Saturday, April 11, 2009

New York Times' take on author advances

I know you guys know it all already, but this article is still a little fun.

Duly noted:

-7 out of 10 books don't earn out their advances

-S&S is "watching every penny" in the recession, which they announce the same week they pay $4.8 mil for Audry Niffeneggar's second novel

-publishers are so dumb they can't seem to throw off the very advance system that's bankrupting them, because they still compete with one another for "the best books"

I do think it's a little interesting that one of the authors interviewed thinks that his six-figure advance "allowed [him] to work for less than minimum wage for three years." I wonder when the last time he looked at minimum wage was? That attitude frustrates me a little; there are a lot of people (frankly, a lot of us right here at this blog) who manage to work a job to support us and who find time to write even though no one is paying us a penny. What makes an advanced author worth so much more?

And of course, on certain levels I have to take the publishing company's side--a six-figure advance is actually a fairly huge risk. Our profit margins are SO SLIM that most six-figures will fall into those 7 out of 10 books that never earn out. (If you want proof, go look at the hardcover price of the first edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, which came out exactly 20 years ago, and then calculate for inflation--you'll see book prices are not keeping up, not even close.)

The system frustrates me. I wish more agents pressed for marketing commitments than high advances. I wish (usually already published) authors didn't feel entitled to large lump sums unless they knew they would earn out. I wish publishers would stop being jackasses about competing with one another and instead put their money and attention into publishing well.

Ok, enough ranting out of me for today.

38 comments:

Gina Black said...

Excellent rant.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I agree. Love this rant. Great info and thoughts.

Jenn said...
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PurpleClover said...

Hmm, I definitely agree with your sentiments on more marketing money vs advance. And I'd like to think I would push for that if it were my novel because honestly without the marketing winning is short lived...if the marketing is there everyone can win and longer term.

I never thought about the advances being for the starving "no-talents" according to Henry Bech (aka John Updike) but that makes sense for that time.

I can't HONESTLY say I would reject a gazillion dollar advance...but who could? I do like the idea of higher % royalties and maybe less of an advance.

But if we're talking about my MS we're probably talking the difference of getting $100 at once vs. it spread out over 2 years...lol. I'll take the advance.

KIDDING!

Charles Gramlich said...

Those kinds of advances, especially to celebrity writers, just puncture me. Although I know shouldn't allow that to happen.

H. L. Dyer said...

This is exactly why I don't really understand the people who post on the ABNA forums that they hope they don't actually win, cuz the contract for the winner is non-negotiable ($25K advance).

If you've written a best-seller, you'll get royalties later. I don't see the benefit in pushing for a big advance up front. I mean, I understand why agents and authors want their money sooner rather than later, but I would rather earn out my advance and get another book deal.

Rick Daley said...

Marketing feeds sales. I have a day job, and I get up really early most mornings to write. I'd gladly sacrifice money from an advance in exchange for a commitment to marketing.

Kristan said...

I read that article yesterday with great interest, and I'm glad to see a response from someone in the industry.

I think you're right: the author talking about min wage had his math off -- BUT, I have to agree that $100,000 before taxes spread over 2-3 years is not that much. I mean, it's not lucrative. And there are a lot of people who believe authors are rolling in dough. My guess is that the author meant his remarks as a response to that belief.

But of course that's just a guess. And I for one would be happy to make $100,000 over 2-3 years as just an author, because it's definitely live-able.

I would also like to think I'd volunteer for a lower advance in exchange for a greater amount spent on marketing. I want to be in this for the long haul, not a one hit wonder. I hope/guess we'll find out when I get some crazy offer in my hands... ;)

@DonLinn said...

We will all grow old and gray waiting for agents to ask for marketing commitments vs big advances (or even higher royalty rates vs advances). Agents are hooked on up front money and they need to look honestly at the whole publishing model the way the rest of us are

Sarah Laurenson said...

I'm torn about it though. I'd love to have money put towards marketing, but I'd have to take unpaid time off work for promotion. I'm sort of counting on a decent advance to offset that. And I don't see debut children's authors getting that much of an advance in the first place.

If I had the money to take the time off work, I'd be quitting my job to write full time. Or at least, taking days off regularly to write more.

JanCurrie said...

astute observations - 19C authors had to pay to be published before Walter Scott got Constable to give him big advances and look what happened to him - major crash in 1826. Learn from history.

Elizabeth Burton said...

Just a bit of perspective on marketing...

The majority of the money a publisher might spend on a particular book will not result in a single sale. A cost of a book tour for an unknown author has an exceedingly low return on investment.

The fact is, for an unknown author with a new book the most effective marketing is what he or she does personally. People by books written by people they "know," literally or virtually. And most the the prime means of achieving that goal are essentially free, i.e., online networking, blog book tours, etc.

The most effective thing publisher and author can do is know which of the millions of potential readers are most likely to want to read that book, find out where they are and "get in touch." Relying on ads and the distribution of a thousand ARCs to get the job done is short-sighted, but that seems to be what most people mean when they talk about publisher marketing.

As a small press, we have an equally small marketing budget but we do what we can within our means. And, over time, it's been effective for those of our people who work with us to promote themselves. And usually didn't cost all that much, in the end.

Perhaps the question that hasn't been asked is this: Are advances an indication of a publisher's faith in the book or something done in a time of economic adversity that has come to be seen as an entitlement?

It's also a given that in any industry where a layer of middlemen arise to negotiate between producer and distributor--with the author in this case the producer--the cost of the product increases exponentially between "harvest" and sale to the consumer because the middlemen drive it up.

Having lived the first half of my life in farm country, I see clearly how very much the mainstream publishing industry has come to resemble family dairy farming, where the middlemen and retailers make the majority of the profits while the source of their wares has to struggle to make ends meet. Small wonder people have chosen to utilize the new technologies to publish themselves.

Barbara Sheridan said...

The system frustrates me. I wish more agents pressed for marketing commitments than high advances.

If I ever go searching for Agent #4 I'd definitely lobby for marketing over cash in any offer that would be made.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Ny agent can't make money if I don't make money. So I'm cool with the system in that regard. And nothing is holding me back from taking my gazillion dollar advance and spending it on some marketing.

My day job is writing, and I write novels, too. However, I do a lot "less romantic" writing--short stories, contract fiction, more lucrative non-fic and business/promotions work, etc--during the day, too.

The writer who can write on a novel 8 hours a day five days a week is rare. I know I'm not that writer. So the idea that a writer deserves minimum wage for 40 hours a week for a year or more, in many cases, is ludicrous.

Sometimes novels take a year or more to write because the writer only spent a few hours a week on it. Sometimes writing isn't lucrative because writers are slow.

jjdebenedictis said...

This is why the owners of professional sports teams beg for salary caps. They can't stop themselves from bidding their business into bankruptcy on the hot players.

It seems publishing has the same issue; having a star writer makes such a difference to the bottom line that everyone goes a little berserk in the process of getting one.

beth said...

I don't know why I've been so slow on the uptake--for awhile I've been wondering why publisher WOULD actually pay that much money for an advance...but, obviously, they're in competition with one another for the top books.

*sigh* That's not something that I think really will change. Not until the high advances start bankrupting publishers... *looks to the near future*

Kristan said...

To jjdebenedictis's point, maybe there should be "advance caps" in publishing. Because seriously, there must be a point where no author NEEDS that much money, nor deserves.

Then there'd be more for the rest of us (editors too!) and this advance vs. marketing money debate could dissolve!

Hehe, oh unrealistic idealism...

Andrew Wheeler said...

I hate to be a wet blanket, but I work as a marketing manager for books, and "marketing" isn't a magic bullet, or anything like it.

I'd also point out that a big marketing push fails as often as it succeeds -- it has about the same success rate as spending giant piles of money on an advance, or any other strategy in publishing.

The solution to wasting money on one thing is not to waste money on something else. Guaranteeing marketing money up front no more guarantees the success of a book than anything else does -- and the closest thing to that real guarantee is a track record by the author of having sold lots of copies of very similar books.

Publishing is, and always will be, a business for people who can tolerate both great risks and low returns -- and that goes for authors and agents as well as editors and publishers. So I expect we'll all have to settle for uncertainty.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Pretty amazing that a system so flawed is still working. But I guess it's human nature. If you can get more for yourself--without killing your provider outright--why not get it?

I live cheap, though. Even a four-figure advance would let me take time off for promotion. I look forward to being a major bargain for someone!

cindy said...

i would rather have a higher percentage in royalties and a high advance up front. i think it makes more sense. i heard that king was going that route with his new publisher. but he has clout. can it be made into a trend?

change is hard.

Leigh Russell said...

I'm afraid I don't yet have an agent but I do have a 3 book contract with a publisher. I should've read your blog on submitting without an agent first, although I've been very happy with my publisher so far. I am however having problems with amazon.uk who claim (wrongly) my book is displayed on their website. I don't suppose an agent could've sorted this problem out, if my publisher can't, but it is very frustrating. I've emailed amazon.co.uk but they don't reply. My publisher's spoken to them, and they insist my book's on their website. It's actually very depressing. I'm hoping people outside the UK will order from amazon.com or my amazon sales will be zero. Not a great start for a first book!

BuffySquirrel said...

Well, for what it's worth, Leigh, I sent Amazon UK an error report on your book.

gringo said...
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gringo said...

"I wish more agents pressed for marketing commitments than high advances."

This is an excellent point. If the agent believes in his or her client, they should be willing to take less from the percentage of the advance in exchange for the marketing commitment that the author deserves, it would pay off better in the long run.

Excellent web log, by the way.

Linda said...

Excellent rant. Hope you feel better - I sure do.

Myself, I'm happy to take NO advance with a higher stake of royalties. Of course, that would not make an agent happy, but I don't have one... yet... and any small advance I did get, I'd gladly fork over to my agent. I'm odd, though, as I don't expect my writing to ever earn me a full-time salary. I love my day job (professor); it's where I get most of my fiction fodder while getting paid rather handsomely for the pleasure. I write in short, intense bursts every morning, and still manage to be pretty damn productive. For me, the money is secondary; primary is getting my words out to readers. Now if I could find a like-minded editor... Peace, Linda

Anonymous said...

We want advances because this is the truth about royalties!

http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/Royalty-Statements.htm

Linda said...

Anon, thanks for the link. Very informative. Though it doesn't necessarily change my mind re advances versus royalties, it does confirm my suspicions about big publishing. Lots to consider. Thanks, and peace... Linda

Dorset Girl said...

I agree that there needs to be a balance. However, I also think that writers should be able to make a living working full time at their craft. Readers, publishers and agents want writers to be professional, not hobbyists. That means writers need to be paid a living wage. A writer gets good by writing and, I would argue, by writing all the time.

Perhaps I'm in minority, but I LIKE knowing that Tina Fey or Stephen King get vast advances. Whether you personally love their writing or not, you must admire the fact that they are hugely talented writers at the very top of their profession. I want to know that the people at the top of the tree get rewarded for their immense skill. (I also think brilliant editors, agents etc should be paid properly.)

BookEnds, LLC said...

I'm constantly pushing for marketing money unfortunately it's not that simple. As others here have said, there is no guarantee that the money the publisher will spend on marketing will result in sales. I agree that advances can go way too high and I've often preached that it's not about the advance. But there has to be another answer. There has to be something else we're missing, something that can make this a better system and be better for the author. It's not astronomical advances and it's not marketing, those don't really seem to be working.

--jhf

Chris Eldin said...

Agreed!
I would happily trade an advance for a higher percentage of profit from sales. I would work hard at marketing (something I enjoy anyway!)

Excellent rant!
:-)

Lily Cate said...

I think I would rather keep writing and getting modest advances with modest royalties than end up with a one time cash-in advance, lousy sales, and no chance of ever getting to book deal #2, 3 or 4.

But I like the writing more than the money.

Cakespy said...

"I wish more agents pressed for marketing commitments than high advances. " -- when I was an art director I got a lot of the same, people wanting fatty advances and not even thinking about what would happen after the product was actually released. It's like not seeing the forest for the trees. Awesome rant.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

The Tour Manager and I have talked for years about how it makes much more sense to take a smaller advance and a bigger marketing budget. After all, if no one knows about your book, who's going to buy it?

melissablue13 said...

I'd rather have the advance, because there is no guarantee those marketing efforts are going to make a bit of difference for one book. Marketing is truly about name recognition.

Now for the amount of advance, I'd rather have one I can outsell. My third or fourth contract is going to be based on that number, and I'd rather not have my advance be the ice berg that sunk my career. Because no what the industry professionals say to the contrary, they don't know what's going to sell like hot cakes.

LJ said...

Interesting post. Regarding the 100,000 and minimum wage comment, though, I agree with Kristan that spread out over three years, after taxes and the agent's 15% cut, and considering there are no benefits attached, it's not that lucrative. If you then add in the many years a writer spends toiling along at zero, learning the craft, it might make more sense. An advanced writer may be worth more precisely because he or she has put in so much uncompensated time already, and by so doing has developed into a solid writer.

And although it's quite possible that I'm slow, and certainly a lot of my writing time is spent staring into space, I have to add that 40 hours a week writing (or doing other writing-related tasks) is a light week for me (my husband's estimate is 70). Working at home means if I'm awake at 3 am, I'm writing. So I'm afraid it all adds up to something very like minimum wage-- and much less, of course, for those of us who don't yet command six-figure advances.

christine tripp said...

I would want the advance, the bigger the better. The problem with "down the road" money and saying yes, take part of my advance for marketing is, I have no knowledge or control of anything anyone does after the book is done. So, how would I ever know really that the percentage of the advance I could of had went to marketing MY book? Maybe all that would happen is more money, thanks to my saying yes to less, would go towards Madonna's next air brained lecture, uh, I mean book.

robmerrera said...

I enjoyed that. How DO publishers make their profits then?

Six figures... I'd be ecstatic to see the mid-range FOUR figures.

I'm glad writing is still about the art...

Ivan G. Goldman said...

Dear Mooneie (I say that with affection),
1. As I understand it, when publishers put out serious advances you can pretty much count on them to spend on marketing to protect their investment.
2. Large advances for schlock books are depressing, but huge advances for memoirs by half-wits like Palin that will be ghosted anyway are the worst.