A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by one of my colleagues in the music technology publishing world. It seems an editor at Hal Leonard had contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in writing a book on one of the hot music software products. During their conversation, the HL guy had referred to one of my books, Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming, as the type of thing they were looking for.
I was flattered, of course. But you can’t take flattery to the bank. And flattery is just about all Hal Leonard is good for, in my experience. Given the utterly abysmal sales figures they report to me on that book, I can interpret their interest in adding another book like it to their catalog in one of two ways: Either they’re a bunch of clueless bunglers who have no idea how to make a profit on books, or the sales figures they report to me are bullshit.
I suppose you could make a case for a third interpretation, which is that they’re looking for a book that is as technically authoritative as mine, but they expect to sell more copies of it because the proposed title would be on a hot topic. That could be true. On the other hand, a synthesizer programming book has a much longer shelf life than a book on version N of a specific product, because the latter book will be obsolete in a year, when the next version appears. My book has been in print for close to five years now … and it still hasn’t earned out its advance.
To fill in the background a bit, I didn’t write Synthesizer Programming for Hal Leonard. I wrote it for a company called Backbeat Books. When Backbeat went on the auction block and was picked up by HL, both of my Backbeat titles became part of the HL catalog.
My hope, when that happened, was that HL’s greater market penetration would improve my sales figures. On the contrary: The already low numbers reported by Backbeat fell straight through the floor after HL took over. They had to have paid out a tidy sum to acquire Backbeat, so you’d think they’d turn around and market the existing Backbeat catalog. That would be the only sensible way to recoup their investment, and the earnings would fall straight through to the bottom line, since there would be no up-front development costs for the existing books. So the precipitous decline in reported sales of Backbeat titles after the HL takeover is not easy to understand.
But that’s all water under the bridge. I suggested to my friend that because future royalties are so very uncertain, I would tend to look at a book contract in the music technology field as basically a buy-out. The publisher offers you an advance, and that’s all the money you can rely on seeing.
The advances Hal Leonard offers (and a year or two ago they asked me to write a book on the same topic, so I know whereof I speak) are in the $5,000 range. For a 50,000-word book, that’s ten cents a word. Even in these hard times, the music magazines pay at two or three times that rate. So a book offer is pretty much the bottom of the barrel in terms of what you’ll earn.
There are reasons to want to write a book for a company like Hal Leonard. Maybe you’re young and are trying to make a name for yourself in the field. Maybe you can do it quickly by repackaging material you already have on your hard drive. Or maybe you work for a manufacturer who will subsidize part of your labor by letting you do it on company time, in order to have the book out there publicizing and supporting their product.
If none of those considerations applies, I’d advise against running up your phone bill returning the publisher’s calls, because the economics of book publishing — in the music technology field, at least — are such that you can’t expect to make anything like decent money writing the book.
This is very sad, because musicians still need good, solid, high-quality information on how to use the technology. But for some reason the book publishers don’t seem to be set up to provide that information. The way their deals are structured, they’re going to attract mostly writers who are not too well qualified.
There are happy exceptions, of course — excellent authors who care about their subject matter and their readers, and are either hungry enough or wealthy enough not to look at the deal by comparing the amount of return to the amount of work that will be required. But when people like my colleague and I opt out of the book-writing game because the money is so inadequate, it’s hard to see how a publisher is going to sustain a line of high-quality books.
If somebody would put $12,000 on the table, I’d write another music technology book. Heck, I’d write a series of them! But I’m not holding my breath.