‘The Archaeology of Roman York’ Review: Commercial book sales and reception

In the world of my post-PhD life I am still doing research, on which more later, but also there is a desire and need to earn some monies. One of the things I’ve been trying to do on and off is more public history writing, so writing non-academic historical content under contract with payment.. 

Happily, in February 2023 my second commercial book with Amberley Publishing will be released into the wild, Treasures of Roman Yorkshire. I wanted to take this opportunity to look at, and talk candidly about, how the first one has went, as I think some of the issues and stats identified below are things that I wish more people brought up.

The Archaeology of Roman York was published in July 2019, the result of 18 months of writing and editing. It’s not a huge tome; 20,000 words and approx 80 figures in Amberley’s standard 96 page format for local history books of this type. It was born out of some adult education classes I had taught in 2013-2015 at the University of York’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. In them I discovered that the resources available for studying Roman York were quite academic. Obviously I had used them myself but this made me think about it from a different perspective. How would one start to learn about Roman York? This line of thought ended up in this book. 

Writing it

I wrote the TAORY in the margins of my time – occasional evenings and weekends, jumping about between different paragraphs and chapters, as is my usual way. I write articles and reports in the same way: brain dump and throw in messy resources, start writing anywhere I can find the words and then use this as the framework to build the other stuff onto it. There was no author advance, obviously, and I had no literary agent to broker the deal. I’d written a few thousand words before contacting Amberley and getting a contact. We’ll talk about that shortly. 

I really enjoyed the process of writing this book and enjoyed the moments where I felt like I was doing something I was good at. It was frustrating not to be able to use in-line citations or footnotes – the original work all had them in – because of the house style. I’m confident that everything I wrote or mentioned could either be safely referenced or attributable to my interpretation of stuff. It would be easy to plagiarise using this style, and I was wary of it. 

Reception

TAORY was reviewed in various places. The first use of it was in On: Yorkshire Magzine, using a chunk of a chapter to form the basis of an article. All credited and approved beforehand. Print papers followed: Yorkshire Gazette and the Bradway Bugle. In thr York Press it was listed as the Book of the Week in the section sponsored by the Little Apple Bookshop. Further reviews came in the mainstream archaeology magazines: Current Archaeology and online Ancient History Magazine (reviews are online and hyperlinked). All of these reviews were generally positive. Most disarmingly  it was the subject of an academic review in the journal Britannia. This genuinely baffled me as the book was never intended as an academic text and not necessarily aimed at the readership of that journal. Aside from some minor criticisms the author concluded that :”Overall, the book works well in its intended role as an accessible introduction to Roman York for those new to the subject; it is a companion piece rather than a replacement for existing publications and archaeological syntheses. It covers a broad range of material, which it presents in clear, distinct themes of interest, and successfully draws out the human story from the archaeological remains, directing the reader to look further into the subjects it considers.” So they got it.

There is evidence of other archaeological folks using it as well. I am surprised to find that according to Google Scholar it has received at least five citations in other published works: 

  • Pitts, M. 2021. “York’s ‘African-style’ pottery reconsidered”, Britannia.
  • Elliot, S. 2021. Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to Legio IX Hispana?. Pen & Sword.
  • Chrystal, P. 2021. A Historical Guide to Roman York. 
  • Hardwick, I.J. 2021. Pushing the Boundaries of Roman Britain – landscape, frontier, and identity, in northern Britain. PhD Thesis, University of York. 
  • Turney, S. 2022. Agricola: Architect of Roman Britain. Amberley. 

Royalties

Ok, let’s get down to brass tacks here and talk about what this has earned me. I’m going to be candid, because I think more authors should talk about this stuff. Ok, let’s get down to brass tacks here. I’m going to be candid. 

The Royalties of the book at 8% of the publisher’s sale price in perpetuity has resulted in four payments from 2019 onwards: £82.84, £79.39, £97.15, and £103.64. At some point, presumably, it will decline, but this is the slow burn of non-fiction books. So not a huge money spinner, but as time goes on I’m hopefully to end up in positive credit for the time-input here. I have no idea how many hours it took to compile, but I’d be initially quite happy with having earned £500 for a book I wrote. This is all way below the £1000 annual threshold for submitting a tax return on the royalties. That’s a long way off!

In the year 2022 there were 171 physical copies sold and 13 digital copies. This figure is interesting because despite the digital edition being much cheaper (currently £11.39 on Kindle), it shows the enduring interest in real, physical books. I’m sure that there will be many more sales in second-hand editions of this, especially in future years (as I have a general sense of how many books have been released into the wild), but as I don’t get any financial returns from that and have no idea how to quantify it I’ll skip over that.

Having spoken to some folks in book retail, their purchase price is approx 60% of the cover price, which is £15.99, so they buy at max £9.59. I’m sure there will be discounts and other trade benefits to make this cheaper fro time to time as well. So for most retail sales of the 60% the author gets 76p. The best way for me to get the most bang for buck is if copies are ordered directly through the publisher’s website – where it is usually at a small discount. It’s currently on there for £14.39 – purchases at this would earn me a whopping £1.15. This is pretty much the max I could get paid per copy at any time. The division between publisher and trade sales isn’t given to me so I don’t know the relative proportions but my sense is that it’s the latter that forms the bulk of the sales.

Many people don’t realise that books loaned through libraries also earn money for their authors. In Britain this is called the Public Lending Right and a fund is managed by the British Library through an online platform. 

According to Worldcat, TAORY is present in 26 libraries: 14 of which are in the USA, 1 each in Canada, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, and the rest in the UK. Only 5 of them are public rather than university libraries: Wakefield, York, Askews and Holts, Lancashire and Oxfordshire. I have no idea if I get paid if it’s loaned in another country. 

From July 2020 -June 2021 there were 68 loans of the physical books in the UK. These loans were paid at that year’s rate of 11.26p per loan earning a total of £6.98. The annual rate changes based on the total pot divided by total number of authorised loans. For 2021-2022 is is 30.53p per loan, which is a shame because I have no qualifying loans of it for this period!  

It is signed up to the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, which is frankly an arcane and confusing thing. As are every article I’ve written and book I’ve edited etc. The ALCS collects payments for the secondary use of these materials I did get a payment of over £300 for it in 2021/22 but that also covered a lot of other works, and I can’t unpick how much (if any) of it was this book. 

Looking ahead

So that’s where we are up to. It isn’t money to live off – its barely a Christmas bonus at this point but my hope and intention is to keep getting books and materials out there on the slow burner to keep some money coming in.

I’ll update with any further stats I get with this year on year and am happy to answer queries about it.

-A-

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One thought on “‘The Archaeology of Roman York’ Review: Commercial book sales and reception

  1. Very interesting article. I self-published my book through the Amazon route and got way more of the cover price. At the time going through a publisher meant I took a financial risk printing a lot of copies that I didn’t know would sell whereas Amazon printed each book as they were ordered. Getting into print is not about getting rich.

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