Advance Notice

February 14th, 2005 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

There is much grumbling from authors about advances. Generally, it is agreed that the amounts given aren’t big enough. When it comes to advances, one thing many authors neglect to consider is that the map is not the territory. Publishers calculate advances based on a variety of criteria, including anticipated revenue, but, at the end of the day, the success of a book is determined by what it earns.

The way things work is that publishers take a lot of risk upfront on each book. They pay an advance against future earnings to the author, they pay to edit, they pay to print, they pay to market, they pay to administrate. It takes at least a year before a book’s negative cash flow is reversed (blockbuster/breakout luck notwithstanding). We won’t suggest that publisher’s don’t play games to slow royalty payments to authors (just look at your reserves for returns for proof — they do not, in our opinion, reflect reality), but publishers do make a financial commitment to authors and books; advances are only part of that.

Yes, go ahead, argue that most publishers are raking it in thanks to a constant stream of books…this may be true, but your royalty statements and future contracts don’t reflect the performance of other books. Just yours.

Writing, like many other art forms, does not subscribe to a salary schedule. And like many other art forms, there is no way to predict future income based on someone else’s past success. You cannot say you write just like Stephen King, therefore you will earn what he earns. This makes it really hard to look at an advance and say whether or not it’s fair.

There are predictors that hint at the success or failure of a work, but there are no true guarantees. Subject matter, publisher, advance, time of year — none of these can foretell succcess, nor failure. The sad truth is that the greatest advance can lead to the greatest failure, while the smallest advance can do the same. If you write, this is something you must know. If you think you’re going to get rich, there are ways, sure, but they are not foolproof. It is better to born into a mega-wealthy family, if that is your goal.

All that being said, some interesting work has been done on analyzing advances, particularly for genre fiction. Tobias Buckell looks at science fiction and fantasy. Brenda Hiatt looks at romance (Hiatt’s survey also earn-out, which, in our opinion, is the more critical number) . Sarah Weinman will be looking at mystery and crime fiction. Ian Irvine discusses the ins and out of advances and how they fit into the bigger picture. Why is this important? These surveys and analysis form a basis for intelligent negotiation. Your advance doesn’t reflect what will happen with your book…but knowing what it means within your genre helps. A lot.

File Under: Tools and Craft

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