Time For an Occasional Reminder re: How to Pay For My Books

This morning I got a nice letter from someone who enjoyed one of my books and wanted to send money to me directly for it rather than to get the book through my publisher, on the idea that I as the author should get most of the money because I wrote the book. This gives me a good excuse to remind people:

Don’t send me money directly for the books I write, actually go ahead and buy them from a bookstore.

For one thing, I get paid more than adequately that way. For another thing, my publisher is not my enemy — my publisher is my business partner, and my business partner does a lot of things for my book. It hires the editor, copy editor, page designer, art director and cover artist who improve my book and make it something people want to buy. It handles the printing and distribution and warehousing of my work. It keeps track of sales and collects payment for that work. It hires publicists and marketing people to make folks aware the book is out in the world. My foreign publishers hire translators. It does all these things so I don’t have to, and can focus on the thing I’m good at and actually want to do, which is: write.

Does it take a large chunk of sale price of the book to do all these things for me? Yes it does. But as a result of the work it does, I sell more than I could on my own, and as noted before, my cut of the proceeds is more than adequate. And all of the people who work on my book deserve to get paid fairly and adequately for their efforts.

Beyond the publisher, when you buy my book in a bookstore, someone else gets money — the bookstore. I like that. I like bookstores of all sorts, but particularly like supporting local bookstores, who do author events and reading clubs and other cool things, and where a good portion of the money stays in the community. I am happy that I get to contribute to other people making a livelihood supporting the field I work in.

All of which is to say that when you buy my book, from my publisher, in a bookstore, everyone involved in the making and selling of a book gets a little something — and that’s exactly how it should be. And while I understand people believe they might be doing me a favor by trying to pay me directly, in the long run it’s not beneficial to me at all, not the least because it hurts the people who have made my work better. If you’ve liked any of my novels, you like them because they are a group effort, not in spite of it.

So: If you want to support me as an author, support everyone who works on my books. They deserve it, and I prefer it. Buy the books legitimately, from your favorite bookseller. Thank you.

30 Comments on “Time For an Occasional Reminder re: How to Pay For My Books”

  1. Note:
    Nothing in this piece should be construed as slighting or minimizing authors who self-publish and who handle the responsibilities of editing, designing, distribution, etc. It’s a lot of work and I respect that, and they deserve to keep the cut of their revenues that I, as a more traditionally-published author, hand over to my publisher.

    Additionally, this is not to be construed as a comment over the current row about ChiZine Press, which is getting flak (correctly) for not supporting it’s authors and paying them royalties, etc. Publishers have a responsibility to pay authors and hold up their end of contracts. I am fortunate that in general my various publishers have done very well by me in this regard.

  2. John, your points are well taken.

    I’ve done this a few times, so I wanted to offer another perspective on it. I buy exclusively e-books these days, and it’s not always possible to buy an e-book without DRM of some sort. DRM makes everything more difficult, and fundamentally prevents me from truly owning a book. I suppose if I were perfectly ethical, I would avoid buying the book and simply never read it. But I’m not; I pirate a DRM-free version of the book instead.

    Sending a book-price amount of money to the author is how I square that with my conscience. It’s not that I don’t respect the work of the editors, marketers, and printers; there’s just not an easy way of getting them their cut. Maybe if Tor had a tip jar? (You may point out that I could buy a DRM copy and simply not use it, but that would defeat the voting-with-my-wallet aspect of this.)

    You’re correct that teams of people tend to make better final products than individuals. The downside is that it’s hard to boycott a single link in the chain without abandoning the whole thing.

  3. Tor’s ebooks are famously DRM free.
    Also, you know. I call bullshit. you can buy the version that has DRM on it, and then go and find a cracked version. Or just don’t buy it because DRM sucks (and it does). But the whole idea of oh no I can’t have it exactly the way I want it therefore I will not pay for it even though I am going to enjoy it, just means that you’re screwing the author and everybody else. I don’t have a problem paying folks and then making sure you keep a copy. But pay folks.

  4. Speaking of supporting local bookstores, any rough idea of the timeframe for The Last Emperox tour?

    I like to buy your latest when you come to Flyleaf in Chapel Hill.

  5. So, on the topic of independent bookstores, will you be partnering again this year with Jay & Mary’s Bookstore to sell/ship signed books for the holiday season? Asking for a friend.

  6. “One of the reactions of people reading a John Scalzi novel is that people go out and buy all the other Scalzi novels”

    Yep, caught me!

    On another note, my local book store knows me well enough, that wenn The Consuming Fire came out and I stopped by they had already ordered the book in English (they carry some, but not man books in English) and put a copy aside for me

  7. I’m not aware of anyone not wanting to pay our host’s main publisher because of how they treat authors, though I know some who are scaling back what they’re paying them at the moment because of how they’re treating libraries.

    In general, if you’re not keen on sending money to a particular publisher, for whatever reason (like the one Scalzi alludes to in his first comment), but want to support their authors, there are a number of ethical and legal ways to do that. Many authors have goods for sale through multiple providers. For instance, Subterranean Press sells special editions of a number of John Scalzi’s works (some for a short time, some ongoing); and some authors also directly sell some of their writings, or related swag, or they have a Patreon, Kickstarter, or other avenues for directly supporting them or a particular project they’re undertaking.

    Authors may also appreciate your support of charities they’ve endorsed. Again you’ll find a number of charities Scalzi has helped raise money for at various times (most recently RIP Medical Debt). That can be another way of supporting an author, by further helping the causes they’re spending their own time and money on.

  8. I wish I could buy ebooks through my local bookstores. I want to support them and the important work they do, but as I get older and the print size seems to get smaller, I really need the digital version.

    Also, as said above, I’m really conflicted about buying anything from publishers mistreating libraries. I’ll buy The Last Emperox, because I’m selfish and impatient, but am probably going to avoid buying anything else from them and just wait the few months until the libraries get the books (and keep donating to the library).

  9. Paying John for the books is good, paying John’s publisher is good, and paying the bookstore is sometimes good. However, on that last, do make sure you actually get a Book & Not just permission to read it only from the “seller’s” website. Not much help if you were looking for something to read when far from the internet.

  10. I work in an independent bookstore and I thank you. Several of your books are on my personal recommendation shelf. I like them or they wouldn’t be there, but the fact that you are a nice guy too, makes me smile when I sell them. I’m at From My Shelf Books & Gifts in Wellsboro.

  11. Every year around this time I remind friends: Local bookstores are a treasure that need support.
    Yes, certain huge online booksellers are convenient. So if you must, take advantage of them and use their database to shop around. Then when you’ve decided on a purchase, give a call to your local bookstore. If the local shop doesn’t have the title in stock, the owners will almost certainly be happy to order it for you.

  12. Since many authors I love can’t actually make a living on their writing, I also like to go to their Paetron accounts and pay a few dollars for every book of theirs I read. It’s not much, but I imagine a few extra dollars per book from many readers would add up.

  13. “I wish I could buy ebooks through my local bookstores. I want to support them and the important work they do, but as I get older and the print size seems to get smaller, I really need the digital version.”

    Some local independent bookstores have affiliate relationships with Kobo for ebooks and Libro.fm for audiobooks where you can designate a bit of your purchase to support them. (In particular, I’ve seen several bookstores tout the Libro.fm option…) It might be worth checking out if your local bookstore participates (https://www.indiebound.org/ebooks to start…) and, if so, if Kobo or Libro.fm provides a reading experience you want…

  14. J.B.:

    Do you have a local public library, or a school in your area with a library? Maybe see if they accept donations and if so buy them a copy of the physical book so everyone gets paid while you can still get your DRM-free ebook copy. Or buy a copy and donate to a Little Free Library near you.

  15. Excellent and succinct.
    This deserves its own bookend, opposite Harlan Ellison’s “Pay the Writer” screed!

    – Chris

  16. Do you think this person’s impulse was inspired by the current scandal with the small Canadian horror publisher which was slow to pay authors — or not paying them at all?

  17. Publisher as the enemy: This notion is common in self-publishing circles. It is received wisdom that traditional publishers add little if any value. The kernel of truth is that there is a market segment–commercial genre fiction written at high speed and with little revision or editorial oversight–where publishers really aren’t necessary. An author working in this market segment can make much more self-publishing than going through a traditional publisher, and so should do just this.

    Self-publishing made a lot more sense to me when I realized that it is the modern equivalent of the old dime novels. The price is even about the same, adjusted for inflation. The later version is series such as Harlequin Romances. This realization explained why self-publishers not only hate publishers, but also are not very big on bookstores. It makes sense in that physical stores have limited inventory, which in turn means someone has to decide what books to carry: the Evil Gatekeeper. I understood that all along. But book people, of the sort I am used to, have warm fuzzy feelings about bookstores, especially local independents, even as they recognize the inherent limitations. But the self-publishing crowd is more likely to hoot in derision at the idea of local independent bookstores. The explanation is that bookstores were never about dime novels and Harlequin Romances. You bought those in drug stores, or later at Walmart. These are book people, but not bookstore people.

    What the self-publishing crowd doesn’t get is that they are just one market segment: a substantial one, running to around ten percent of the total market (by revenue: more if by units), but still only a fraction of the overall market. They think that this is the entire book world. Outside of that segment, traditional publishing still makes sense.

    As the author of a single book, far removed from commercial genre fiction (Plug: “Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball”) I shudder at the thought of doing all the surrounding stuff required to end up with a physical book, and I don’t want to fill my garage with boxes of the damn things. I am not impressed by my publisher’s marketing, but that is a different story. The production of the physical product? God bless ’em!

  18. Oh no. When the whole “Macmillan won’t let libraries buy more than one copy of an e-book” came out (and one of my local library systems decided to boycott Macmillan) I swore on social media I wouldn’t buy anything from them until they relented about the library/ebook thing.

    At the time I thought I wasn’t taking much of a stand because no authors I like are published by Macmillan. I completely forgot about the whole sub-houses within publishing houses thing.


    I hope they give up the library thing soon because I really want to read the Last Emperox, but I really have to stand up for my library!

  19. @JustaTech

    Maybe try the audio book? Wil Wheaton does a good job and Audible is owned by Amazon, not Macmillan. Not sure if that’s better (also not sure if Macmillan takes a cut of the audio book proceeds), but it’s an option worth exploring.

  20. JustaTech:

    You know it’s an actual asshole move to go to an author’s site just to tell him you won’t buy his book, right?

    To be clear, I don’t *care* that you won’t buy my book, no matter what the reason. But I also don’t care to know why you’re not going to buy it, either.

  21. Someone pointed me at this post – useful because I no longer catch Whatever via RSS, which perhaps I should fix someday, and do you no longer announce posts on social media? I coulda sworn you used to… – because I was asking around today how best to give money to a musician whose albums are out of print because the music industry sucks*, is old enough that they’re not performing anymore, doesn’t have a Patreon, or a merch store, nor – that I can find – an email address to send money via PayPal.

    Anyone have any suggestions?

    *I would argue that in most cases the legacy big music publishers ARE the enemy…

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