Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Advances

The New York Times had an article this past Friday about book advances in today’s economy. If you’re an author, you probably would rather not hear the bad news -- publishers are losing money, agents are cutting back on meetings with editors, mid-list authors are being cut, advances are down…

Well, then, you might want to read this article.
Once minuscule, some advances have escalated into the millions, like the $5 million Scribner paid last month for Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry.”

Yet despite the economic downturn, and the fact that 7 out of 10 titles do not earn back their advance, the system doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In recent interviews, a dozen New York-based publishers and agents told me, more or less, “Publishers have to keep buying books,” and “They have to bid for the best books” — which in large part means those that will sell.
In exchange for low-five-figure advances, the boutique press McSweeney’s, founded by Eggers, shares profits with its authors 50-50, as does the new imprint Harper Studio, which offers sub-six-figure advances.
But before you start smiling at the “good” news, here’s some other quotes from the article:
Take a reported six-figure advance, Roy Blount Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, said in an e-mail message. “That may mean $100,000, minus 15 percent agent’s commission and self-employment tax, and if we’re comparing it to a salary let us recall (a) that it does not include any fringes like a desk, let alone health insurance, and (b) that the book might take two years to write and three years to get published. . . . So a six-figure advance, while in my experience gratefully received, is not necessarily enough, in itself, for most adults to live on.”

In the preface to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” Dave Eggers broke form by telling the reader he received $100,000 for the manuscript, which — after his detailed expenses — netted him $39,567.68.
The article is quite interesting. Zip over and read it. But, first, what do you think about the changes taking place in the world of publishing?
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  1. Well I've never yet gotten a six or even 5 figure advance. 3 figures is tops for me so far. :( But the message to me is I need to have MSI (multpile sources of income) whilst attaining to well-known author status in an industry that my not be paying much at all when I get there anyway. Especially with the advent of the ebook that pays pennies on the dollar in royalties compared to the printed book and can be ripped off, duplicated and distributed illegally by anyone with a computer and half a brain.

  2. You are definitely out there in cybersphere, Marvin. Just think how many more people know you than did a year or two ago. Times do feel grim right now, but I keep thinking the publishing industry will pick up when the economy does. It's still hot if you're a celebrity or politician. We just need readers to choose books by authors not on TV.

  3. While I may submit my WIP to NY and see what happens, I plan on going the self-pub route with my latest. It's an experiment and I don't plan to lose any more from it than when I went the small press route with my others. At least, I'll be in control and I like that idea.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. A lot of authors are thinking like you, Morgan.

  5. I read stories about advances and the changes in the industry with great interest, since I have a "book in progress." I think it's important to be realistic in this economy, but I hope authors like so many other professionals don't have to undercut the value of their products too much.

  6. I'd happily settle for a small 5-figure advance!

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  7. Interesting article, Helen. Thanks for posting it. I know it is not PC to talk about the disparity between those at the top of the publishing pyramid who rake in the big bucks while the mid-list gets smaller and smaller, but that is one of the problems. When the publishing business started operating like every other business --- pay the folks at the top the most money because they are worth more --- the industry started on the downward spiral.

    Granted, top talent should be rewarded, but not in the extreme. It's like justifying the gross amounts of bonuses etc paid to top executives in companies that are laying off the workers.

    Oops, guess I got on a rant here....

  8. I agree with Maryann, Helen and add that as a reader I believe the huge advances with the shrinking midlist means fewer new authors to try. The publishing biz is slow to change (incredibly slow, IMO) and seems a bit frozen in "blockbuster only" mode. This in a world were IPod novels now exist--and make money. So I feel highly optimistic, even about the recession, because it will force, I believe, positive change.

  9. I received a low four figure advance some years ago for my book, Maverick Writers, which didn't quite earn back the outlay because the book was only sold to libraries and through a catalog. I heard recently that some publishing contracts require that writers repay any advance money not earned out. The average income of 95% of all writers is around $12,000 a year, so who in her right mind would accept that clause in a contract? (A novice writer desperate to get published.)


  10. I agree, it is out of balance. Publishers feel they have a better chance of making back millions when they publish a star than they do of making back thousands when they publish an unknown. The big names have a platform built in. Beginning writers have to show they can build a platform in order to have a chance.

    They have a better chance of doing that now that the Internet is so big & presents so many opportunities. And, yet, with the economy the way it is, the chances of getting published are getting worse.

    Thank heavens for independent publishers and those smart writers who are showing all of us what can be done both on the Internet and in person.

  11. He may only see 39k of that advance, but he'll be liable for earning back the full 100k+ for his publisher. Fun.

    I'm one who prefers the reduced stress of a small or even no advance. There's enough pressure as it is for authors to sell well, without the nail biter of havng to sell 6-figures worth. But hats off to those who can without breaking a sweat!


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  13. I'd heard the average author royalty is much lower - closer to $3000. That's not even a month's worth of living expenses!

    If 7 out of 10 fail, I'd have to say the big publishers & agents are no better at selecting winners than the average Shmoe...

    L. Diane Wolfe

  14. I'm sure most of us who have never received the six or even five figure advance would love to give it a try. Either one of those would probably allow me to retire from my day job and write full time.
    I do get disgusted when I see some celebrity or politician received a big advance for their book which is probably written by a ghost writer. I never read their books anyway. I know enough about them from the news. I don't want any more detail.
    I know many writers and very few are earning a living wage. But none of us are giving up either.

  15. Most of the people I know who have been published have not even gotten advances at all, so to see those kinds of numbers is nice, but it'd be nicer if they would stop giving things like that to people they don't even know can write. Sadly, I'm thinking of that twitterer who got a five book deal without there being any evidence that he can even write a book. It's one thing to give good tweet, but... I'd also like to see more opportunities for other writers, and when you're spending all of your budget kissing someone else's toes, you're less likely to give someone who hasn't had a day in the spotlight a chance. Wow, I'm opinionated today. :)


  16. I've published with both a small press and a self-pulbishing press and earned about the same from both. In both cases, I earn a much higher royalty percentage for e-books so that I'm earning the same (or more) from each e-book sale as I earn from each book sale.

    I find the pricing strucuture on e-books quite interesting. Most publishers price e-book version much lower than the paper version. Makes sense to me, because there are no printing costs, no warehouse costs, no shipping costs, etc. Other publishers charge the same for e-books and regular books. This also makes sense, since the value to the reader is the same, no matter what format he/she selects. It's those other publishers I don't understand - the ones charge more for e-books than for any other format.

    But we're discussing royalties here. I like numbers with many zeroes in front of the decimal. Haven't seen any, just like them.


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