Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Poor Chimamanda Adichie!

Amongst emerging news reports is one which conveyed information that the father of a popular contemporary author, Chimamanda Adichie was kidnapped in Nigeria this past May, 2015 and later released, following anxiety-filled ransom negotiations and a ransom settlement (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-my-fathers-kidnapping.html?_r=1).

Poor Chimamanda Adichie! The kidnappers of her father probably thought (and naively so) that she makes lots of money from her books. Well, maybe so. Perhaps, her speaking engagements are lucrative. Be that as it may, she is entitled to the fruits of her labor. Neither she nor any member of her family should be victimized for whatever blessings God has bestowed upon them.

But Adichie’s plight presents an opportunity for sharing some of the harsh realities of academic book publishing that may not be well known to non-book authors and the general reading public.

For perhaps the vast majority of academic book authors, the reality regarding the money they make or fail to make from their hard work, may come as a surprise to persons who have never authored an academic book. 

What most people don't know is that, with great exceptions, such as such "bestselling" books (non-fictional and fictional), academic book publishing does not fetch significant income. The royalties that accrue to academic book authors tend to range from a low of 5% or 10% to a high of 20% or higher of gross revenue from sold copies. Some publishers, but not all, given their assessment of the market value/potential of a book manuscript, may incentivize the writer with an “advance payment,” or “a book advance” that’s dispatched upon the writer’s endorsement of the applicable publishing contract. But note that such a book advance must be recouped from subsequent actual book sales revenue before post-sales royalty payments would commence, all things being equal.

In the case of edited books, chapter contributors often don’t receive any royalty beyond “I thank you” copies of the book from the publisher. Some publishers don’t even exercise that courtesy of providing chapter contributors with complimentary copies of their edited book; instead, they will extend to chapter contributors, a privilege of buying their own copies of the book at discounted prices.

Academic books that get to be re-produced as new editions--a significant indicator of a successful book--are the ones that tend to receive percentage increments in royalty clauses through new contracts. It hardly needs to be explained that a publisher will not waste time and other resources re-producing a book whose first edition did not fare well in the market.

More often than not, authors of academic books never earn even a dollar from their hard work because in order for, say the minimum five or ten percentage book royalty to kick-in, the publisher must sell at least 500 copies of one's book. The truth of the matter is that a possibly large number of published academic books never hit that 500-sold-copies threshold for triggering author royalty.  So, in such cases, the publisher gets to keep all of monies accrued from books that fail to sell up to 500 copies. Recovery of publishing costs is the justification for this 500-sold copies threshold for author royalty payment.

For most academics, particularly those based at reputable institutions that place a high premium on, value and reward scholarship and research, publishing is required for them to keep their jobs and/or advance in their careers. So, for such academics, the mere fact that one's book has been published, is all that matters, not the expected royalty that may never materialize. In fact, prior to an actual book publication, academics even tend to celebrate the mere receipt of a book contract from a publisher, as a milestone.
Of course, publishers are keenly aware of academics’ striving and enthusiasm for publishing contracts and for book publication! They are aware of the career-enhancing value of academic book publishing, and it may not be out of place for one to conjecture that they—or at least some of them—tend to exploit that factor to the hilt.

But outsiders, looking in from without, who may come across a piece of information that a particular academic text sales for $100 or so per copy, may be mis-led by that price tag to assume that the author of that book is now rich or about to become rich. This is not to imply that some authors don’t become rich through best-selling books, but what’s the percentage of published non-fictional and fictional books that hit that best-selling mark?

Another piece of news about academic publishing is that typically, authors (including authors of fictional works) get nothing (did you hear that?) from third-party re-sale of their books in what is commonly referred to as a "used books market." Royalties to book authors are based upon sales of original copies of their books. Any income from the re-sales of that same book (and the internet has made the re-sale of books a convenient, widespread and much sought-after option for students) never gets to either the original publisher or to the author. In fact, the vendors of “used books” don’t even exercise the courtesy of notifying the authors that their books are being re-sold. Not even a thank-you note is offered!

On a final note, a creeping reality of academic book publishing that the general reading public or students may not be aware of is that more and more publishers are now asking authors of academic book manuscripts to pay upfront for publication costs. Such publishers claim that digitization of books is depressing library acquisition of hardcopies of books and that the fast-growing online market for re-sale of books (as explained in the preceding paragraph) significantly drives down sales revenue from hardcopies of books. This online market for books, including new and used books, has also brought about the collapse of many a traditional bookstore across the landscape.

After reading this piece, would you still want to venture into the world of academic book publishing, if you don't have to do so?