Science Publishers Royalty Rates – what they may not want you to know

Friday a big envelope comes in the mail and it turns out to be the royalty statement from a big science publisher with whom I have published and edited a few books. As usual I have a hard time making sense of the reams of data for each book – over 60 pages of numbers covering the different versions of books (electronic, inside US outside US, etc.etc). Incredible in this day and age they still send paper rather than an electronic summary.   As usual I find something to query (a sudden charge of $500) for an advance I did not have, for a book I edited but did not author. I fire off an email to the royalty department.

I was flipping through the statements yesterday and I find  I was sent someone elses royalty statements as well as my own. Now ordinarily I would have passed on this but I had the statements for 2 scientists who had co-authored a very obscure science textbook. I have to be quite honest, I was quite dismayed to see they both had a 13% royalty rate for the domestic regular rate for their book which had not sold that many copies. When it seems my standard royalty rate is 10% and the books I have been involved in have sold several thousand copies. I asked my contact at the publisher to please explain why it is not a standard percentage for all authors and that I was happy to have my contract updated.

Now I should add I am not greedy but a  30% difference in the royalty rate is amazing. Perhaps over the years I have earned a not tiny amount, a 30% difference would be not to be sniffed at.  Now it had never been suggested that I had any wiggle room in my royalty rate negotiatins with the publisher so the response that came back was even more surprising. “Royalty rates, like many other terms, can be subject to negotiation and particulars of different books and situations that can at times result in non-standard rates in some cases. With contracts signed and books published, I can’t really go back and redo your book rates.”

So you have some authors on 10% and some on 13% – it begs the question do some authors get a higher percentage still. It seems shameful that all authors are not on the same royalty rate. Having edited 4 books its a huge amount of work and the meager royalty never really pays back in full for all the time invested. The same publisher asked me to edit an encyclopedia a few years ago for the same royalty rate and I declined. I barely have enough time to work on the books I still have to write, but now I feel reluctant to even complete them knowing that I am being treated differently to other authors/ editors. Why should I do it for 10% when others would get 13%?

I would be really interested to see how much of a disparity there is between different authors/editors publishing with the same publisher. If one slip by the publisher has alerted me to a 30% difference I am sure others may be aware of similar accidental disclosures. Feel free to show me how much more scientists are being taken advantage of by the publishers. Its not just publishing in journals which they get us on it is also the books we volunteer our time on.

(Full disclosure, I have edited books for Wiley and have book projects on-going with them and Elsevier – which I am rapidly losing interest in)

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  1. sean says:

    Latest update, the publisher is sending me the $500 that was removed from my royalty cheque..which is really another lesson to authors, always look at the statements even if it means scouring 60+ pages

  2. Ulrich Kretschmar says:

    Hi Sean, Elsevier has expressed an interest in publishing my book on the origin of gold deposits and sent me a contract. I have asked them questions about how the royalty rates are calculated, ie what is subtracted from the net sums received……..so far no clear answers. Also, they want copyright, which I am reluctant to sell and have asked for a purchase of rights arrangement………

    My specific question is whether one can negotiate with Elsevier at all………….they made $1B last year and the driving engine was the work of authors…………do you know of an attorney that can negotiate a favourable contract?

    I have a number of specific questions also, but will await a message that you have received this note.

    Kind regards…………..Ulrich Kretschmar

    1. sean says:


      Negotiation may be tricky and costly. Few scientific authors have access to or the funds for a lawyer. I would advise self publishing if you just want to make money and using your social networks to market it. What do Elsevier or any major publisher know about marketing a book on your topic anyway? Its a numbers game ultimately. I have found the major publishers really do want you to do 99.99% and then give you 10% royalty. If I have the time and interest I will work on a book for them, its not for the money. There are plenty of ways to make money, but publishing a book on an arcane area of science is not one of them IMHO.

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