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No Advance or Be Damned

I am going to say something which may ruffle a few feathers, both from traditionally published authors and authors who have self-published but are looking to break into mainstream publishing through their own endeavours.

Your prospective publisher declares ‘NO ADVANCE OR BE DAMNED’.

Would you politely decline the publisher’s contract offer without any advance and show yourself to the door? Perhaps you would if the offer came from ACME Publishing or some other publishing shack up the road. Let’s say the offer came from an imprint of Pan Macmillan or HarperCollins. Would you then stop and think twice?

I believe it is time we dispensed entirely with financial advances from publishers, or to place the term more accurately, an advance against projected royalties. Those projected royalties come directly from the publisher’s marketing and sales department’s Profit & Loss sheets—drawn up when a publisher is about to make an offer of publication to an author or agent representing an author. We can dream about advances as authors when we lie in bed at night just after we have typed ‘The End’ on our latest magnum opus, but the fact is that most publishers advances to 90% of authors in the UK are less than £10,000, sometimes considerably less.

There are several factors which influence the amount of advance paid to the author. It will be dependent on the author’s experience and success with previous books, the business acumen of the author and their agent to negotiate the best advance, potential interest from other publishers, the costs of the print run and a single or multiple format editions, and also the financial investment the publisher is prepared to expend on the marketing and promotion of the book both in pre and post production.

An advance for an author signifies the faith and belief their publisher has in them and their book’s marketability: the greater the advance the more the author will feel the publisher will push his book; it is an advance payment to ensure the author delivers the best possible manuscript they can; it is an advance payment against any expenses whether living expenses or incurred directly from researching and working on the book; it is a symbolic first down payment, whether the amount is a dollar or a diamond, for the production of the manuscript over six months or six years.

For the publisher, the advance acts as a contractual retainer for the next book; it wards off other preying publishers; it keeps the damn fool alive and hopefully writing.

It is easy to see that the risks are stacked entirely on the shoulders of the publishers. The author may argue a creative risk but it is hard to wager that against the risks the publisher takes on, after all the publisher is in business to sell books and not just print them. So why do they continue to do it?

Of course the publisher wants the best authors on their lists and that will always come at some price or at least concessional in deference to the author’s wishes on how they see their book.

According to Bob Miller, president of HarperStudio, “The gamble has gotten very high. … Out of every 20 of those that you make[book acquisitions], you hope that one of them you’ll be so right about that you will make up for the 19 you weren’t right about.” HarperStudio’s publishing model is an experiment in reducing the risks for a publisher. They publish two books a month and will not pay an advance any higher than $100,000. The sweetener for the author is the 50/50-royalty share on book profits offered by HarperStudio. HarperStudio also buck the publishing tradition by not allowing stores to return unsold books. Whatever the reception and future for HarperStudio, the industry is starting to sit up and take notice in a time of economic uncertainty.

Four years ago Pan Macmillan began a ‘New Writing’ project which was dubbed ‘the Ryan Air of publishing’. Pan Macmillan’s New Writing project is for previously unpublished authors with no advance payment, a 20% royalty of net sales (after print and retail discounts). Macmillan claim that authors publishing through this imprint get the same effort and attention from screening through to marketing and promotions, though clearly authors are more involved than perhaps other Macmillan imprints regarding the marketing and promotion.

Glenn Yeffeth is the owner of BenBella Books and he wrote on his blog,

We pay advances, generally $5000 to $10,000, but occasionally much higher, with the highest we’ve ever paid being $100,000. When the advance exceeds $10,000, there is always some aspect of the deal that reduces or eliminates the risk of the higher advance (i.e. a guaranteed buy). We often do deals with no advance, and higher (sometimes much higher) than standard royalties. The higher royalties are not justified by the absence of an advance (this actually doesn’t change the economics that much) but by the fact that the author is bringing to the table substantial marketing resources.

Pan Macmillan and HarperStudio are examples of publishers re-evaluating the publishing model. Many more medium to small publishers are also offering limited author advances or none at all. Add to that ‘no advance/little advance’ list, Vanguard, Snowbooks, Berrett-Kohler, Troubador and many others. It is also the exception rather than the rule for an author to receive an advance from an epublisher. It seems the old model of publisher advances gave both author and publisher little long-term solace. Someone always seemed to bemoan coming off the lesser party when the dust settled. Get paid a million for your first book, sell 20,000 to 30,000 copies and chances are you can kiss goodbye to that second book option with your publishers. It is an outstanding amount for a first time book, certainly on the UK market, but it isn’t in the neighbourhood of millionaire’s row.

The fact remains publishers paid author advances in the five and six figure bracket as far back as the 1970’s. Just like the high-rolling bankers who happily handed out sub-prime mortgages over the past ten years to young couples buying their first property—publishers happily handed out advances with rarely any absolute assurance or belief that they could claw it back if things went belly up. Publishing is perhaps even more of a risk than banking—money begets money—but things have gone belly up and one wonders how many large publishing houses have arrived in last chance saloon with their last five bucks tucked away at the bottom of their worn jeans pocket, ready to spin on the publishing casino wheel. Like any gambler, no matter how many wins in a row you strike, your luck will surely run out.

According to Michael Meyer writing in a New York Times essay entitled, About That Book Advance, written in April of this year;

…the fact that 7 out of 10 titles do not earn back their advance, the system doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In recent interviews, a dozen New York-based publishers and agents told me, more or less, ‘Publishers have to keep buying books,’ and ‘They have to bid for the best books’ — which in large part means those that will sell.

Nothing is a banker, and the endemic problem in the above publishing philosophy of ‘well, we’ll just have to bid for it’ is akin to sending ‘a crazy’ into an auction hall with a nervous twitch. The philosophy is heavy sales quantities against a few titles, rather than the more sound approach of multiple titles and reasonable sales across the board. True, not an easy call all the time, but when you are bank rolling Sarah Pallin and Katie Price (Jordan, the model), the budget gets used up pretty quickly, and rest assured Sarah and Katie get their million dollar advance, but it’s their books which get mass remaindered and pulped after six months. Some smuck paid to have those extra 100,000 books printed and marketed!

Let us not forget, the greatest expenditure for a publisher is the marketing and promotion of a book, not the print bill. Big or small publisher, they’re all certain to eventually land a ‘banker’ like the gambler who is always just one loss away from his next big win. You can argue the toss as to how much the marketing budget transfers to actual book sales, or whether a good book with moderate exposure will always sell well. Either way, small and medium sized publishers as well as author solution companies like iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Lulu worked the ‘mass titles’ equation out a long time ago and that’s with an no advance and the author paying all the costs to boot! Public taste is far too fickle to bankroll your company’s annual budget on a handful of fashionable titles.

So, our opening poser again, ‘NO ADVANCE OR BE DAMNED’.

Certainly, we all believe our work warrants an advance from our publishers. But at what price…yours or theirs?

In part two, I will explain my reasoning for ditching the publisher advance. Your thoughts are welcome…

  • http://www.hamishmacdonald.com Hamish MacDonald

    Within the industry, I guess this is a big deal, but from outside, I think:

    - You have to pay back the advance from your royalties anyway, so what’s the difference? The general approach to advances seems to me like taking a loan and thinking you won the jackpot.

    - If the publisher doesn’t lose a sack of money on you, surely the relationship between you will have more longevity. So I guess it depends what you’re writing for — playing “the creative lottery” as I call it, or having a career as an author.

    - This is only an issue for people who would generally be given a large advance. These days, that’s nobody I know. Given the stats here in the UK about authors’ income from their writing work*, surely most of us already have other work (I’m a copywriter as well as an indie publisher). If I was picked up by a commercial publisher, I’d be more interested in having their creative and commercial efforts behind my work; I wouldn’t be thinking much about the money because a) I know most books don’t make any, and b) I’ve already got the money thing sorted — I had to do that.

    Thanks for an insight into the industry’s latest thinking.

    *”New Research Confirms UK Writers Still Struggle to Survive”
    http://www.alcs.co.uk/multimedia/pdf2/word.pdf

  • http://www.weberbooks.com/publish.htm Steve Weber

    If there’s no advance, there will be very little upside to trade publishing anymore, in my opinion — especially for nonfiction authors who have a platform. If the author can “afford” to complete the book without an advance (and hire their own editor), why not self-publish? Then, instead of waiting for royalties, you take everything after costs.

    If publishers can’t afford to pay advances, then they have to provide *some* other incentive for an author. What will that incentive be, when advances are no longer customary? The prestige of having a certain imprint on your book? No, the primary considerations to me are:

    1. As many people read the work as possible.

    2. Financial rewards.

    When I can make these two things happen, why give someone else rights to my book?

  • http://blog.marketingtipsforauthors.com/ Tony Eldridge

    I think we are in the beginning of a major revolution in the publishing industry. I am not sure how it will all shake out in the end, but I am confidence that economic considerations will be the catalyst for change. I also think that self-publishing will continue to carve out it’s role in the publishing world as a viable alternative to traditional publishing. Advances, if they continue to exists for beginning and mid list authors, will not be a major influencing factor for those who can self-publish with a commercially viable book and the marketing knowledge to pull in sales.

  • http://www.weberbooks.com/publish.htm Steve Weber

    You have to pay back the advance from your royalties anyway, so what’s the difference? ”

    That’s right, *if* your book is among the minority that “earns back” its advance. Otherwise, think of the advance as a “guaranteed paycheck.”

    If there is no guaranteed paycheck, what does the author gain by letting someone else gamble with their book?

  • Randall Radic

    Advances should NOT go away. They are the element that keeps writers writing and dreaming. They’re part of the American Dream. Writers with a track-record of sales should be rewarded for their platform. It’s like a signing bonus in professional sports. You have talent so you get paid. Even the rookies have the opportunity of ‘big bucks’ if they’re talented enough or lucky enough (they can fill a niche). Removing advances is nothing but a blatant attempt at equalizing the playing field. And sadly, everybody ain’t equal. Some writers are definitely better than others, even if it’s just at promoting themselves. Why should they be punished for having talent or ability or promotional skills?

    Super-models get the big bucks. Semi-goodlooking models get to be in the Sears catalogue. Super-writers get the big bucks. Semi-talented writers get to be mid-listers. If you want to be in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, see a plastic surgeon or complain to your parents. If you want a bigger advance, write better. Or get a better agent.

  • http://BrassCannonBooks.net Francis Hamit

    As I understand it the size of the advance determines the size of the promotion budget. If the publihser has less money to recover, they tend to blow off the book. The window for heavy sales is already down to ninety days and then on to the next one.

    And most writers are not rich enough to loan money to their publishers which is what you do when you spend years writing a book and paying out for expenses, living and otherwise.

    The only thing a conventional publisher brings to a deal is access to brick and mortar channels of bookselling, brute force distribution and heavy promotion. This is how “best sellers ” are made.

    I have, out of curiosity, read a number of the big advance best sellers of recent years. I seldom find the kind of extraordinary merit in them that would justify advances in the millions of dollars. Not that they are bad or incompetent; they’re just not that good.

    Publishing needs to hire some real editors and fire all the MBAs in the Marketing Departments who think that publishing books is a commodity business where one fits all.

  • http://crowproductions.com Joan Cimyotte

    I just want someone to look at my story. It seems like an impossible task. Sure, I would dream of “selling” a book. Show me the money. I don’t know how that happens. Or I should say, “Please consider my novel….”

  • http://cristinauhana(facebook) cristina ogarov

    Of course publishers should pay an advance.Writers spend decades of their lives, some, ALL of their lives, attempting to align with their dreaming mind and the financial hardship that often incurs.
    MUCH more of a gamble than they have to take.
    Hire the right marketers, employ psychics, DO YOUR JOB ! We already have. USER pays ,that’s what I say.x