Let’s not mince words: The publishing industry is set up in such a way as to systematically cheat writers. A few highly successful writers rake in the big bucks, but most of us don’t. The sad part is, writers as a class have been beaten into submission. Our expectations are very low, and publishers are eager to take advantage of that fact.

It’s a truism in self-publishing that everybody makes money except the writer. If you hire an editor, a cover artist, or an interior layout designer for your novel, you’ll have to pay them at something like a professional rate. If you have a decent-looking author website (and you should), you’ll have to pay professional rates for that too.

But today’s topic is not self-publishing. Today I’m looking at the big leagues.

I’ve just turned down a contract from Oxford University Press (a reputable imprint, or so one would think) for a 70,000-word book on software synthesizers. This is a field in which I’m an expert, and I’ve written (for other publishers, not self-publishing) several other books on music and music technology. I’m a pro.

Oxford’s initial offer, in this contract, was for an advance against royalties of $1,500. I objected. I was told they could go to $3,000, or perhaps as much as $5,000, but no higher.

A book of this length and complexity would take about two months to write. A professional with my qualifications and experience, if hired for a full-time salaried position, would expect to be paid at least $90,000 a year. For two months of work, then, a proper rate of pay would be $15,000.

For $5,000, an employer could expect to get about 13 days of work. I could write 15,000 words in 13 days, or possibly as much as 20,000 words (maybe, if we ignore the hours spent proofing the page layout and the index at the end of the assignment). But not a 70,000-word book. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast.

This is not an isolated incident. It’s how the publishing industry works today.

A year or so ago, I wrote a series of columns for a start-up web zine called Synth & Software. I was willing to support a start-up, because I’d like the music technology industry to prosper. So I wrote about eight columns (with video clips) for free.

In an email exchange today, the editor at S&S told me they’re still not able to pay for content at anything like a professional rate. But here’s the thing: I’ll bet they’re paying their webmaster at a professional rate — and probably their ad sales staff too. I really doubt their web IT team is working for 75 cents an hour. And yet, there’s no money to pay the writers.

Writers create the wealth. Without writers, there would be no Oxford University Press. But I’m pretty sure the staff at that company is not working for $18,000 a year, which is what you’d earn if you were paid $3,000 for two months of full-time work.

You see how that works? Everybody gets paid except the writers — and the writers are creating the wealth.

It’s not just a problem in nonfiction. I got an email this week from SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I’m a member) about a problem some novelists have been having. In some manner or other, Disney acquired the publishing rights to some novels by Alan Dean Foster. According to SFWA, Disney took the official position that while they had acquired the rights to Foster’s work (that is, the right to make movies out of his books, among other things), they had not acquired the corresponding contractual obligations, and thus were not planning to pay him.

This matter is, again according to SFWA, in negotiation. Possibly it will be resolved amicably. And possibly I have the details wrong. (One really doesn’t want to accuse Disney of anything. One wants to express one’s understanding of the situation in very, very cautious terms.) Nonetheless, assuming the story is accurate, it’s part of a big, ugly pattern. Corporations don’t hesitate to take advantage of writers. Because they can.

Or let’s talk about royalty statements. I get statements in the mail from time to time, for my existing nonfiction books. The statements report the sales of a book for the past six months, and then tabulate how much royalty I earned based on those sales. It ain’t much.

And here’s the problem: I have no way of verifying that the sales figures are even accurate. My contracts don’t allow me to audit the publisher’s books, nor would it be feasible for me to do so even if the contract did allow it. An audit would cost me tens of thousands of dollars! Even if irregularities were uncovered during the audit, the benefit to me would be a tiny fraction of the amount I’d have to pay the accountants for doing the audit.

If a publisher wants to lie about the sales figures (and I’m not accusing any specific publisher of doing anything of the kind) so as to beef up their bottom line at authors’ expense, what’s to stop them? This is why the advance payment against royalties is so important. A publisher can offer a lower advance coupled with a larger percentage of the “net” (and best not ask how the net is calculated) — but that’s meaningless. The author can never rely on receiving another nickel beyond the advance. If it ain’t cash on the barrel head, it’s pie in the sky by and by.

Maybe I ought to write the book anyhow, and self-publish it. I wouldn’t make even $3,000 on it, but it would be fun, and a few musicians would find it useful.

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