Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Royalties – We are not amused

This week I got my first Royalties statement. A landmark event. Hurrah!

Even though I’m long past the question I had at the beginning of the year about whether I’m a writer or just someone that writes, this is another pretty definitive answer to it.

However, this event also answered other questions I might think about posing to myself.

Am I ridiculously naive? Have I really got any clue what I’m doing playing with the Big Boys in the Grown Up Writing Playpen?

For starters, and the fact I’m publicly admitting this shows how much I feel kinship through blogging, is that I completely misunderstood the Advance vs Royalties system. I think in the back of my mind I knew advance meant “advance payment” but I had somehow turned it round in my head to think it meant something more like “in advance of your brilliance, here’s some money.”


Royalties, it turns out, are like paying back a debt to the publishers. They invested in me/my Graded Reader and until my royalties meet that, I will just see the minus number creep to £0 – hopefully. So after the first half of this year, I am now £160 closer to making more money. After that, if there are sales after that, I will make new money for old work. At those sales figures, it will take about 4.5 years.

The publisher, after they’ve paid editors, printing and marketing costs, will make their percentage. No-one knows what that is, but as Jason Renshaw says here, it’s likely to be significantly more than I am making. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it isn’t. Their financial investment on those three things i.e. their risk, was proportionally higher so maybe they should keep more of the profit if the gamble pays off.

In terms of marketing though, I’m not sure publishers of Graded Readers do much more than send out catalogues and sales reps i.e. what they’re doing anyway for their real focus: course books. I couldn’t find my book in the biggish EFL section in the biggest book shop I know of in central Madrid for example. And I wrote to them and offered to speak at conferences or give workshops on their behalf about using Graded Readers as most teachers I speak to don’t know what to do with them other than direct students to the library to read at home (a good use of them, don’t get me wrong). They were completely uninterested.

Another thing is, I have no idea what the projected sales figures were that made that book worth going ahead with. They do of course, so their higher chunk of the profits could be lucrative for them, as long as they got their projections right, without sales ever needing to pass the threshold where I see ongoing reward for my time and effort.

As well as confronting me with my stupidity, the statement also revealed another fact I’d been unaware of. The RRP. It was £2 lower than I had guessed from an Amazon search of Graded Readers at the time. So not only am I going into these contracts not knowing how many copies something is expected to sell, but also what price they’ll sell for.  In real world terms it’s like selling something at auction but giving away most of the money to the auction house at a preset percentage that heavily favours them.


Now this is preferable to the other reader where I was paid half the money for what amounted to three times more work. Fees, realistic reflections of the work involved or otherwise,  are the way the industry is heading and at least one publisher seems to have an open policy of this so my deal with them must have been one of the last to include royalties. It’s all an argument for self publishing except I am just not sure I would sell Graded Readers without the distribution network the publishers have.

I also don’t know whether a higher upfront fee and no royalties will work out better for me. But I’m going to be finding out as I have a new project which will pay more as a flat fee with no royalties.

I think people will be interested in the figures and transparency in this stuff is the only way to make sure you’re not getting screwed. My contracts technically prevent me from disclosing the specifics though. As Jason Renshaw says, royalties are typically between 2% and 12% “depending on the publisher and the experience (or relative naïvety) of the writer” so I must be 60% naive with my 8%!

So here are the deals I’ve had so far.

  • Readers: Advances of between £550 – £1700 with royalties from 0% to 8%
  • Non reader: Fee and royalties towards the upper end of the Readers fees.
  • Non ELT ebook: No advance but royalties 25% net rising to 50% at 10,000+ sales. Expected price £1.99. This information is upfront and available from their website.

Which covers enough combinations, higher pay and no perks, lower pay and perks, no pay and high perks that I’ll see which deal works out best for me in the long run. If, like this author, I sell thousands of books, those royalty deals will far outweigh the fees while the fee based publishers will be rubbing their hands together in glee over having cut me out of the deal.

Here’s a proposal from Evan Schnittman, OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions. Basically, end royalties in favour of a flat fee BUT at pre-decided sales markers, the author gets bonuses e.g. £5000 at 10,000 copies and again at X thousand copies etc. This is most similar to my ebook deal.

Secondly, this contract would be for a fixed term so the author could renegotiate and the rights revert to them if they choose to leave that publisher. Anyway, a publisher will not carry on printing your books if they’re not selling so this means at least you get to self publish or find someone who might be willing to repackage it.

For me, and a lot of writers, I need the mix at the moment. Without fees and/or advances, I wouldn’t be able to live. These books are on publication schedules that mean I’d be homeless for years before royalties kicked in.

But I hope to end up with a body of work that pays me when I’m not working so I can do normal things like take time off to go on holiday or retire. Not that I can imagine ever giving up writing. It’s not a job to me, it’s everything.

Which is why publishers are getting my pound of flesh for the deals they’re offering above. They’re giving me validation and an outlet. But if self publishing were to be viable for me, of course I would. Right now, the publishers are my best platform and a massive source of learning from editors and commissioning editors. So, just as they hope to cut me out of the deal by phasing out royalties, one day, I might be doing the same to them.


Another post I write on the topic of Royalties in ELT for


8 comments on “Royalties – We are not amused

  1. linksandanchors
    October 8, 2013

    A lot of graded readers are classics retold in simple English. Could you reverse The Tomorrow Mirror into a non-graded reader? …or is life too short?

    • Nicola
      October 8, 2013

      Yes,I plan to – a screen play or YA novel. I made sure the rights to the story allowed it.

  2. linksandanchors
    October 8, 2013

    Write once, sell three times! 😉

    • Nicola
      October 8, 2013

      Not exactly! That will be a lot of work!

  3. Julie Moore
    October 10, 2013

    Really enjoyed your post as ever, Nicola. It certainly rang plenty of bells. I’ve been turning down royalties projects for years because I just couldn’t afford to do them and when I did finally take on a big one recently, it nearly bankrupted me! Trouble is, I’m now getting even more offers of apparently ‘prestigious’, royalties projects, when all I really need is some quick-and-dirty ‘paid’ work to get the overdraft down!

    Have you joined the Society of Authors, by the way? They offer a great free contract-checking service and they have loads of really useful advice. I know the membership’s another cost, but for me it’s been well worth it.

    • Nicola
      October 11, 2013

      Thanks! It’s a pity that post rings bells for an experienced and established author, it would be better if you were able to say “Yes, that was how it was when I started out”. Thanks for the link, i think it will be useful for a lot of people but I’m lucky as I have the amazing Nick Robinson as my agent so he looks over contracts for me which catches things I would never have a clue about.

  4. Rachael Roberts
    October 11, 2013

    I have no idea how well graded readers sell, but the first statement on a title is always low (in my experience anyway). The period covered on your statement is January- June 2013, so even if it was out right at the very beginning of January, that isn’t much time to gather any momentum. Plus, again in my experience, the September payment is usually noticeably lower than the April one. So you may make back your advance yet!
    Though that doesn’t alter the point you’re making about payment (whether royalties or fees) being something of a gamble. It is, and it doesn’t always pay off, either way. Personally, I quite like the idea of a top-up bonus so long as the initial fee is a fair payment, but it will only work for pieces of work where there is a single identifiable author, or small author team, and the move does seem to be towards large teams of writers writing little gobbits that can be mixed and matched. And, no, I can’t see that creating good material, but there we go…

    • Nicola
      October 11, 2013

      Yes, your analysis sounds right. I was thinking about film actors who get paid a fee and then a share of box office sales. But I supposed that would only be on offer to big hitters even if such a model applied. Happy to hear statements pan out like that and since my book was out Feb, it was only making money for five out of the six months so let’s see what the next one brings!

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2013 by in Graded Readers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .
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