Skads of random people come to my website expecting reams of knowledge (and pictures) on topics that I do not, in fact, cover. The most common of these (after "my sister naked") is "first novel average advance" or some variant thereof. Every day four or more people come here hoping for guidance in this area. I imagine that they are people who are thinking idly about a career as a novelist and just want to make sure before they start typing that such a career is as lucrative as they imagine. Or perhaps some are first-time novelists who’ve just sent their babies out into the world and are wondering what they can hope for in return. Or maybe that wise and esteemed sage Google has been asked the question by some lass who’s just been made an offer and is in shock. "Surely, such a paltry amount of money can’t be normal? Surely this publisher thinks I’m a naive fool whose work can be bought for cowrie shells?"
I decided it was time I provided these questing souls with the answers that they seek, so I did a (very) little research. I emailed a bunch of people I know who have sold a novel and asked them what they got, half-expecting them to instead tell me where to go. Every single one answered—some within nanoseconds. Writers very much want to tell you what they got, no matter how little. I also emailed a few editors with the same question and heard back from none of them. (In their defence it is Christmas time and they may be on holidays and possibly haven’t seen said email yet. Still, interesting, eh?)
However, before I begin, I suspect some of you are only hazy on what exactly an advance is. An advance is a sum of money that is paid (or advanced) to a writer by a publisher against the future earnings of a book. I sold my first book (not a novel) to Wesleyan University Press for US$1,000. I got to keep that money no matter what happened, but I didn’t get any more cash from Wesleyan until the royalties on the book exceeded the $1,000 needed to pay Wesleyan back for this advance.
So what’s a royalty? It’s a percentage of the book’s sale price. In this case every time a copy of Battle of the Sexes sells I get 7.5% of the total, that is, about $1.50 a unit for a $20 book. Only after those $1.50 cuts added up to $1,000 did I start getting more money from Wesleyan. The royalty money comes (once or twice or four times year, depending on how the publishing company does their accounting) in the form of a royalty cheque. Given the peculiarities of the publishing industry (such as the returns system) it can take a long, long time (years) for royalty cheques to start wending their way to your home. A big fat advance up front makes a writer’s life a whole lot easier!
So to first novel advances: I asked fellow Aussies, folks from the UK, Canada and the US how much they got for their first novel. Because the majority are USian I’ve translated everything into US dollars. Here are the answers with year of sale. I have not adjusted for inflation because it kind of tells it’s own tale, doesn’t it?
1985: $2,500, $8,000
2004: $350, $10,000
Average advance: $5,920
Ah ha! See the pattern? No? Nah, me neither. Someone in 1970 got the exact same amount as someone in 2004. Except they didn’t, did they? According to the American Institute for Economic Research’s cost-of-living calculator, the lucky sod in 1970 received the princely sum of US$48,659.79 in today’s dollars. Ten grand went a lot further in 1970 than it does now.
The thousand-dollar advance in 1962 ($6,251.66 today) went to Samuel R. Delany for The Jewels of Aptor, the long half of an Ace Double. At the time Chip was paying "56 dollars a month, for a four-room 2nd floor apartment on the dead-end of East 5th Street on the Lower East Side." So his first novel advance paid for almost a year and a half’s rent. Scott Westerfeld’s $4,000 advance for his first novel Polymorph in 1996 was enough to pay four and a half’s months rent on his two-room apartment a mere three blocks (and thirty years) away from Chip’s old flat. (In the meantime that section of the "Lower East Side" had become "the East Village" and the rents had gone up and up). Nowadays, of course, getting a four-room flat in the East Village for less than $2,500 a month is a miracle of the first order. The larger of the two advances in my table from 2004 would cover four months’ rent for such a place, the smaller, 0.14 of a month (also known as four days).
The advances listed above were paid in four different countries and by a variety of different publishing houses. The $350 advance from 2004 was paid by a small but prestigious press, who offset their tiny advances with higher royalites, in addition to keeping none of the media or foreign-language rights. One of the authors wrote, "I’ve heard that in London at least, low advances for new signings have made a comeback in the last decade, but I don’t ask, and folks don’t usually tell. For your inquirers’ benefit, and in case they were even wondering, getting a low advance is a Very Bad Thing, and anything the publisher says to defend it, they are lying. Always ask for more money, just to see what happens. It’s counter-intuitive, but this is the only demand that never gives offence."
Another writer told me that "publishers will pay as little as they think they can get away with. I was royally screwed on my first sale and not just with the paltry sum offered: I was left with no subsidiaries either. Got myself an agent quicksmart after that."
The other thing to remember about these advances is that with one exception they were all paid for genre (fantasy, sf, YA, horror, children’s, crime) books, mostly by genre imprints. Everything I’ve read and heard tells me that mainstream novels still get more money than genre novels. And non-fiction gets more still (university presses like Wesleyan aside). One of my correspondents also writes non-fiction. Their first non-fiction advance was $20,000, considerably more than their fiction advance, indeed more than any of the advances listed here. An agent has told me that the average advance for a non-fiction book amongst the big New York publishing houses is more like $30,000.
Of the 18 people I asked, only seven are full-time writers (no, Samuel R. Delany is not one of them, he earns his dosh as a university professor) and of those only two of them are doing fine writing fiction (New York Times‘ bestseller, Shut-up! or I’m-getting-the next-round advances fine—definitely no longer worrying about where the next cheque is coming from). The rest are in their words "scraping by" or "barely comfortable" and depend overly much on their credit cards, except for Mr Scalzi who is smart enough to also make money writing non-fiction. The good news is that almost everyone got more money for their second novel than their first.
So my sage pieces of advice to someone contemplating a career as a novelist who begins by trying to find out what the average advance is? First I’d like to congratulate you—if you’re in this game for the money it’s a good idea to find out as quick as you can that there’s not a whole lot to be made writing novels. Find another way to make dosh. Personally I’d recommend plumbing.
For those who’ve just sent out their novel to the hard cruel world and are wondering how much dosh to expect. Well, gird your loins, expect rejection, not money. Because that will come first and more often. Scalzi has some choice words (scroll down to no. 7.) on the subject.
For the poor lass who just got the insultingly low offer? Well, I think the table above demonstrates that you’re in good company. My advice? Ask for more. If they offered $1,000 ask for $10,000. If $5,000 ask for $15,000. If $10,00 ask for $20,000 and so on. They won’t give you what you ask, but they most likely will give you more. But, if at all possible get yourself an agent. They know how to do all this stuff, how to make sure you don’t give away your subsidiary rights (that is, the film and TV rights, audio book rights, translation rights, graphic novel rights etc., etc.), how to protect you from selling a series of books that are joint accounted (that is, that all the books you sold have to earn out their advance before you get any royalties. This takes long enough when it’s one book at a time).
And there you have it: The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug’s game. Enter at your own peril. And don’t ever give up your day job (scroll to no. 10)!
PS I plan a followup musing, if anyone wants to comment, tell me what their first novel advance was etc., email me at the address below.
Sydney, 24 December 2004
UPDATE (25 Dec): there’s a fascinating discussion of this topic to be found at metafilter.