What Kind of Advance Can I Expect?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy

Following is a post I wrote a couple of years ago as a guest on another blog. Because it’s a topic writers care about I wanted to share the information here.

I love to talk about great writing, publishing hopes, career dreams and our ultimate mission but let’s set all that aside and get totally crass today. Let’s talk money. How about if I answer the burning question, “What kind of advance can I expect?”


Wouldn’t it be nice if I could make this simple and just name a number? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.  The question of advances must be taken on a case-by-case basis because there are four variables: the author, the publishing house, the project and the agent.

The author— If you are perceived to be an A-list author, you bring a lot more to the house than just earned-out advances. Many houses are willing to pay more than the sales projections dictate– more than what they think a book will earn out–for the opportunity to publish you (stature), to try to provide a forever-home to you (future earnings) and to forge a link with your readership (enlarge their following). Take for example, the reputed 65 million dollar advance the Obamas were just offered. What do you think are the chances they will earn out?

If you are a solid writer, a solid earner, a publishing house may offer you a bigger advance to lure you away from your current house (paying for the upheaval, so to speak). Or if you stay at your present house, a good, stable house may look at your earnings over time and decide to reward you with a bigger advance as a way of letting you know you are valued and to encourage you to stay with them.

If you are a developing writer, beware of big advances. You need to establish a track record. You can’t afford a failure early in your career. The hardest thing to overcome in publishing is a bad numbers-to-advance ratio. Every time an agent goes out to sell you, he has to try to explain away those numbers without giving proprietary information about your former publisher and without appearing to trash anyone’s marketing efforts.

If you are an author with a history of regrettable numbers (for whatever reason) you need to be flexible about any advance. You have a career that needs rebuilding. The best-case scenario would be to take a break-out book (like we can predict this) to a solid house regardless of the advance. We have some bold editors out there who recognize great writing and are sometimes willing to put everything on the line. Make it easier for them to do this by being flexible about your advance.

Or, if you are a one-book-only author, like someone who is selling his own life story, you don’t need to worry about a career arc. You can go for broke.

And there is the author with money problems, who may be willing to sacrifice a long-term career for a large infusion of cash.

The House— Each publishing house has its own advance philosophy. Some good publishers are pretty inflexible about advances. They know how to build careers, but they almost have a set payment structure for their category books that they apply across the board. The nice thing is that most advances earn out, and many do phenomenally well. These publishers understand their business model. Other houses pay high advances regularly, which never come close to earning out. Who knows how they answer to their management or board of directors, but that scenario can be a fiasco for the authors. Your numbers at those houses will look atrocious. Most solid houses will work hard to offer an advance that reflects reality.

The Project— This is the hardest element for us to evaluate. It might be easier in nonfiction. But if you have a book that everyone agrees is a stunner, that becomes a consideration. Your agent may spot it. If you are not settled at one publishing home, and your agent is shopping it around, you’ll get multiple offers and that will be a first indication. You can’t go by what your mother, friends or spouse thinks.

The agent— Many agents believe it’s important to get as much money up front as you can, regardless of the probability of earning out. These might be agents who work with you on a project-by-project basis or who are not expecting to work with you for your whole career.

You may have an agent who is working on a career plan with you. Your agent sees each contract as a potential career builder or career breaker. He will chew over each offer, worrying about how it will affect your whole career. He may encourage you to seek a smaller advance if it brings about some other objective.

Then there is the agent you need to avoid who has his own money problems and needs to make as much money in the short term as possible.  He will push for as much as the market will bear regardless of who the publisher is or the potential of earning out. He knows he can always replace the current client with a fresh client—they’re lined up waiting.

There’s so much more. That’s why agents and editors spend so much time praying over these things and working out potential scenarios. The variables are almost endless. Just remember, there are consequences to every decision you make. My job as an agent is to try to mentally play out those consequences in advance and make a wise decision based on the goals of the client, the strength of the project, the quality of the house, etc.

I look forward to your comments. Does it all sound unfair? Frustrating? Do you hate it when anyone refers to A-list writers (because you suspect that means there is a B-list and a C-list–and you fear you’re on the D-list)? Let’s talk.

23 Responses

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  1. What an illuminating post, Wendy! And it doesn’t seem unfair or arbitrary at all. Each business has its own internal calculus, and I don’t resent being categorized. It’s not personal, it’s just business.
    * While a large advance would be nice (especially now!) it would be kind of uncomfortable, and I think it would change me. As an example (which is not totally congruent, but it’s the best I can do) right now I pay very little attention to my blog stats. I know the numbers are big, and they’re growing, but since monetizing the blog is not an option (beyond mentioning my own books) I don’t feel compelled to follow them. I write the best posts I can, which I hope will help the most people possible.
    * Monetizing is not something I want to do, because this stuff comes from the heart; I do NOT want to write with an eye toward profiting from my own misfortune. It would show, and it would be a kind of betrayal to those who have been following.
    * And so, no, I don’t want a big advance. I want the freedom and clarity to write what I write, without balancing fidelity to God against my bank balance.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Great perspective, Andrew. Too much success carries with it great spiritual hazard. I had a reasonably successful career, but I used to “joke” with my colleagues that God protected me from the spiritual hazard of too much success. They thought I was joking. I knew I wasn’t.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I like that you have your mission solidly in focus. Too often we go off in too many directions.

  2. You mean people get paid to write? Who knew?
    * Seriously, Wendy, I write because God says to. I trust that he will meet our needs, one way or another–paid for writing or not. As the song goes, “We can’t turn back, we’ve come this far by faith.” Over the years, my husband has ministered, unconcerned about his pay, because God has provided me with a series of good jobs.
    * God has a plan, and it’s my job to follow instructions.

  3. I don’t think this is unfair at all. There are so many factors that go into considering the advance. If/When I am ever offered one, I would much rather go for a lower advance to have a better chance at earning out. However, if/when I become agented, I will definitely trust that agent to help determine a good advance amount. They know much more about the industry and the publishing houses than I do.

  4. Wendy, Although we can predict what’s coming, publishing houses will sometimes surprise us–usually by offering less, occasionally more. But thanks for providing some valid observations and advice.

  5. One thing that may be worth keeping in mind is that a ‘nice’ advance may put you into a higher tax bracket, and you’ll not get to keep as much as if you’d simply taken royalties. The ‘windfall’ aspect is an advantage, but if I were looking at a significant advance being put on the table, I’d estimate family income first and adjust my request to keep the tax rate the same, or at least reasonable.
    * As for presidential biographies, I’ve never bought one, and will certainly not be helping the recent former president earn out his advance. I’ll wait until we have a modern-day Cincinnatus.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Most writers will have far more deductions those first years than income. Hopefully, being a writer in his early career will help lower the tax burden for the whole family. (We pay for books, conferences, our office, etc.)

  6. While the generous advance is compelling, I found myself sensing two reactions as I read through your posting. First off the large advance is somewhat frightening because it sets a very high performance bar, and there is stress involved in meeting that height. While I want to perform well, I am less drawn to the “need” to perform well. The other reaction I had was that too small an advance hurts everyone, because the advance will go directly to my marketing efforts, and the greater the advance, the greater the opportunity to expose the work. (Also, Andrew, if the advance is rolled back into marketing, that should offset the tax-bracket implications.)

  7. Advances are one of those things that we all dream about, in colour, and with music, but the reality is that a big advance is not something I expect. The fewer expectations I have, the less I’ll be disappointed I’ll be when I don’t get a giant cheque.
    I trust my agent, because other than a few vague ideas about “no less than a million US dollars”, I have no idea what’s going to come our way.
    And as a Canadian, you could call me an Eh-list writer.
    Thank you, thank you. I’m here all week.

  8. I love it when you guys pull back the curtain, although yes, it does make me fear being called D-List Kristen for the rest of my days. Fascinating look at all the different things that go into determining an advance and definitely makes one want to get a solid publisher who is managing things well.

  9. Sheila King says:

    Ummm…A-List? B-List? I ain’t even on the list.

  10. Jason Sautel says:

    Awesome! Thank you for sharing. I am a new kid in your world and this article was very insightful. When I was a probie assigned to the busiest ladder company in Oakland CA, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a go getter, in shape and ready to kick in some West side victorian era doors and go into battle! Fortunately for me I was assigned to a group of salty old Firemen who had forgotten about more fires than I had ever seen. They were skilled in the craft of firefighting and it was my job to lean on their experience. It was their job to pour their knowledge into me and use my youthful strength to help them get through the shift. As I mature, I use the philosophy that I have learned in the fire service and have used it to run what I would consider as an uneducated blue collared high school drop out to be a successful business. Here it is……

    I surround myself with weak people. I can see a person’s strength a mile a way as can anyone else. If I can find their weaknesses, I can then pair them up with someone who is strong where they are weak and vice versa. I was good at reading smoke and knowing how bad a fire was and when it was time to bail or stand our ground, but I couldn’t tie a knot to save my life! Seriously, I once repelled off the bay bridge with to snatch a suicidal jumper who was ready to take the ultimate leap, but I refused to tie my own knots! I let the young guy on our crew do it because it was his strength. When we were deep in an old apartment building searching for a trapped family, I had to calm that same kid down who tied my knots because he wasn’t used to the heat we were encountering and I needed him to push through and help me make the rescue.
    Now that I am a new kid once again, I have once again surrounded myself with highly experienced people who can take care of the areas that I am weak in. Just like I did in the firehouse, I would rely on the knowledge of my literary agent and go with her knowledge when making financial decisions. Heck, I am an uneducated writer who has no idea where to put a comma and doesn’t know the difference between a noun or a verb but I do trust the guidance I have been given as I enter this new season of ministry/life…..Jason Sautel

  11. Thank you so much for reminding us about the truth of advances, Wendy! I’ve read several articles on the subject, and I’m so glad to have my expectations where they need to be. Ultimately though, I have to remember the reason why I want to be published because it’s what I believe God has called me to pursue and also because it is my dream. It is not about the money. Thanks for the reminder!