I represent a bit of literature in translation, but the only time that I am actually called upon to translate is when a client studies his or her royalty statement and discovers it may as well be written in Greek. Few documents are as unapologetically opaque as this twice yearly statement, which is why I found the recent Author Guild post so very—and so characteristically— spot-on.
Houses have no standard form or industry-wide convention for reporting their book sales. Each house makes up its own and decides what to include; despite the cultural currency of the idea of “transparency,” few statements are clear, user-friendly or easy to interpret. So much for buzzwords. Standards in royalty reporting vary so widely that it’s tough for even the savviest of authors–economists, statisticians, and entrepreneurs among them–to look at a statement and understand where and how their books have sold. Returns are partly to blame—books that appear to be sold need not remain that way, and as a result, the “net” (the number of books the publishers actually sells) can decrease over time. Counter-intuitive as this might seem (the longer a book is out there, the more it sells, no? No.) unsold copies can usually be shipped back to the publisher for a full refund. Books being sold on consignment is a nasty holdover from the Great Depression, when booksellers might have vanished altogether if merchandise was not returnable. Returns are an entrenched vestige of the bad old days and subject for another post, but royalty statements –these can be reinvented with far less pain and far more benefit. Would making them easy to interpret really be so difficult? Would closing the gap between statement and selling period prove disastrous? Statements are a snapshot of time, static and instantly outdated, but they need not be nonsensical, too.
What has your experience been?