Great Expectations

Let’s be honest, everyone dreams of getting a big, fat, advance for their book project. Wouldn’t it be fabulous? To be paid, say, a hundred thousand dollars for your work? You could re-do that bathroom, upgrade that car, plan a family vacation…

Not so fast! First, a quick history: the “advance” in book publishing was originally designed for non-fiction writers who needed the cash to travel for research, pay image fees, hire a co-author, etc. Then it somehow morphed into a gauge of how much the publisher was behind the book; a big advance sent the message that they REALLY loved the project and were invested in the author. In the 1980s, advances were being doled out like cupcakes at a kids’ birthday party. They were based on emotions rather than the business bottom line. Then large European companies started buying up American publishers and that old bottom line got scrutinized like never before.

These days, advances are based on a Profit and Loss statement (the P&L), that is drawn up by the editor, marketing, and sales professionals at the imprint. The costs for production, promotion, and overhead all go in the Loss column, in addition to the advance paid to the author.  They base their Profit on what we call “comp” titles. “A debut novel by a writer with 50,000 Facebook followers about a tragic family … we did one like that last year and it sold 15,000 copies.” Usually they try and find more than one comp title and average out what they think they will sell in the first few months of publication. Reason being they want to get out of that nasty red column as soon as possible. It’s the hard cold truth of the numbers that now leads the decision-making process on how much money to offer an author for an advance. And these days, let me tell you, that is more and more frequently coming up to be less than ten thousand dollars. Sometimes a lot less.

But wait! There’s good news. Consider scenario one: you’ve been paid an enormous advance. Whoo hoo! Now you have to deliver a book that is worthy of said advance. STRESS! And you’ve just been notified that the publisher isn’t happy with two chapters in the middle of the book, one of the characters, and the ending could really use a little more bang. This is high pressure, folks. Presumably you still have a day job, and this whole writing thing just got a lot more challenging than you imagined. (And keep in mind the larger the advance, the more the payments get split; some in halves, many in thirds or quarters). Then, when the book comes out, you won’t be making any residual royalties until you sell upwards of 50,000 copies of your book. And until you do so, the publisher will consider the project a #fail. If you don’t “earn out,” your chances of getting an offer on book two are slim to none.

Now consider scenario two: you get an advance between five and ten thousand. With that kind of advance, you need to sell less than ten thousand copies before you start earning out and everyone has that happy bunny feeling of success. Remember, it’s an advance against royalties, so your ultimate goal should be to make darn sure your book will earn the publisher back the money they paid you. If you want to be more than a one shot pony, a small advance is much more, um, advantageous for your writing career.

Of course the only book deals that make any kind of press are the large ones, leading every writer I know to assume ALL authors are reaping loads of cash when they sign a contract. I can’t state it loudly enough: THE MAJORITY OF THE ADVANCES BEING PAID ARE SMALL, TINY, MEAGER, MODEST, PIDDLING, ITTY BITTY … you get the idea. So while not what you dreamed of, a modest first contract is your best start on your path to being a successful published writer. Hold on to the dream! Just not the bathroom/car/vacation dream. Yet. Earn out and keep writing.