Wednesday, 4 June 2014

How much to charge for fee-only picture book text

Moira Butterfield

Before you read this, I just want to point out that I’m not intending to depress you. I’m out to offer some sensible tips. All the examples mentioned below have happened to me in the past, so learn from my mistakes.
A number of major mass-market UK publishers have recently declared their intention of moving ‘upmarket’.  They are producing picture book material which they hope will compete with the picture books published by more traditional publishers, possibly in the same outlets.
These mass-market publishers are big players internationally, selling rights to other similar publishers around the world. If you’re reading this in, for example, the US or Australia, you will see the material I’m talking about in due course.
These publishers are now aiming to produce ‘upmarket’ picture books. I’ve put that word in inverted commas because, although these picture books are structured in the classical way, and are deliberately designed to compete with what might be described as ‘classy’ picture books, the economics behind them are not the same.
Mass-market publishing companies do not pay royalties. They want to own content so they can exploit it financially in any way they wish to make as much revenue as possible and- importantly for them - have an asset that they could perhaps sell at a future date. Owning content is the 21st century buzz phrase of media conglomerates.
What does this mean for picture book authors? I’m not going to say whether these fee-only books are good or bad, and I can’t predict how they will affect sales of more traditionally-modelled picture books. They are a lot cheaper and it’s unlikely the public will differentiate in a shop between the two. But that’s not my thread here. It’s up to the traditional publishers to defend their market sector, I guess.
What I want to say is this. If you are asked to provide a picture book text and you are offered a fee- only deal - and you want to consider it - be prepared. Be aware and do it with your eyes open.
(I know that there will be people out there who will howl at the idea of doing fee-only work, and congratulations to them if they can make a living and pay all their bills on royalty projects alone. This is advice for those who might wish to say yes.)
Why would you say yes? Well, you might be a new author or illustrator who wants to get into print. This may be a valid way for you to do it. Assume, however, that you won’t be informed of sales figures and you won’t be publicized as a star author. The publisher owns the content, not you, and they’re not interested in paying anything extra for a ‘star author’. Follow-up titles are not guaranteed, and if they do turn up it’s possible that someone else could be asked to do the text.
In other words, don’t offer a fee-only picture book publisher your most cherished ideas. I don’t mean do a shoddy job. I mean don’t give them your prize idea. The one you’ve been working on for two years. The one you think is brilliant.
The same rules apply if you are an experienced author with a track record, but you need the income. No problem there, but don’t hand over your most precious ideas. You might, in this case, want to consider working under a pseudonym. You’re not going to get paid extra for your name. On the other hand it could be valuable for you to have your name visible on book covers all over the place – supermarkets, for instance. That judgement is up to you. If you have an agent, chat to them about it.
You might get a great editor, but you may instead find yourself dealing with a very inexperienced and heavily-overworked young editor (many older more experienced editors having been made redundant from all sorts of publishers during the recession, to save on wage bills). In the case of a fee-only job this situation could have consequences. That young editor might start messing up your text and you don’t actually have any rights to say ‘no’ to changes. However, you can point out, in a positive and helpful way, why the suggested changes might be bad. It’s possible that nobody else is going to be helping that young editor learn their work.
When you agree to the job, make it clear that you want to discuss changes made (that you want to help and you will not slow down the schedule, which is likely be very tight). You might also want to point out if you have built a rhythm into the text (it sounds crazy, but believe me, very inexperienced editors may not notice).
You may be asked to do publicity. You’re not going to generate any extra royalty money from the effort, but you are going to raise your profile by doing so. This is a valid reason for agreeing, but make sure you get fair expenses (see Society of Author rates).
The fee….the big question. What is fair? Well, publishers should not pay board book rates for picture books. By that I mean the rates they might pay for a 4 or 5-spread mini story or learning text (around about £300-£500, say, but of course it varies). Picture books, as we know, are more complicated delicate mechanisms and should be properly valued.
We can do that as best we can collectively but, having said that, we are up against the ‘I fancy a go at writing’ brigade. A leading UK art agency has done a deal with one of the publishers I’m thinking about, offering them the picture book ideas of all their illustrators. In the deal, the text itself hasn’t been given any value, basically. Presumably the editors are going to try to bash the ideas into shape.
Yup, sorry, I did say I wasn’t going to depress you….But there’s nothing we can do about that sort of deal. All we can do is value our work as best we can. It’s up to you to say yes or no to a fee, and it will depend on your individual circumstances. But if you want to say ‘yes’, don’t agree to a board book rate.
These publishers are likely to be doing costings on big sales figures. You could even ask your editor what the projected sales figures are before you say yes. Why not? They will have a figures spreadsheet with the information on it. I don’t see why you shouldn’t know before you agree to your fee.  
As a ballpark figure I’d make a suggestion of £1500. That seems eminently reasonable. You could even go in higher and see what happens. Perhaps you’d be prepared to take a tad less. But if the publisher scoffs and offers you a board book fee my advice would be to say no.


Abie Longstaff said...

This is really helpful advice Moira - thank you x

malachy doyle said...

I've been doing some work along these lines in the past few years. I don't like doing it, but times are tough. It's galling when you later discover that there are all sorts of foreign editions out there that you've never even seen, never mind got no extra money for... but that's what you sign up to, I'm afraid. I agree with Moira's ballpark fee - I started below there, but am now a bit higher. I also agree - don't use your very best work, unless you're desperate. But fight your corner with editors (if necessary) - if it's got your name on, you want to be proud of it. Sometimes the publisher comes up with the idea, and you write it - this feels better, in some funny way, than letting them have your darlings in perpetuity for a pittance.

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes. Even though you might be signing away rights, there's no reason why you shouldn't get involved in discussions on changes that might be made. I've had some awful things done to text before, without my knowledge, and only discovered when I saw a hard copy. The trick here is to be kind and helpful to the editor, not combative until you have to be (in which case the only option is to demand they take your name off).

Unknown said...

Really useful, Moira, thanks. I've been working with a mass-market publisher on picture books for the last couple of years and have first-hand experience of most of what you're talking about here! I am now using a pseudonym, partly because I wasn't happy with errors that had crept in... Authors should also be prepared to see their picture book text rejigged to appear in other formats. I had obviously seen other publishers do this but somehow hadn't expected it to happen to me! Once they own the text, they can do what they like with it. (But it wasn't my 'best' stuff, so that's OK.)

Michelle Robinson said...

This is such a useful post, Moira. I've always felt there's an awful lot of smoke and mirrors around this sort of thing, especially when you're new to the industry - and particularly in terms of fees. I'm sure a lot of people will benefit from reading this! I was approached to write for one of these companies last year for a higher one off fee, but decided to decline, mainly because I already have so many writing commitments and so little time to fulfil them. As useful as the money would have been, I didn't want to spend any of my time on something I didn't particularly fancy doing!

Moira Butterfield said...

How have you found the fees, Gemma. Do you think they're fair?

Moira Butterfield said...

It's good to know the fee offered was higher than £1500, Michelle. My suggestion could therefore be upped a bit.

Jane Clarke said...

Really useful advice, Moira, thanks

Moira Butterfield said...

PS: I don't mean to denigrate fee-only publishers, by the way. I'm trying to offer some useful pointers for everyone.

Paeony Lewis said...

And you have been helpful, Moira. An interesting blog - thank you.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks for this post, Moira! I have been approached recently by a small, independent mass market publisher, who are offering a flat fee of £350 for a 650 word picture book text for which they have written a brief. It's work for hire essentially. £1500 seems imminently fairer, but I am sure they'd never go for it - lots of other jobbing writers will accept the lower fee instead. Another publisher is offering no advance, just royalties. It's a shifting world.

Julia Groves said...

Thanks for the advice Moira! I am slightly cheered by it having recently turned down this type of offer. It was a hard decision to make, especially as a new to the market illustrator. But I decided that I didn't want to accept a fee only deal for my first book. Luckily I've had interest from other publishers so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a regular advance/royalties deal soon. Would rather work for a small advance and know that I can earn royalities from co-editions in the future, although a big advance would be good too!!!

Moira Butterfield said...

That's not enough, is it. If they've written the brief, they'd do better to complete it themselves. What they're offering there is a 4/5-spread board book fee (and a low one).

Moira Butterfield said...

Good luck, Julia! It is a hard decision to make if you're a new illustrator. As Malachy says in his comment, you can say yes, but don't offer your pride and joy.

Patricia Toht said...

Great post, Moira! It's so helpful for writers to go into these situations well-equipped with information about how this type of publishing works.

Paula Knight said...

Really useful post. I have written three fee-only picture books - for the reason you mentioned- because they were my first books as author only. Luckily the fees were about right but I agree with Malachy - it feels strange not to be informed about foreign editions and... toys (!) so beware if you feel especially close to your story and its characters. Also - the contracts are often 'write-for-hire' despite you generating the idea yourself without any brief. Always question that type of thing even if you don't manage to get the contract changed - if we all flag this sort of thing up, perhaps it will eventually make a difference to working practices - one would hope.

Jambo said...

Oh dear, I think I just lost my comment so delete this if it has posted twice. This was a great post. Thank you so much for the insight. I am in the position where I would welcome a work for hire picture book, as I want to just get my name on the scene. However, it seems that Australia is a closed shop in children' publishing on all fronts. You would not by chance have a list of what you term mass market publishers ( not limited to Australia) as they don't really seem to call themselves that. Thanks again