[Updated 1 Jan 2023]
I wrote my first book in 1983. It was a small manual of tactics for counteracting the tobacco industry’s promotional strategies, described by a tobacco industry snoop at the conference where I sold it to delegates as “a rather paranoid and disturbing `contribution’ by an Australian called Simon Chapman”. I got a small grant from an international consumer organisation to print it and I took 300 copies to the 5th World Conference on Smoking and Health in Canada where I sold copies for $5, recouping my excess baggage charge and adding a few first gold bricks to an authorship royalties’ pathway I planned to pave during the rest of my career. On the final night I spread all the bank notes over my hotel bed and dived into it, Scrooge McDuck style. I was on my way!
I followed this by convincing a small media studies publisher in London to publish a book from my PhD thesis in 1986. Great Expectorations: advertising and the tobacco industry. I never recall getting any royalties, but it got reviewed in the Times and the Guardian, with the Times even running an editorial. I got a lot of mail from readers. Long out of print, a US bookseller today hopes to extract $US169.73 for it from some discerning reader.
I then wrote a global atlas of tobacco control in the third world, as we called it then. The American Cancer Society paid for the printing and gave one to every delegate at the 7th world conference on tobacco control in Perth. This became the inspiration for subsequent international atlases of tobacco control published by the US Centers for Disease Control and later by Judith Mackay. I got no royalties for this one either and my hopes to put a deposit on an Aston Martin were looking ever fragile.
In 1994, I knew I was about to hit the big time when British Medical Journal books published the first of two textbooks I wrote on the theory and practice of public health advocacy. This one, and the next (published by Wiley in 2007) saw annual royalty payments go into my bank. I never added them all up, but estimate that over the 24 years since I might have earned $12,000. Today my bank charges for the foreign deposits are usually as much as the annual royalties.
Two other books (one on gun control for Pluto Press and another on voluntary euthanasia) produced utterly desultory royalties, despite being on hot-button news issues. Like every author I’ve talked to, I spent many a weekend visiting bookshops sometimes looking in vain for these on the new releases display shelves.
These experiences left me convinced that writing non-fiction books was highly unlikely to earn me a living or even significant icing for my salary cake. But there are reputational benefits and indirect outcomes like conference invitations, consultancies and training opportunities that flow from publishing a book.
But well before thoughts of the untold riches heading their way, funnily enough every author hopes that their writing will be read. We polish, buff and manicure our babies through many revisions, all the time imagining the readers’ pleasure with the text. So when for my next five books I was given an opportunity to trade chimerical riches for gushing geysers of readers, I didn’t hesitate.
In 2009 I approached Sydney University Press with a book idea on the prostate cancer testing debate. My editor there, Agata Mrva-Montoya, set out several options: a commercial option with a paperback book where I would get the standard 10% royalty, a paid ebook option (with 25% royalty), or a hybrid open access option where there would be a paperback and ebook option available for sale and a totally free (for readers) pdf download. SUP has some 50 titles in its catalogue available as open access.
I elected for the pay-for-print/free download option for this and all subsequent books I’ve done with SUP. They republished the gun control book which had seen around 1000 sold in paperback with Pluto. Links to all these books are here.
The table shows the total and average per day accesses since each book was published. (table updated 26 Oct, 2022)
|Book, open access publication date||Total accesses (& per day)|
|Let sleeping dogs lie: what men should know before getting tested for prostate cancer. Oct 29, 2010||77,879 (17)|
|Over our dead bodies: Port Arthur and Australia’s fight for gun control. Jan 15, 2013||42,862 (15)|
|Removing the emperor’s clothes: Australia and plain packaging. Nov 27, 2014||56,370 (19)|
|Smoke signals: selected writing. 28 Jul, 2017||13,652 (7)|
|Wind turbine syndrome: a communicated disease Dec 1, 2017||30,269 (16)|
|Quit smoking weapons of mass distraction Jul 25, 2022||3,911 (24)|
These 222,384 accesses are very pleasing. I’m confident that a small fraction of that number would have been purchased if I’d gone for the pay-for-print option. My combined royalties to date for the print editions I’ve received for all of these books have been around $1000.
When I’ve recommended giving one’s books away online to authors who have gone down the sales-only route, I sometimes encounter a disdainful superiority in the remark “a curious mouse click on a pdf download button is not the same as someone actually reading a book”.
It’s certainly true that many people who open an online book don’t read it, or don’t read it fully. But of course, the very same can be said about purchased books. How many books do we all have on our shelves that we bought with the intention reading them cover-to-cover but never got around to it?
I had a job throughout the years I wrote these books, so (thankfully) did not need to rely on income from publishing. Those who rely on writing for their living clearly cannot consider this route to readership.
For authors who do not need to rely on royalties, publishing open access is a good way to increase readership.