Tuesday, February 10, 2015
The Ebook as Annuity
Like the orange tree pictured at left that bears fruit year round, your ebook promises to yield you, your family and your heirs benefit for many years to come.
In this post, I’ll share a framework that might help you view the financial value of your books in a new light. As I’ll present below, self-published ebooks share common characteristics with annuities.
In the old world of print publishing, a publisher would pay you a lump sum advance to acquire rights to your book. If you were lucky, the book would sell well, earn out its advance and begin paying royalties on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, most traditionally published books go out of print before they sell enough to earn the author more than the initial advance. Once the book is out of print, the potential royalty stream evaporates and that asset – the book – yields no additional income for the author unless the rights revert and the author republishes the book.
This means that prior to the advent of ebook self-publishing, for many traditionally published authors that first lump sum advance was all they earned from their book.
One reason traditionally published books went out of print so quickly and with such regularity is due to how print distribution and retailing works. Brick and mortar book stores have limited shelf space. Even though your local Barnes & Noble (or WH Smith or Indigo or name your local store) would love to carry millions of books on the showroom floor, the economics of unlimited inventory are simply impossible for physical stores. Instead, physical stores are forced to limit their in-store inventory to books that sell well. So if a book doesn't start selling well within a few weeks of hitting shelves, the store will return the book to the publisher (for a full refund) to make room for other, newer books.
As most authors can appreciate, a few weeks is not enough time for a book to find an audience, which means many high-quality print books are forced out of print too early. Even if the book had the potential to sell continually, if those sales aren't high enough to justify continued shelf space, the books were returned to make room for better-selling books, and as books lost distribution they were forced out of print.
In the new world of ebook self-publishing, there are no advances, but your book never goes out of print either. Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer’s shelf forever if you let it. Your book is immortal. You always have another day to find your next readers. You harvest your income over time as the book sells.
This life cycle of the immortal ebook changes the dynamics of how you can model and measure the income stream from your book. In many ways, the income stream from an immortal ebook is more closely akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity.
If you’re not familiar with annuities, here’s a quick introduction: Annuities are financial investments usually sold by insurance companies, and often purchased by individuals for the purpose of retirement planning or income diversification. The individual puts forth cash (an asset) to purchase the annuity, and then the insurance company in turn pools this cash with the cash from other investors and invests the money on your behalf in underlying assets that might include agricultural property, hotels, office buildings, bonds or any other bundle of income-producing investments. The insurance company then promises to pay the individual a steady stream of income for many years, or for the rest of their life. A fixed annuity pays a fixed monthly or annual amount. A variable annuity pays a variable amount based on the performance of the underlying asset.
So this means your book, which is an asset you control 100%, shares some similarities with variable annuities with the exception that you (not the insurance company) control the asset, and you are the sole beneficiary of that asset’s performance over time. Your book-as-an-annuity will very likely produce some level of income for you for the rest of your life. All you need to do is keep the book in stores.
This variable annuity dynamic of self-published ebooks also changes how an author can measure the financial value of their asset. For example, let’s say your book or your full catalog of books is earning you $200 a month, month after month. What's the value of this income stream to you for the next five or 30 years? Luckily, there are free calculators for this (click here for one such calculator).
bond, which today earns 2.58%.
In this example, a book that earns $200 a month for 30 years has a present value of just over $50,000.
Obviously, it’s impossible to predict future levels of income with precision. The longer the time frame you calculate, the greater the odds that your numbers are off by a significant margin. Your actual earnings might be higher or lower. Nevertheless, this model for measuring the financial value of your asset is useful, especially if you’re approached by a publisher who offers you a lump sum amount of money (AKA an advance) to acquire your rights. By analyzing the present value of the expected annuity stream of income, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate a fair price for your book, or you’ll have the confidence you need to reject the offer and walk away without regrets.
Here’s an even simpler, more practical example of annuity thinking: A few months ago, a Smashwords author told me she was offered a contract for her book by a traditional publisher. She rejected the offer because she realized that based on her current monthly sales, she'd earn more in the next three months self-publishing than she'd earn from the publisher's advance.
Ebook self-publishing changes the dynamics of the earnings stream for authors. Whereas most traditionally published print authors will earn the bulk of their book’s income from the advance, or from the first few month’s sales, self-published ebook authors are likely to earn the bulk of their income spread out over many months and years. This is especially true for fiction writers since great stories are evergreen.
When you run the numbers on your book as an annuity, even for shorter time frames of three to five years, you might discover your book is more financially successful than you realized.