m working hard promoting that book they’re putting out. But at the same time, I’m realistic in my expectations of sales. I can’t change anything about it, so I just have to work my butt off getting the word out and hope all of the big sales components (cover, blurb, and price) are optimal. Now that I know better than to cede control of my work, I won’t be signing those things away anymore.

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