The Advance: How Much 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?”

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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).

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.

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47 Comments

  • It doesn’t sound unfair at all. It’s just business.

    A hierarchy for writers is by no means a problem for me, because it simply means that some writers have a greater current mass appeal.

    In the 60s, two of the most prominent A-list writers were Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. Does anyone read them today? Would YOU want to be known for writing in their genre?

    And do you really want the lifestyle?

    Don’t misunderstand – it would be cool to be A-listed for what I do, but the changes in my life that the money and attention would bring…if they happen, fine, I’ll adjust, but I’m not going to go chasing them.

    And as for the size of an advance, I’m perfectly content to let my agent negotiate that, and NOT second-guess. I’ve got some understanding of the business models used in publishing, but agents are far better versed in their knowledge, and frankly – that’s part of where they earn their money.

    If I don’t trust my agent to bring home the best possible offer, I’m not living up to my end of the author-agent relationship.

    When the Australian aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith made the first flight from Australia to the US, he depended on the expertise of his navigator, P.G. Taylor, to give him the courses that would make landfall at the intermediate island stops.

    Any significant error would result in a long and rather pointless swim.

    When Smithy was satisfied with Taylor’s credentials, he trusted his navigator implicitly, and never once second-guessed the courses given him. And yes, they arrived in Oakland, at the end of October, 1934.

    Teamwork means trust.

    (You can read about Smithy and Taylor’s flight in Taylor’s vivid narrative, “Pacific Flight”)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Such a great metaphor, Andrew. (Sounds like a great book.) And hopefully your agent will continue to depend on the real Navigator.

  • Darn! I can’t go by what my mother and spouse think? I could be rich.

    Seriously, what I write is a gift from God. I want to be like Paul, content with more or less. More would be nice, of course, but as the song says “I can’t turn back; I’ve come this far by faith.”

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You are right to see this as a journey (I can’t turn back, I’ve come this far. . .). In building a career we try to anticipate every outcome because we are in this for the long haul.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    And then, of course, whatever you get you have to pay taxes on!

  • Lori says:

    I agree with Andrew that its is not unfair and it is just business.

    The advance doesn’t matter much to me if at all. I would be happy with anything even if there was no advance. But then again, I know my tech writings and editings will make more over that long run than any book that I may get published. I’m not writing a book necessarily for the money but to tell a story that I want told.

    Wendy, is it possible to get traditionally published without receiving an advance from publisher?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Many publishers are dreaming about this model but we’ve found that there is another element at work here as well– the amount of advance often bears a correlation to the amount of energy and marketing expended on a book, so that’s another tightrope we walk.

      • Amanda Dykes says:

        This is so interesting. Regarding that correlation, does that mean the higher the advance, the more tends to get spent on marketing/the more energy there is invested in it? In many logistical ways, that makes sense. I can’t help wondering how things would look if someone were to experiment with a “less advance, more marketing” tack (i.e. taking the money they would’ve spent on the advance, and putting it toward marking), particularly in the case of some of the writer-types you mentioned above (a new author, an author in the midst of career re-building after poor sales, etc.). Have you seen that done?

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Amanda, some publishers have talked about that kind of model but to my knowledge no one is doing it in a strategic way. (Some of the smaller presses or e-only presses are offering no advance but they usually offer very little marketing expertise.)

        And, to be clear, there is no intentional correlation between advance and marketing– like marketing budget will be twice author advance– but it is just something that we notice. The more a publishing house offers for a book, the more excited they are about it. The more excited they are about it, the more the person who championed the book longs to prove himself right and the more will be allocated to make that happen.

      • Amanda Dykes says:

        Such great insight. Thank you, Wendy! I learned so much today from your post and comments! :)

  • I appreciate your take on this topic Wendy. It doesn’t seem unfair to me. There are a number of variables that go into advances, and I for one, like Andrew, will trust my agent (when I get one) to give me guidance through this process. An agent knows a whole lot more than I do when determining advances. And an agent sees the broader picture, whereas I have only limited knowledge on what’s best for my career at any given point.

    I’m learning as I grow older not to categorize myself (A-list, or the dreaded D-list, or something in between). I don’t want to be defined by what others think about my stories or my writing. I imagine if/when I get published, it will be a more deliberate effort not to think of myself in a category, but I hope that I can do my best for God’s glory, because ultimately, that’s what I’m writing for.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I agree with you about not-categorizing. Sometimes comparison is helpful for looking at a problem or a possibility but each of us is unique and ultimately our success or lack thereof comes from God, right?

      The more I do this job the more I realize that all we are required to do is our diligent best and continue to seek wisdom. We leave the outcome in His hands.

  • Andrew’s comment reminds me of Joe Fox (“F-O-X”) in You’ve Got Mail. “It’s not personal. It’s business.” I can’t say that it’s frustrating because I haven’t been in a position to talk advances yet. But I appreciate your breakdown of a normally boring subject, Wendy: numbers. Thank you, as always, for the education.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s why you see agents hem and haw on panels when the question of money is raised. It’s complicated.

  • Alex Chediak says:

    Wendy,

    Great post. Which do you think is more important–advance or royalty rates? It seems to me that if the advance is reasonable, it’s the royalty rates that matter more, because they can increase your chances of recouping and you earn more in the long-run that way (assuming you recoup).

    Thanks!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Exactly, Alex. If we feel a book has the potential for solid sales or a long life, I’d push harder for a higher royalty rate than a bigger advance.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Wendy. The question of “How much money can I expect?” may be crass, but your handling of it isn’t.

    If I get published, I will be a debut author, so I know I am at the bottom of the list–and that’s okay. I’m a novice. It’s the same as any entry-level employee at a job. If I want to build a career, I can’t expect to start at the top.

    Rachelle Gardner, in her blog about a year or so ago, pointed out that sometimes it’s better to take less money and more benefits, such as a deal in which the publishing house contracts the author to write a second, maybe third book. To me, that sounds like a better scenario for a career-minded author than receiving a large advance. Now you’ve pointed out an even more important reason a debut author really shouldn’t want a large advance–the sales versus advance numbers could seriously injure the author’s career. Thank you for the warning.

    My desire is to be a career writer, I’m not expecting to make a living from my writing (although that would be lovely). Primarily, I want to get my stories published so that I can share them and hopefully give joy to people the way so many authors have given joy to me.

    I wish everyone a blessed Lent.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I love that you are looking at the long term career impact rather than the next sale. It’s tough to predict career possibilities in this current climate of change but we still see that most who have achieved great success were patient and grew one book at a time. One of my most successful friends laughs and says she was an overnight success after twenty years of hard work.

    • Christine, I remember the blog post Rachelle wrote about this topic too. So glad Wendy expanded even more.

  • Like Christine, my goal is to get published. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it, but both of the small independent publishers I’ve been contracted by don’t offer advances, so it’s not been my main focus. Is that faulty thinking? Should I consider this topic more?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      The problem isn’t with the advances it could be with the size of the small presses. If you go with someone who only sells, say, 1200 books in a year, it makes it hard to move to a traditional publisher. There will be a lot of explaining to do and the default for a publisher is to think they’d rather try someone who is all potential than someone who got their book out there and couldn’t cause any real buzz or excitement.

      Before going with a small press I’d ask to see real numbers– how many books per year are they selling across how many titles. Honest numbers.

      If a writer’s goal is to get published, however, rather than building a long term career it might not matter.

      • You make a good point. Even though I’ve been published twice now by two small presses, I honestly don’t know what their total numbers are. That would be good information to have.

        Thanks for the advice, Wendy.

      • Wendy, you mentioned an ‘all potential’ author. Is this kind of debut author a more attractive risk for a traditional publisher because the publisher knows their audience, and can then help mold the new author for success at their house?

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Yes, Jenni, and there are no pesky statistics to shake an editor’s confidence. This is where gut feelings come in. Those of us who acquire take pride (the good kind of pride) in “having the eye.”

        If there are no numbers to disprove our gut feelings, that author is pure potential.

        If regrettable numbers exist that editor has a much harder task. He needs to convince the pencil pushers why their house can do what someone else failed to do. He also needs to convince the sales staff that the stores won’t even remember returning books with that author’s name on them.

  • I’m guessing that in the near future (if it isn’t happening already) the size of a debut novelist’s following in social media will be factored into the size of the advance.

    Not just on a qualitative basis, but mathematically, as a term added to the equations already extant in the quantitative business model.

    Or have I just gotten lost in Accounting Geek Nirvana?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It already is, Andrew, especially with nonfiction. And it’s considered in committee both by the hard, cold metrics and by the quality and loyalty of the social media following. We find that it can be the tipping point in making a decision.

      • It would be interesting to know what kind of predictive weighting factors they use for the social media following – i.e., to what degree Facebook, blog, Twitter, or Pinterest followers would be loyal enough to buy the book.

        Knowing that would be a great help to authors in deciding where to focus social media efforts.

        My guess – again – would be that the factors used are proprietary, and rather closely held.

        We therefore need to recruit a mole…

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        it would make an interesting blog post except that we hear numbers all over the place. For nonfiction the real “find” for publishers are the bloggers who are the go-to voice in their field– the one who is quoted, retweeted, shared, etc.

        And, of course, few of us will ever be that person. One editor told us recently that he’s more interested in seeing who is interacting with the blogger or FBer and the quality of that interaction.

  • These nuances are one of the reasons it’s so important to have an agent who not only is trustworthy, but who understands your core values and sees the contract in light of a career path rather than simply one exhilarating book. These are important insights for anyone considering publication.

  • “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)?”

    Lol…This made me laugh because that exact thought had gone through my head. ;) Thanks for this information! It does all seem fair enough to me. I think when writing is your passion, you just write. We all want to make money, but in the end, we write for the love of writing.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      So true. And the size of an advance is one of the things over which most authors have little control.

  • I don’t mind the mention of A-list writers. Many of them have my admiration because of the hard work and diligence they’ve exhibited to reach success. Most likely, they’ve also surrounded themselves with a competent, creative team of individuals who’ve helped them apply what they’ve learned to a long term career outlook.

  • I know this sounds too altruistic to actually be coming from me…but I don’t think I’m going to set any sales records, and I’m okay with that. Not that I won’t try, but I’m not in this for the moolah and the month on Necker Island with my homey Richard Branson.
    I trust my agent to do what’s in my best interest. And I trust God to do what He wills with my work.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      The funny thing is we never know until we get the work out there. One of the best parts of my job is the surprise. We do the best we can, hold our breath and sometimes, just sometimes, we receive immeasurably more than we can ever ask or imagine.

      • Very true, Wendy.

        Interestingly enough, and no, I’m not schmoozing, my first thought after “We do the best we can, hold our breath and sometimes, just sometimes, we receive immeasurably more than we can ever ask or imagine” was “but I’m already here, as of September 15th, 2013. I already have more than I imagined.” I know the place of blessing in which I rest, and I frequently pinch myself with wonder and gratitude.
        I know God is able to blow my mind along the way, and I’m enjoying every minute of the walk.

  • Another definition of Advance is: To improve further:

    Such as: To advance one’s writing skills.

    A certain quantity of money is the last thing that should keep a writer from writing.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      So true. I know many a writer who would write even if he had to pay for the privilege.

      • Deb Kinnard says:

        This, yes, totally. I suppose the Word is wrong when it says, “the workman is worthy of his hire.” Nowadays even established authors don’t seem to be making much.

  • Clem says:

    Great post, Wendy. Thank you!

    Conspicuous by its absence is any actual dollar amount. As long as we’re being crass, may I ask for an example of an advance on a hypothetical?

    Let’s say there is a Developing Writer who has written a literary fiction novel good enough to attract the attention of an Established Agent. This Agent sees potential for a long-term relationship over many books and is interested in positioning the writer for future success. That is, the Agent wants her client to earn out on this first book. Let’s finally say that this Agent gets a deal with one of those Good Publishers who has a set scale for advances.

    What would be ballpark for this situation? $5,000? $25,000? $50,000?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Ah, but Clem. . . that’s what I was trying to say in my post. There are too many variables, there’s no way of knowing. It could be any one of those amounts. (Well, probably not fifty thousand unless more than one publisher wanted it and it had to go to auction.)

      One note however: Literary fiction is a tough, tough sale these days. Readers read popular fiction. Some of the legendary literary authors we read in school are unable to get new contracts these days. We’re even struggling to place what we call upmarket fiction (those book club-type reads). Todays readers read for entertainment, by and large.

  • Anne Love says:

    Lot’s of food for thought. Great post.

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