Authors speak about deals, books and making a living from their writing

A novice Greek writer published a novel last November that sold for 12.50 euros. The author received 800 euros for sales of 550 copies in November-December, but then sales tapered off. At the other extreme, writer Lena Divani admits with disarming sincerity that she feels very lucky. «My books were popular from the outset. ‘The Women of My Life’ brought me around 30 million drachmas [88,000 euros] plus another 11 million drachmas [32,000 euros] for the television rights.» How much money can writers make from their books? Do publishers pay advances? Is it true that writers who change publishers get a transfer fee? A contract binds a writer to a publisher. The most important detail in the agreement is royalties. The starting point is 10 percent of sales, based on the retail price of the book. Of less benefit to the writer is the legally established 10 percent which starts from the 1,000th copy (in Greek fiction an edition is 2,000 copies). As writer Sofia Nikolaidou says: «I started out with 10 percent at Kedros Publishers and have gone up to 15 percent, at my request, which Kedros accepted at once. I look on Kedros as my home, but the 15 percent might not have been accepted had my next book not been a novel but a collection of short stories.» At Kastaniotis Publishers, well-known writers get 15 percent, notes Thanassis Kastaniotis: «abroad they start at 7 percent. If they sell 20,000-30,000 copies they might get up to 12 percent.» The remainder is not clear profit for the publisher, As Eleni Boura of Kedros explains: «Writers here think that the remaining 85 percent goes straight into the publisher’s pocket. They forget about the money spent on distribution, printing and advertising as well as operating costs.» And Anna Pataki of Patakis points out, «A book has to sell 2,000 copies, at least one edition, to cover its costs.» There is a lot of talk about transfers from one publisher to another. Divani professes herself delighted to be with Kastaniotis, but she did publish her novella «Nadia,» which sold 10,000 copies, with Ink Publishers. Petros Tatsopoulos fumes, «I think it is really hypocritical of publishers to come out and say that it is treachery for a writer to change publishers, when the writer-publisher cannot be an equal partnership.» The personal relationship that once existed between the old publishers and writers has changed. A typical example is that of Thanassis Valtinos: From Agra he went to Oceanida, from there to Metaichmio, and he is currently with Hestia. Tatsopoulos, long associated with Hestia, has agreed to a long-term collaboration with Kastaniotis, but his next book will be come out from Metaichmio. «But my agreement was that I was free to negotiate any non-fiction work. My next book contains no trace of fiction.» Advances, if paid, are usually a sum equal to 4,000 copies, and are given after a request by the writer. Kastaniotis insists that «some publishers raise a ruckus over ‘transfer fees’ but offer advances themselves.» Nondas Papageorgiou of Metaichmio points out that «we have given advances, but under certain conditions, and according to the stature of the writer. Remember, you can lose an advance. You might give a writer 10,000 euros and get sales of 5,000 euros.» What about the infamous «transfer fee»? «It’s hard to say to what extent it happens,» says Papageorgiou. «In any case we don’t offer them. The market can’t take that.» Tatsopoulos has heard «incredible tales that are usually spread by the writers themselves to show that they count big time in the market, without them being true.» Both Boura and Pataki raise another point: «Writers must distinguish between symbolic and economic stature. Some writers translate symbolic stature into economic stature and, while a publisher might make concessions and invest in a name, the publishing house has to set a limit to that investment.» Vangelis Raptopoulos, a writer who makes a living from his books (what he calls «a state of dignified poverty»), states: «I left Kedros because I felt that I had come to the end of a phase. I deliberately went to Patakis without signing a contract. I’ve heard of advances and transfer fees but I’ve never asked for anything. It is a matter of idiosyncrasy: I don’t like being in debt.» Another point of friction is that writers suspect publishers of cheating them by declaring they have sold fewer copies than they actually have, In fact it is virtually impossible for a writer to check how many books have truly been sold. There is a professionalism in the industry nowadays, says writer Takis Theodoropoulos, who is in charge of the Greek fiction series at Oceanida, compared with the wretched state of affairs in the past. And Kastaniotis claims: «I introduced a professionalism to the field. If I stole a writer I’d lose the respect of the people who work in the company.»