This morning’s mail brought an unexpected check for $200 dollars: my royalties for recent sales of the German edition of a Harlequin Silhouette romance published in 1995.
I published the novel under the pen name Suzanne Sanders. Its title was One Forgotten Night in the US and most other countries. In Germany the powers that be gave it the rather literal title Der Cop und die Lady.
The point isn’t the book, or the amount of the check. It’s that fifteen years on I’m still earning something from work I did in 1995. One Forgotten Night is one of many revenue pipelines I’ve laid over the years. A lot of them have run dry; others burble along modestly but steadily, or spit forth intermittent gushes. Some were disappointments and never produced at all. Newer ones have yet to show what they can do.
Royalty earnings from published books make up a share of my income each year. Some years that share is small. Some years it’s not. It’s never predictable.
Today’s little mini-windfall reminded me that I’ve been thinking about trends in one corner of publishing: YA nonfiction for the school and library market.
When I started writing for this market, some publishers or imprints paid authors under royalty agreements (in which, typically, the author holds copyright in the work and receives a share of the work’s earnings down the stream, if any). Others made flat-fee deals (in which copyright is held by the publisher or packager that commissions the work; the author receives payment for the work but no share of its downstream earnings). That’s still the case, but these days more publishers have adopted or are shifting to the flat-fee model.
My first published work–fiction and nonfiction–was flat-fee, for packagers or specialty publishers. When I started being published by houses like Simon and Schuster and Oxford University Press, and getting royalties, I said I’d never go back to flat fee. I’d even get all soapboxy and proclaim that authors should never shortchange themselves and undermine their profession by taking flat-fee work.
Since then, of course, I’ve made plenty of compromises–especially when working with packagers or contributing to multi-author series with a compensation model already in place. I might write for a flat fee if the fee is juicy, as in a recent one-off for a packager in which I adapted a work of popular science for kids. Or if I like the subject and know that I’d find the work fairly congenial. Or if I like the editor. Or if I need the work. Conversely, if an editor offers me a book deal and I like everything about it except the flat-fee contract, I’ll ask for a higher fee in exchange for sacrificing royalties. Sometimes I get it.
But I do my damnedest to do as much of my work under royalty contracts as possible. This might mean taking a $5000 advance on 7 percent, say, instead of a $6000 fee. Or turning down a flat-fee offer in the (sometimes justified) belief that something better will come up. Or working harder to come up with book and series ideas and pitching them to my publishers, as opposed to just signing on to existing projects, because when an idea I “own” is bought, it goes to copyright contract.
I don’t mean to lecture or tell other writers what kinds of deals they should or shouldn’t make. I’ve been all over the place in my writing career, and I don’t expect that to change. But I’ve learned to consider, when offered a book deal, whether it serves my long-term as well as my short-term goals, and to aim for a deal that suits me and not just the Gods of Publishing.
That $200 I got today, thanks to amnesiac-gemologist-shooting victim Nina and hunky maverick cop Mike? I’m gonna spend it on massages.