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The Plight of Book Authors Today

June 22, 1986

This is in reference to the Paul Dean piece, headlined "One Man's Battle to Revive a Novel" (June 11).

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. On one hand, Duane Unkefer's plight is typical of the treatment accorded authors by most publishers. On the other hand, Unkefer got $160,000 up front, plus a paperback deal, more than 40 times the advance most novelists are paid.

I'm mystified by the book publishing industry, which continues to produce far more books than it's willing to market and promote. Publishers seem willing to accept the fact that 80% of their titles earn no significant profit. Could this be because, in contrast to most other industries, they spend only an infinitesimal fraction of a book's retail price on marketing and promotion? Because they sell essentially all on consignment, allowing retailers months or even years to return unsold books?

Whatever the root cause, to make up for their antiquated and inefficient sales efforts, they penalize authors with minuscule, often insulting, advances.

Every book author I know--and there are many--has at least one horror story about his or her book. Many report going on national publicity tours but finding no books for sale in the stores. Others report books being published but never distributed, because the editor who acquired it left the company or was transferred, and successors wanted to promote only the books which they had been involved with. And still others report waiting months or even years for an approved manuscript to be published, and no one at the publisher's willing to take responsibility.

But the worst and most arrogant procedure of the book publishing industry remains the six-month accounting period plus a 90-day wait before authors are due royalties. (On top of that, some publishers often "forget" to send a royalty check until months after the author has reminded them it was due.)

We live in an era when most retail booksellers use scanners to read UPC markings on book jackets, immediately recording each transaction on a computer. Publishers get weekly sales printouts detailing national sales on virtually every title. If a book is returned--and few are--the same scanning system automatically updates the sales figures. So, publishers know very well how many and which books have been sold.

The only plausible reason for publishers to insist on semi-annual accounting plus 90-day waiting periods is to deprive authors of royalties for as long as possible, thereby profiting from the interest-free use of the author's funds.

In other words, authors are forced to subsidize publishers. And since most publishers rarely promote most books, the advance, small that it may be, is the only money most authors ever get from a book. When authors complain to publishers, they're hypocritically reminded that a life in art demands certain sacrifices.


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