If there’s any topic in publishing that’s the most controversial, it has to be the advance. For those not in the know, in the most basic terms, this is the money the publisher pays an author for the right to publish his book. The advance is paid “against royalties,” meaning that an author must “earn out” his advance through book sales before he starts making money above and beyond the advance. That said, you do not have to pay the publisher back should you not earn out your advance (despite what you may read elsewhere on the internet).
Now, let’s be honest: we all like to make money, and I’m sure we’d all be happy if all books had million dollar advances, but those super-sized advances are rare. Advances (for first books) range from the nonexistent (literally zero dollars) to several million (for certain public figures), and they can fall anywhere in between.
I think what’s most of interest to authors, though, is how publishers decide what to pay. Generally, they do a P&L (profit and loss statement), where editors enter all sorts of information: the projected trim size, price point, royalty rate, and estimated first year sales based on comparative titles and their performance. By doing a little bit of math, they figure out what they think they can pay as an advance that will be earned out. Then they offer you less than that. That way, if you have any sort of leverage, they’ll have room to raise their offer while still being in their comfort zone. At many houses, the sales and marketing departments review the P&Ls and add their two cents. They can quickly kill any house interest if they don’t think the book works – after all, they have to sell it. But they can also up the numbers based on what they think they can do with a project.
Competitive bidding situations can certainly affect the limits that publishers have, but even then, they have a maximum advance calculated. No matter the enthusiasm or excitement about a book, the advance offered is a business decision.
But what, you ask, is a good advance? “Good advance” means different things to different people. Some authors want the largest advance possible, thinking it will mean instant superstardom. But as many writers can attest, a big advance doesn’t necessarily mean big sales. So, some people think a good advance is a modest advance, since this means that it is more likely that the advance will be earned out. And, a publishing career is based on expectations. If you’ve received a million dollar advance and sell 20,000 copies, you’re a failure. Selling that next book suddenly looks a whole lot harder. If you receive a $5,000 advance and sell 20,000 copies, the publisher will be clamoring for your next one – and you’ll be asking for more than $5,000!
The idea most people have is that the books with the biggest advances that get the most attention from the publisher, and books with small advances can languish with no support. That’s true to an extent. But it’s certainly not always the case. Publishers won’t throw good money after bad – if the book’s not working, it’s not working. And a smaller book showing some traction may get more support later in the process.
And now, with publishers like Vanguard, HarperStudio, Berrett-Kohler, and others, getting no advance may be a good thing! These publishers work on a model where little or no money is paid in advance in order to share better royalty percentages and more marketing dollars with the author. It’s not for everyone, but when it works, it can actually be the most lucrative in the long run.
So what’s the best advance? Provided you want a career, it’s the one you can earn out. Which might be big and might be small, but if the publisher’s expectations are met, then all is well.