I’m working on a long, multi-post entry on Trauma and the Fragmented Narrative. But in the meantime, I’m going to post a couple of times on the Book Biz.

I received a royalty check for The Master of Monterey not too long ago. Why is this significant, beyond the fact that it’s cool to get paid for work that was published more than a decade ago? It illuminates some aspects of the business, specifically advances, sales, distribution, and returns.

When The Master of Monterey was put under contract, I received a small advance. The book was published, reviewed well in The Los Angeles Times, The Monterey Herald, and elsewhere, and sent out to bookstores. I did as many appearances as I could round up, landed one interview on KAZU, the Monterey NPR affiliate, signed stock wherever I went, and waited. After some months, I found that I’d sold enough copies to cover my advance, and I received another check. My publisher pays royalties bi-annually.

That was the last check for ten years. Here’s what happened. When bookstores have books they want to rotate out of the store to make room for new releases, they ship them back to the publisher, and receive 100% credit for any unsold copies. Those returns were charged against my account, and suddenly I had a negative balance.

It might be depressing, but books in bookstores are often treated like any commodity. Just as Campbell’s Soup pays for prime space in the aisle of the grocery store, large publishers pay for prime space – table displays, special endcaps – in bookstores. If a book hasn’t sold in six months, and if the publisher isn’t making some effort to keep it in front of buyers, it will probably be returned.

Sometimes those returns are then sold as remainders. Authors get little or no royalties for books sold as remainders. Sometimes those books are pulped, which is painful to think about. In my case, the books were simply stored. Because my press is a non-profit, they don’t have to pay inventory taxes. That’s one of the benefits of publishing on a small press.

The Master of Monterey continued to sell, very slowly. There is a small but steady market, it seems, for comic mock-epic novels set in nineteenth century California. And finally, in the last royalty period, the book was sufficiently in the black to justify disbursement of royalties.

My first book, The Blossom Festival, is still in the red. It was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, which meant that it received a fabulous amount of distribution and display space in the first six months, and it sold many more copies than it would have otherwise. I’m still grateful to Barnes & Noble for that selection. However, it also means that there was a fabulous amount of returns. Unless someone picks up the movie rights, that book may just stay in the red.

None of this will probably be news to those who have published one or more books, but I hope it shows something about how the book business works for anyone still working on their first book and hoping for a traditional publisher and traditional distribution in bookstores. After the initial rush of books onto shelves for sale, you won’t really know how your book has done until you see the numbers for the returns.