Would Authors Pay Royalties to Publishers?

Bob Mayer, who publishes the Write It Forward blog and just started a publishing venture called Who Dares Wins Publishing, has an interesting suggestions for publishers in this post: reverse royalties. 

Mayer suggests that authors pay royalties to publishers in place of the customary arrangement. I know it sounds counterintuitive (to say nothing of counterproductive) that an author pay royalties to a publisher rather than receive them, but here is his explanation:

When does a book go out of print if it is made available in eBook [format]? Many contracts, particularly those pre-dating the eBook explosion, are not clear on this point. Some clauses state if sales fall below some ridiculously low number, like less than 100 sold on the last two royalty statements. That means a publisher can keep rights to a book if it sells just 100 copies in  a year.

That does neither the publisher, nor the author, much good. It is actually an inducement for authors to NOT promote their books, hoping sales fall low enough to get the rights back. To make the effort to promote a book at 25%-75% for eBooks is not that thrilling. And for any book that has not earned out, there is zero incentive.

His proposal is that if an author received the rights to the book and the cover (if available) and an electronic version, a 25% royalty to the publisher would ensure that the relationship between author and publisher is more profitable for both sides than is now the case.

Mayer illustrates his proposal with examples of his own experiences with Random House — where he has a print series that is available in electronic format, but doesn’t sell enough to entice Random House to do any publicity, thus creating the zero incentive situation he described — and Berkeley — where he obtained the rights to another series that had gone out of print, and which he now sells in electronic format with more sales in one month than he has with the Random House series (in electronic format) in a year.

By the way, in his post, Mayer recommends a few blogs, including J. A. Konrath’s, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, where Konrath frequently discusses the economics of book publishing, such as in this post. Konrath’s success with ebooks makes him worth reading.

Although Mayer’s idea is straightforward, my guess is that publishers’ fear that the arrangement would benefit authors too much means that publishers have to reject it (the publishing world’s equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face). But authors, tell me what you think of Mayer’s “modest proposal.”





3 responses to “Would Authors Pay Royalties to Publishers?”

  1. Sandra Warren says :

    Hmmm! Mayer has a point but I'm not convinced. I'd have to have more evidence – author success rates – that it works.

  2. Jeffrey V. Mehalic says :


    In order for an author to have any chance of succeeding under the arrangement, the publisher will have to let the author have the rights back in exchange for any royalties. If Random House ignores Mayer's proposal, that doesn't bode well for other authors.

  3. smokingpigeon says :

    This could work. The author should get AT LEAST a final proof electronic file and a cover out of the deal, with permanent permission to use the cover as well.

    For publishers with a skillion OOP authors with deep backlists, this could do several things:

    -get those books back into the income stream

    -get the authors to share promo on those books

    -do it FAST, thus getting that income stream flowing in their direction during these next twelve critical months while print publishing convulses (again) and the mmpb shakes out into a new position on the P&L

    The problem that huge publishers like Harlequin and Random House face now is that, while it is possible to stall a few big sellers on returning their lapsed rights on a few dozen titles, it is not possible to do it for hundreds and hundreds of authors and thousands of titles.

    The solution is here, in Mayer's proposal. It's much easier to send a rights letter and (if you can find one) a raw e-file and cover .jpg and a quickie contract for the Mayer Proposal than it is to stall the author, scramble through your archives trying to find the titles, then pile those books on the desk of the overworked staffer who has to triage them and decide what's worth stalling the author some more for, then pray you don't get a letter from the author's literary attorney saying, “if you don't answer this in N days, you forfeit the rights,” then try to rush the book into ebook form or reprint it in Polish within those N days…nightmare.

    In this case, instead of losing rights to those books altogether because the overworked staffer can't respond to all those rights-reversion letters in time, the publisher gives up the responsibility for getting the ebook produced, boo hoo, but they still get an immediate income stream started on the property.

    If they write the Mayer Proposal contract carefully, they can get the rights to revert back to the publisher if the author doesn't digitize and epublish the book within N days…tossing the hot potato back on the author.

    Hell, Mayer's a hero. Somebody knight him.

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