Making a book: the Kiwi booksellers guide to the steps and costs along the way

This is part one of our story. Thank you to our sources who requested anonymity.

Step One: Authors, Agents, Assessors and how much a manuscript costs
The Read begins a series suggested by a bookseller, who told Booksellers New Zealand: “I'd like to see a series of articles about how a book is made. Different practitioners in the field could explain the concept meetings, costings, author royalties, cover designs, marketing, warehouse costs etc — everything that goes into making the final product that arrives in the bookshop in a cardboard box (how much does the box cost?).” We start with writers.

Every fiction writer’s dream is the novel that either wins a literary prize or sells in the millions plus film rights. For your everyday New Zealand novelist, the probability of that is less than being struck by lightning.

The reality is mundane: have a job or run a family and write the book as well; for some there are literary awards that allow a full time writing opportunity.

So, what is an author worth?
When the novel, detective fiction or short stories are written, there is no immediate pay cheque. Fiction authors are usually paid on royalties – a percentage of the sales of their book.

The royalty figure is either 10 per cent of the RRP minus GST; or alternatively, 17.5 per cent of the price received by the publisher from the sale of the title.

The Read was told that good sales of a fiction title would be around 3,000, and that the usual return to the author would be around $10,000.

Some publishers pay a percentage of the likely royalties up front, but others pay in instalments as royalties are calculated. “That could be for around two years work, and it could take a further two to three years after publication to receive,” said one source.

Non-Fiction more financially rewarding for authors
For non-fiction, it is a different picture. In the majority of cases, an author takes their idea to a publisher and the book is commissioned, with the fee being paid on delivery of manuscript or on publication. Some authors opt for a royalty system, and with non-fiction selling bigger quantities per title than the average fiction run, this can be to their advantage.

However, non-fiction authors usually have to commission and pay for photos, or for the rights to use photos or other visual material for their books from their own pockets.

So it is no wonder writers need all the grants, residencies, scholarships and awards support then can get.

The big money-for-authors exception is sports biographies, which can sell around 30-40,000 copies and earn their superstar authors advances of up to $100,000.

Agents can add value
Some authors use agents to negotiate with publishers on their behalf. Agents take 15 percent of the publishing income of authors (including prize money), but offer advice and negotiation skills that add value for the writer.

Agents know the industry and their advice is based on long experience. Publishers find it mostly easier to deal with agents as their expectations are realistic, unlike those of some authors.

Writers particularly need agents when negotiating overseas sales, where their knowledge can be invaluable.

Assessors smooth the way to publication
For writers, the road to publication can be a rocky one. Publishers are demanding in their criteria and want an error free manuscript that does not need extensive editing.

Filling the gap between writer and publisher is the Manuscript Assessor, a relatively new feature of New Zealand’s literary scene. Assessors will read and critique, suggest changes to improve the manuscript and indicate where there are faults of plot construction and so on, providing an extensive written report for the author. The usual cost of this service is around $600.

Author cost as percentage of RRP
Take off GST and then calculate the author’s 10 percent (with variables as explained above).

Two recent NZ fiction examples from my bookshelf:
Hokitika Town by Charlotte Randall (Penguin) at $30.00 and The Larnachs by Owen Marshall (Random) at $39.99.

Hokitika Town, (minus GST 15 percent), at 10 percent to author: $2.55 per copy


Please note these are this journalist’s extrapolations only from basic facts acquired – and for those same books, IRD's GST component would be $4.50.

The Larnachs, (minus GST 15 percent) at 10 percent to author: $3.40 per copy.


Please note these are this journalist’s extrapolations only from basic facts acquired – and for those same books, IRD GST component would be $6.00.

Only the local picture has been covered; on the international markets authors may be paid more, or their paychecks may be a lot higher when their titles are available in the hundreds of thousands for UK, European and US markets.

Written by Jillian Ewart, writer for The Read

Next week: Editing, manuscript presentation and other pre-press activities.