Blogger: Wendy Lawton
One question I get over and over from writers is, “What would you say is the average advance a writer can expect to receive for a book?” I’ve answered that question a number of times in blog posts but since the question keeps coming up, I’m guessing it won’t hurt to dust off the subject and address it once more.
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, say, 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 of these 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. (Bad scenario.)
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 step, 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.