Minor Thoughts on Advances

12 Jun

There’s been some chatter in various writers groups and suchlike about this article: Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid.  Most of what I can say about it, in response, has been said by Larry Correia and John Scalzi, but I think there are a few minor points that bear mentioning.

One – an advance is called an advance because that’s precisely what it is.  It’s an advance on monies the publisher believes the book will earn.  If you’re just starting out, with no social profile at all, you’ll get a very low advance; if you have a well-deserved reputation as a money-maker and/or you have lots of fans, you’ll get much bigger advances.

Two – once an advance is paid, you rarely see anything more until the book recoups the publisher’s investment.  If, for example, it costs roughly £20K to publish a book, you won’t see a penny more until it earns over 20K.

Three – it can get very sticky indeed if the book fails to earn back its advance.  If your book does not earn itself out … well, best-case, the beancounters will probably refuse to greenlight publishing another book of yours.  Worst-case, they’ll demand the money back and/or refuse to release the rights so you can self-publish the book.  And the other publishers will take note too.  Put crudely, a big advance can easily become an anvil around your neck. 

Four – the big publishers can afford to take certain risks with advances that look big to the human eye, but aren’t that big relative to their budgets.  Small publishers cannot afford to take the risk, to the point they only offer small advances or none.  Even a mid-size publisher can run into trouble if they invest heavily in a flop.  Baen Books – depending on which version you believe – invested heavily in 1945 by Bill Fortschen and Newt Gingrich during the height of Gingrich’s popularity.  The book came out at a very bad moment, the company took a massive financial hit and came very close to complete collapse. 

Five – because of the previous four factors, most advances are very low.  The big figures mentioned by the article are the exception, not the rule.

Six – it’s very easy to start comparing apples to oranges.  A book that fits into a niche market (MIL-SF) may not make the jump into a genre market (SF), let alone go mainstream.  The advances for niche books are generally lower because the publishers believe, rightly or wrongly, that the pool of potential customers is smaller.  A book written by a famous name – a politician or sports star or whatever – will be seen as appealing to the name’s fans and thus garner a bigger advance.  (Note that such a personage will have more clout when it comes to demanding a bigger advance.)

Seven – and this is the controversial part – pushing authors based on anything apart from writing skill is always hazardous.  The vast majority of readers don’t care about the author; they don’t care about sex or skin colour or religion or habits or anything, beyond writing skill.  It’s very easy for a big publisher to assume a book that appeals to them will appeal to everyone, which is frankly untrue. 

Is there actually a disparity between advances paid to white authors and everyone else?  I don’t know, because it is very hard to compare two authors without eliminating all the other factors.  Did someone, for example, sell so well the first time around that the publisher hyped the next advance?  Or were sales lower than predicted and the publisher didn’t feel like taking a chance again?  For all the white authors mentioned in the article as getting huge advances, how many white authors – and POC authors – got smaller or no advances?

What do you think?

9 Responses to “Minor Thoughts on Advances”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 12, 2020 at 4:33 pm #

    One thought is “how do the publishers know that the writer is Black or White or Green”?

    Especially when the writer is a new writer.

  2. Matthew Stienberg June 12, 2020 at 5:10 pm #

    oadly agree with the statements already expressed here. I think that in the 90s and early 2000s you might have been able to make the case that gender/race was a bar to success in getting published (JK Rowling and NK Jemisin had to use pseudonyms for a reason) but with the runaway success of both the forementioned authors and authors like Clare, Collins, Meyers, ect especially in the YA genre – which preforms phenomenally well against even other genres – then its hard to say that gender/race is a significant bar to simply being *published* at all.

    With advances specifically, it depends way more on brand/name recognition. Very few publishing houses will take the gamble with an unknown author versus one with a large and existing fan base.

    • Bill June 13, 2020 at 4:23 am #

      Matthew, I agree with you. It has to be about the money: how much the publisher thinks the story can make. The author is still going to be paid, either up-front with the advance, or by the sale of the book. As Mr. Nuttall says in his article, if the book does not sell, the publisher sometimes asks for the advance back from the author. So, does it matter if an author gets a big advance or not? To the author it sure does, but if the book does not sell, then the advance is problematic at best.

      Believe that people are using the current situations these past few weeks to widen the gap on racism. Capitalists want to make money, they really don;t care what your skin color is our your religion and so on, they will take a risk when they see a profit in it for them. A previously successful author is going to receive a higher advance than a new author, or an author that has had sales, but not blockbuster sales.

  3. TelasTX June 12, 2020 at 5:29 pm #

    This article focused on the fiction (primarily the YA fiction) market.

    But let’s add another wrinkle: Many ‘political’ books do not follow the traditional rules of the marketplace, and should be excluded from any analysis. This can be difficult to do, because some political books are indeed popular.

    Basically, it works like this… National Political Figure writes a book. Or ghost-writes it, honestly. Supporters, organizations, and companies buy the book by the case, often using various quasi-legal (or less) means to do so. Book becomes a best-seller from all those sales. NPF gets a big payday. Publisher gets a big payday. Buyers get a wink and a nod from future regulations and legislation.

    This has been going on since at least the 1950s, and some of the largest advances in publishing history are allegedly involved in this.

    Also, did Jemison just call everyone in publishing racist? **blink**

  4. Bill June 13, 2020 at 4:29 am #

    Related topic: Have heard reported that pallets of books (hundreds and thousands of books) have been found in warehouses just collecting dust. These were books “written” by political figures, who got huge advances on possible sales. Seems “someone” bought the books, the book got on the New York Times best seller list, but no one really bought the book. This, if true, ends up being a payoff for the political figure, untraceable. “Hey, my book sold well, that’s where all my money comes from.”

  5. Scott Osmond June 17, 2020 at 1:17 pm #

    What I find funny about all this is that the publishers and editors are all NY based liberals. Graduates of higher education naturally. A majority of them are female. So liberal women with a higher education are not only racist but are also sexist. That or everything the complainers are saying is bullshit.

    • chrishanger July 3, 2020 at 11:38 am #

      Pretty much everyone on the list is paid well above the average.


  6. Vincent Archer June 17, 2020 at 1:34 pm #

    As I posted on Scalzi’s blog, the real way of knowing if publishers are biased in their advances against author of X persuasion is not to compare advances, but how FAST the advance gets paid off.

    If the published is lowballing advances against women, black, or whatever, then those authors will earn out their advances more quickly. If they all earn out in a year or so (the typical advance, apparently), then it’s not a publisher racism or anything, but an accurate reflection of the market.

  7. Matt Harris June 17, 2020 at 11:01 pm #

    Most of what I read nowadays is either fan-fiction or self-published fiction. I am guessing not too many of either of those groups get advances.

    I do occasionally read Kristine Kathryn Rush’s blog. (https://www.kristinekathrynrusch.com/).

    She has done a lot of posts on the publishing industry, book contracts, advances etc. Not really my cup of tea as a fiction writer, but as a writer about the business of writing fiction, I love her stuff.

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