Royalty pains

Author Peter Cooper posted a blog about his experience publishing Beginning Ruby for APress, a blog that got extraordinary traffic after being featured on Slashdot with a misleading summary. Much of the piece concerns itself with royalties, how they’re calculated, and how they’re paid. In his conclusion, he advocates writing for the Pragmatic Programmers which offers a 50%-of-profits royalty rate.

Tim O’Reilly himself saw fit to counter that advice, claiming that the Prags’ royalty isn’t what it seems, and to imply that a bigger publisher would move more books, meaning that a smaller royalty on bigger sales would cancel out the Prags’ advantage.

About a week later, the Prags’ Dave Thomas posted a blog of his own, spelling out the specifics of the Prags’ royalties.

I commented on Dave’s blog:

Having written one book with the Prags and two elsewhere, my mental taxonomy is now “writing for Prags” versus “writing for free”. Yes, between 10% royalty * coauthors * Amazon discounts * shrinking computer book market, it really is that bad.

But I have more to say, which is why I’m blogging now.

In my experience, and my understanding of the current nature of the computer book market, O’Reilly’s claims that its size give it an advantage in moving more books is probably true to a limited degree, but not enough to make up what is effectively a four-to-five-fold difference in royalty rates. With computer book sections shrinking year after year in brick-and-mortar bookstores, a huge majority of computer books are purchased online from Amazon and its lesser rivals (or just stolen, but that’s another story), which obviates the advantages a bigger publisher like O’Reilly would have in getting its product into more stores.

I wrote one book for O’Reilly and co-wrote another, both released in 2005. QuickTime for Java: A Developer’s Notebook is clearly a niche title (and the topic API is now deprecated), and if Swing Hacks is somewhat more noticable, it’s only because the Java development community is so large. I suspect only one in every 25 to 50 Java developers does Desktop Java, but over 5 million developers, that’s still enough to be interesting. Over their respective lifetimes, the QTJ book sold about 2,000 copies (bad), and Swing Hacks sold 10,000 (good).

The iPhone SDK Development book that I co-wrote for the Prags nearly outsold both of them, combined, just in pre-release beta sales. Granted, the topic is clearly more in demand, but still, enough people found their way to the Prags’ site to buy the beta that before a single final copy had the shelves. I’ve already outearned four years of royalties on the two O’Reilly books several times over. About the same number of copies, but much higher royalties. It’s that simple.

Aside: one factor that complicates comparing apples to oranges: since QTJ:ADN never outearned its advance, the royalties on I earned SH beyond its advance were applied to my royalty debt on QTJ until that was paid-up. I’m not sure if this is standard practice.

One other factor that I think is even more interesting is that the Prags presumably can offer a higher royalty because their overhead is very low. O’Reilly has a lovely campus in business-unfriendly California; I’m not sure the highly-distributed Prags even have a formal office. The low overhead is presumably what allows the Prags to offer such a high rate, but moreover, they’re able to take a chance on niche-ier topics. O’Reilly’s upcoming Cocoa and Objective-C: Up and Running is, by my count, their fourth introductory Cocoa programming book (following the awful ADC-authored Learning Cocoa, James Duncan Davidson’s rewrite of it, and Mike Beam’s Cocoa in a Nutshell). Apparently the broad Mac programming market is big enough to be interesting to them, but not any smaller part of it. If you want a book on Core Animation or Xcode, you pretty much have to look to other publishers (notable exception: the Bonjour/Zeroconf book).

To me, that’s a bigger deal, because your royalties are zero if a publisher won’t even put your title out there. Right now, the iPhone market has ample introductory titles (and Mac is almost there, once titles are updated for Snow Leopard or Daniel Steinberg finishes his overhauled-for-SL Cocoa book), and the next step is to get deeper into topics that are too large or too difficult to cover in introductory books. But almost by definition, these titles carve up the market for the introductory book, and only publishers who can make money off niches can produce such titles. Pretty safe to say that if we see a book on, say, Core Audio, or advanced use of the Xcode toolset (IB, Instruments, etc.), it’s going to be from one of these smaller publishers.

Comment (1)

  1. Actually, O’Reilly has published at least five introductory Cocoa books: I forgot Simson Garfinkel’s updated-from-NeXTstep Building Cocoa Applications.

    And yes, I do consider the first edition of Learning Cocoa and James Duncan Davidson’s second edition to be entirely different books. As I understand it, JDD got involved by e-mailing O’Reilly to tell them how much the ADC-branded book sucked, and they replied “OK, how do we make it better?”

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