Is a Bigger Advance Always Better?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

When an author gets a contract offer from a publisher, the first thing they want to know is, “How much?” And by that they mean, “What is the dollar amount of the advance they’re offering?”

The standard way to view advances is, the more the better. Right?

Well, maybe… maybe not.

A large advance is a good thing because it means that no matter how many copies your book sells, you’ll receive at least that much money (minus your agent commission).

If we’re taking the short view—the “take the money and run” view—then this is a good thing. If there’s a chance this might be your only book, then getting more up front is a great idea (from the author’s perspective).

However…

If you’re taking the long view—the “I hope to make a career out of this” view—then whoa, doggie, not so fast. Let’s not focus exclusively on the biggest advance possible. Shoot for the best advance that you can reasonably expect to earn out.

If you earn out your advance and keep selling beyond that, then some great things can happen:

  1. You’re a star in the eyes of your publisher, and they’ll be more likely to offer you another contract.
  2. You’ll get checks in the mail—beyond the advance—that could turn into a nice little twice-annual revenue stream. At that point, trust me, you’ll be happy you didn’t take it all up front.
  3. Not to put too fine a point on things, but come tax time, you’re going to be happy as well. Paying taxes on a little income at a time (like with a smaller advance and then ongoing royalties) is easier than trying to pay taxes on a sudden large windfall.

On the other hand, if you get a large advance that will be harder to earn out, you risk some unpleasant consequences:

  1. You may be nervous throughout the publishing process because you feel intense pressure to sell enough copies to earn out your advance.
  2. If you don’t earn out, your publisher is reticent to contract you again. If they love you despite low sales numbers, they’ll contract you but probably with a lower advance.
  3. You won’t see any checks along with those twice-yearly royalty statements. Depressing!
  4. You end up paying taxes on a huge amount of money up front. Ouch.

To clarify, I’m not talking about asking for a smaller advance up front. I’m saying sometimes it’s necessary to accept an advance that’s smaller than you’d hoped, and when that happens, you can look at the upsides as I’ve outlined here.

Choosing to accept the advance the publisher offers (even if it’s smaller than you hoped) rather than trying to negotiate it higher, can also work in your favor because you may have a little more room to negotiate other points of the contract that are more important to you.

When I talk about advances, writers invariably ask me whether it’s a good idea to let a publisher know you’re willing to take a deal with no advance at all. While this can be one way to do things, especially if you’re having trouble getting a book deal and if you’re working with a smaller publisher, I don’t recommend it as a matter of course. It’s better when the publisher has made a financial commitment to your book up front (translating to more “skin in the game” as they say). And if you have an agent who has done a lot of work for you, they need to be paid, and the advance is the only payment they can count on.

A good agent will try to get you the best advance possible in your circumstances, balancing it with a reasonable expectation of what you can earn out, so that you can become a star and build a successful long-term career as a writer.

 

Any thoughts or questions on advances?

 

Tweetables

In publishing, shoot for the best advance you can reasonably expect to earn out. Click to Tweet.

Is a bigger advance always better? Click to Tweet.

Earning out your advance helps you look like a star in the eyes of your publisher. Click to Tweet.

 

 

28 Responses

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  1. Norma Horton says:

    Excellent blog post, Ms. Gardener. Could you please provide more information about “other points of the contract that are important to you?” I’m thinking cover art, promotional support, etc. Aside from the advance itself, what do YOU believe to be pivotal parts of a contract, those a publisher can enhance as part of their end of this bargain? Thanks for any additional input.

  2. Jeanne T says:

    This all makes sense. I’d much rather accept a lower advance and then earn out on it rather than a higher advance and have a publisher reluctant to contract me again because my first book didn’t earn enough money.

    I’ll be curious to see what questions people have. And your answers. 🙂

  3. I would like to be in the position where this question is even an issue. 🙂 Thanks for the insight on advances, Rachelle. It’s something I haven’t fully considered yet.

    I’m all for keeping more of my money than letting Uncle Sam collect up to half of it from a lump sum payment.

    One thing that came to mind when you mentioned writers willing to take a deal with no advance is does that make them seem desperate, and therefore, less marketable? If a writer doesn’t have enough confidence that her work can secure a contract with an advance, will she feel comfortable marketing her book?

  4. I definitely would not need more nervousness throughout the publishing process. Thanks for such a clear, thorough post, Rachelle.

  5. Larry says:

    “Take the money and run.”

    Frankly, sounds a bit more fitting for the party which takes up to 90% percent of earnings and drops the poor fool who literally can make them money, just not enough money.

    Also sounds pretty fitting for those authors who feel they should earn what they put into their writing, deal directly with readers, take their well-earned paycheck and run far away from all the money-grubbing middleman and never look back.

    • Melissa Manlove says:

      Larry, your point about self-publishing as a viable alternative for some authors is inarguable–some writers do indeed make more money that way than they would with traditional publishers. For some genres especially, and for motivated self-publishers, digital self-publishing can be the better option.

      Speaking from a traditional publishing perspective, though, your first point has some holes. If you are receiving 10% royalty on list price, that isn’t 10% of earnings–it’s more like 25%, because the publisher sells the book at a discount. And the rest of the earnings aren’t profit for the publisher–if a writer wants to go the traditional publishing route, they have to expect that there is more overhead involved.

      Finally, when traditional publishers decide that an author’s books are not earning enough money, it comes back to that issue of overhead. There is a cost of doing business the traditional way. Publishers don’t want to abandon low-selling authors, but when the cost to edit, design, market, and warehouse (etc) the books is more than the money the books bring in, publishers must stop publishing them or face an actual loss of money.

      That means that, as we agree, for some writers self-publishing really is the better option. It’s a happy thing that there are more options all around these days, and more room in publishing for more people.

      • Larry says:

        The reason I said earnings, not list price, was for that very reason: including the price that distributors actually pay to buy the book, as well as other factors.

        I also wasn’t referring so much to low-selling authors, but mid-tier authors: where if an author makes the publisher money, but where just one book or two of slightly declining or static sales may make the publisher reconsider whether or not to continue publishing the authors’ work.

        As a writer and a reader, it just seems a bit foolish to me: instead of letting go the author, why not let go those marketing folks and others who, it could be argued, aren’t the ones pulling their weight? When publishers do let folks go, it often seems to be counter-intuitive also: editors, for example, and others who make sure that the product meets certain standards which make it something the public wants to begin with.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I’ve been wondering about that. Advance is one thing, but what is the generally acceptable royalty from trad pub? Is it 10% or 25%?

      In self-publishing, you get zero advance, but your royalty is 35% or 50% or 70% depending on whether you go through a company or DIY.

  6. Heather says:

    I never thought about the “no advance” idea. It definitely seems like it’s a fine line to negotiate between not enough and too much. Another great reason for agents…

  7. Thanks for this in depth look Rachelle. We’ve learned that our sales numbers follow us throughout our writing career so in that light, especially with a debut book, accepting a lower advance seems reasonable, even wise.

    As Heather mentioned, this reality is another reason why I hope to work with a reputable agent.

  8. On this one, I would defer to my agent. I’d say “Well,(insert name here), in your experience, do I buy the bling now, or wait til I’m earn my the advance and then go crazy shopping in Dubai?”
    Okay, *maybe* not the (insert name here) part.

    Kidding!! But I would definitely listen to my agent, because being a non-resident, the tax thing is totally different.

  9. Lori says:

    More money is always nice but it is not everything. I think I would be happy (and suprised) with whatever was offered. I am not writing a novel for the money, I leave that to the technical documents I write and edit.

  10. I think it’s also important to point out the difference in advances between fiction and non-fiction writers, and how platform comes into play as well. If one writes non-fiction (waiving hand here), the amount of your advance can be decided/affected based off of the platform you carry. I know this was an eye-opener for me but one that made complete sense. 🙂

  11. and that would be “waving.” Not “waiving.” Oy.

  12. So many good points in this post Rachelle! And I’m very happy to read you don’t recommend taking a deal with no advance.

    Reminds me of when I was trying to give away some puppies we ended up with…long story…we really are responsible pet owners…anyway, I advertised them “Free to a good home.” I had no takers. My precious mother-in-law told me, “Free makes people think they aren’t worth anything. It’s better to charge a little something.” And, well, hallelujah, we sold all of them!

  13. Sharyn Kopf says:

    Thank you for confirming what I’ve been thinking, Rachelle! I’m not envious of writers who receive 5-, 6-figure advances because of the pressure to make that much back. I know some writers don’t see it that way. I’ve even heard a few say they believe they earned that money whether their book sells or not.

    But I see my publisher as my partner, not my “employer.” Which means I hope to be paid by the readers who enjoy my work. If an editor/publisher believes in my novel enough to take the risk, why would I want only one of us to benefit from it?

  14. Sue Harrison says:

    I totally agree, Rachelle. Thank you for another great post!

  15. Linda Gillis says:

    I had heard that if you receive an advance and don’t sell enough books to cover the advance that the publisher would bill you. Do some publishers write this into their contracts?

  16. Cat Woods says:

    Thanks for validating my feelings. I was beginning to think I was an anomaly regarding my attitude toward advances.

    With the way the industry is changing, big advances can be scary. One writer friend of mine received a substantial advance and it has been so stressful on her compared to my other friends with much smaller advances.

    Because while the goal is to always sell through and exceed expectation, falling short of them can be career suicide.

    Thanks for the great post.

  17. Peter DeHaan says:

    More than the advance, my bigger consideration would be what deal will best help me sell my next book…and the ten after that…and be my best career move.

  18. Darby Kern says:

    I’ve heard of situations where authors need to pay back an advance (or part of it) for books that sold dismally. I’m sure my agent will have some advice on this subject but do these things still happen? In what circumstances?

  19. Interesting post-here in Singapore there are no advances up front only 10% royalty afterwards…it’s kind of like playing the lottery. Should be interesting come publishing time!

  20. Each year right before summer I’ll choose this for 2 months with the summer time costume, jajaja this is a top secret why I can take off a great deal and so rapid.

  21. donnie and doodle says:

    I always say: “A little kibble now – suggests to me – I might get a little more kibble- later. This is just a dog’s way (my way) of looking at things.