Guest blogger series | Introduction to the publishing world

by contributor on 15/09/2011

in Community + Creativity, Guest blog series2 2011

Shannon Okey is the author of more than a dozen knitting books, including The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design, a business-focused book that isn’t just for knitwear designers! She is the former editor of Yarn Forward magazine and a frequent columnist or contributor to many others. She was named one of six New Guard of Knitting in Vogue Knitting’s anniversary issue (see this online scan of the article). You can find her online at Knitgrrl or on Twitter as @knitgrrl.

Thank you, Kathreen, for inviting me to post during your guest blogger series! I am probably best known as an author of knitting books (you can read more about them and me at my website Knitgrrl), or perhaps as the former editor of a UK-based knitting magazine, but these days the majority of my time is devoted to running my publishing company Cooperative Press.

Cooperative Press is very different from a traditional publisher. I realize not many people know how things are “supposed” to work, so please allow me to explain. At most big publishers, the author receives an advance up front before the book comes out. This could be anywhere from USD $5000-$15,000 for a craft book, with a bias towards the lower end of the range. A few years ago, you’d get half of the advance on signing the contract and half when the book was finally released, but publishers have taken to splitting the advance up into 3 or even 4 parts! Considering the amount of time it takes to do a book (sign the contract and it’s probably not going to hit shelves for another 12-18 months at a minimum…and not because the author’s got a lot of time to finish the text, believe me), it is not a lot of money for what can be quite a lot of work.

When the book is published, theoretically you will receive royalties. Usually the percentage is somewhere in the 10-12% range, and it’s based on the cover price. The more copies you sell, your royalty rate gets bumped upward (a 10-12-15% spread is fairly typical, with 15% going to someone who’s sold over 25,000 copies or more. Most craft books don’t sell that many, ever).

I said “theoretically” for a reason. Let’s say your book costs $10. With a 10% royalty rate, you should earn $1 per book sold, right? And since you were paid a $5000 advance against those royalties, you now have to sell 5000 copies before you get paid ANYTHING else. But there are a few problems with this from the start. One is the so-called 52% clause most publishers employ. If your book is sold to a wholesale customer (think Amazon, or a book distributor) at more than 52% off the cover price, your royalty is halved. Now you’re earning 50 cents for every copy sold, and did I mention most distributors want at least 60% off cover price these days? You need to sell 10,000 copies to recoup your advance and start earning more money. Remember what I said about typical sales numbers on a craft book? These aren’t Stephen King novels…you will be quite fortunate to sell more than 10,000 copies. Let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones who does start earning royalties: they’re only paid two times per year. Good luck making the rent on that!

Because the numbers are so precarious, traditional publishing houses are unlikely to take a risk on books they think will only appeal to a small market segment. As a crafter, do you want lowest common denominator books? I know I don’t! I already know how to knit, so I don’t need a book that will waste 20 pages at the front teaching me how to knit, or that only includes very basic patterns. I want to actually learn something when I buy a book!

Cooperative Press is different. We don’t pay advances, but we do split the profits with our authors 50/50 (60/40 in their favor on digital). If a book costs $5 to print and sells for $20, we both make $7.50 when the book is sold directly from our website. If I sell it to a wholesaler for $10, we still make $2.50 each — and comparing it to the math above, even if we sell fewer copies than the Big Publisher would, earning $2.50 is like selling MULTIPLE books under the old system for the author! In addition, we get our books on the market a lot faster, and we can take risks that the big publishers can’t. I had so many editors tell me that my book The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design would be “too niche,” that I needed to put patterns in it (?! would you tell another business book author he needs to have patterns in his crafty business book?), you name it. I can happily report the sales numbers have disproved THAT theory!

In addition, we have made a big push for digital publishing. In the case of knitting books, we sell more copies on Ravelry than we do anywhere else, because that’s where the knitters are! It just makes sense. Our overseas customers who don’t want to pay $12 to ship a paper book (which also takes forever) can have their copy in minutes. And speaking of which — our standard is to provide a PDF copy of the book as well if you buy the print edition from us. It’s your book! You bought it, so why shouldn’t you be able to read it on your iPad or Kindle, too?

I am so proud of Cooperative Press’ authors. They’re writing the kinds of books that are worth buying, and to be involved in that process is such an honor. Organizing the Fresh Designs series [see the submission guidelines for fresh design crochet. ed.], which helps promote emerging designers, was a lot of hard work, but well worth it! I hope that other publishers will step up and start offering their authors the kind of freedom and better pay that we do, but given the glacial nature of change in an entrenched industry, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon!

Please join the Cooperative Press mailing list on our website to stay in touch — if you’re on Ravelry, we have a group there, too!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lisa September 15, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thank for such an informative article! I enjoyed this overview into the publishing industry, especially as it applied to craft books. Cooperative Press sounds like a great company. Good luck!

2 Lindsay September 15, 2011 at 10:37 am

This is a really interesting post. I loved hearing your perspective about this type of publishing… food for thought!

3 Colleen Babcock September 15, 2011 at 1:17 pm

This is the first time I’ve heard of Cooperative Press and they sound very, very interesting. Thanks so much for sharing.

4 patricia September 15, 2011 at 11:34 pm

I loved reading this view from a different side of publishing. Having been in some of the situations you describe I found myself nodding often. The industry could definitely use some updating!

5 Abbington September 18, 2011 at 5:37 am

This was fascinating to read – thanks for the insights into the publishing world, as well as the heads-up on your publishing company! Heading over to ravelry shortly to check out the group!

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