Personally, I don’t measure the ROI of a book (in this context) in terms of its royalties. I’ve written nine and the royalties are never going to offset the investment. The four that have had their foreign translation and production rights sold, have done better because you get paid in two lump sums and then a trickle of royalties, but even then your annual gym membership probably won’t even be recouped. These days, I get about five times the amount from the photocopying recovery, which might pay for a weekend break once a year.
As you know, I am rather skeptical of most people’s claims of Intellectual Property (http://www.the-confidant.info/2006/management-insult-1-intellectual-property/). An idea, even if it is elaborately illustrated in colour, with ten steps, and a clever acronym, is still just a pretty picture. Ideas have value when they do something concrete. If books were full of IP then no-one would ever write one; most are syntheses of other people’s ideas, and although that might be interesting in its own right, this doesn’t mean that anything can necessarily be done with it. Most people know this. Even eminently practical books, such as ones full of recipes, don’t try to claim IP. Of course, there will be the occasional chef who seems to think that they have invented the definitive way to scramble eggs but let them test that out in court.
Very, very, very rarely, will someone come up with an idea (which they then document in a way that others can understand) that, over time, and with a great deal of scrutiny, becomes accepted as a genuine contribution to knowledge. Think Freud and Jung. It’s a circular argument though. If they hadn’t written the book, then few people would have heard of the idea. If the IP of their ideas could be valued, then it was enhanced by the publication, it wasn’t within the book itself. (In a way, you could argue that recruitment consultants trade in future IP.)
The time, effort, and lost revenue, in producing a textbook, which is what we’re largely talking of here, are marketing expenses. They demonstrate credibility to a potential customer; in producing them they can help the author crystallize their ideas; they can be used as collateral instead of brochures (if they are cheap enough, even instead of business cards); they can be used as recommended reading for courses, or as the courseware itself. Ironically, having been designed and laid out by a professional, copy edited, and indexed, they are often much more impressive than home-brewed course manuals/handbooks. The value actually being added not so much by the author as by the production team.
The benefit of them being published by an established house is that they will get promotion, and wider distribution, than the author would be likely to achieve on their own. That’s definitely true of foreign language editions. If this leads to enquiries for business from the author, then that means their marketing value has been realised. However, for this to work, selecting the right publisher is more important than having great ideas, I’m afraid.
Publishers always used to want to know if a book was going to be tied to a particular course, so that a certain volume of sales would be almost guaranteed. I suspect that they don’t bother these days because they’ve been lied to far too often, and besides with the massive change in employment of academics few could be sure if their course would run next year. One of my books is used as a reference on a course in a foreign university – and I’m most grateful for the annual royalties and photocopying cheque that I get as a result – which pay for the Saturday night meal on the weekend break I mentioned earlier.
Of course, there are all kinds of id-driven reasons for wanting to see one’s own book(s) published. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those – especially if we can identify and own up to them.
Am I ever going to write any more books? You bet. I’ve got three proposals with publishers right now.