A Few More Words on First Novel Advances

Back in December I posted a little essay about first novel advances. Thanks to John Scalzi linking to it in three different places, but most especially at metafilter, thousands of people have now read all about what my mates got for their first novels and it’s been linked to all over the shop. The musing also seems to have served as a wee reminder to Tobias Buckell that he promised to put together a database of first novel advances in the sf field, based on Brenda Hiatt’s sterling work in the romance field. Well, now he’s done it. So, if you’ve sold a novel and haven’t already filled it in, go do so. It’s a fabulous project. Yay, Tobias!

(As with the first musing all dollar amounts are US unless otherwise specified.)

I’ve gotten a lot of mail on the subject, some from others like me who’ve just sold their first novel and were grateful for the perspective. They all expressed great relief to hear their advance was not nearly as bad as they’d thought. I had the same reaction myself!

Most of the mail came from unpublished writers, wanting to know more about what happens after the whole signing of contract, advance thing. I was tempted to write an essay in response, but then Kim Wilkins told me about Ian Irvine’s essay, "The Truth About Publishing" (you’ll find the link in the menu on the left, eleven down). Ian’s been in this game much longer than I have, and knows, way way more about publishing. Read it! Even if you’ve been published. Read it now. Read it all the way through to the end. Trust me, you’ll be wiser for it. I wish I’d read it before I sold my first novel.

One of my correspondents asked about the merits of self-publishing and vanity presses. I advised them to go check out Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light and the various articles there about some of the many pitfalls of vanity presses who pretend not to be vanity presses. There are good reasons for going to a vanity press. Self-publishing is perfect for small projects like publishing your family history to give to family members, or a book on how to turn toe-nail clippings into jewellery. You know you’ll be able to sell enough copies at all the toe-nail clipping fetishist fairs to make your money back, but you may have difficulty persuading any publisher of same.

Self-publishing is rarely the best route to get your novel into the hands of the reading public. Yes, some writers have had a lot of success self-publishing, Kelly Link is one. But she knew a tonne about the industry, and she and her husband started their own publishing company. They’d be the first to tell you they’re not exactly rolling in money as a result. Critical acclaim and good feeling, yes; dosh, not so much. Theirs is a totally different enterprise from some of those that Teresa Nielsen Hayden discusses. Be very very careful. As in any industry there are less-than-honest people out there.

A number of people objected to my survey, calling it unscientific and meaningless. On the first charge, yes, absolutely, totally unscientific, the sample size was micropscopic. Tobias is going to do it right. But I doubt that the results are going to be wildly different. No matter what actual number he ends up with, the average first novel advance in any genre is not enough money to live off.

There were also a couple of objections to my claim that the average advance for a non-fiction book is $30,000. First, I did say big NY publishing houses. Second, mea culpa, I didn’t specify what kind of non-fiction. I was referring to narrrative non-fiction (books like Longitude and Salt) and biography. The kinds of non-fiction that are closest to novels. And thirdly, $30,000 was a hand-waving figure. But I’ve since heard from more agents and a number of non-fiction writers who all say, yes, the average for those kind of non-fiction books is considerably higher than it is for fiction. If you’re writing computer manuals you’re unlikely to get within coo-ee of thirty thou. Or even worse, if you’re writing learned tomes for university presses, you’ll be lucky to get any advance at all.

Two people got back to me with great detail about how advances are worked out, author, Garth Nix, who was once an agent, and an editor who wishes to remain annonymous. I was fascinated because I’d thought advances were determined by how much your editor liked you. Apparently not. The amount I don’t know about publishing would fill all the world’s oceans. Which is another reason why you should follow all the links I’m providing to folks like Ian Irvine and Teresa Nielsen Hayden who do know what they’re talking about.

Here’s what Garth had to say (he’s talking Australian dollars):

Many publishers actually work out first novel advances using a rule of thumb that the advance offered is 50% of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run. The first print run of a novel for which the publisher has ordinary expectations is usually about 4-5,000 copies (surprisingly this is much the same in the UK and US as well as Australia, though the format will probably be different). Say it’s 5,000 copies of a $18.95 paperback with a 10% royalty, then the royalty earnings if the whole run sells would be $1.89 x 5,000 or $9,450, 50% of that is $4,725, in that case the publisher might round it up to a $5000 advance.

If the publisher is very confident or very keen to get the book (or the author, looking ahead), then both the estimated first printing, the format and possibly the proportion of the royalties calculation will result in a larger offer. For example, the publisher might decide the book can support a C-format paperback (or in the US or UK a hardcover) with a rrp of $39.95 and a first print of 25,000, and to get it they will offer an advance equal to 100% of the first printing. So in this case the advance would be $3.99 x 25,000 or $99,750 which would certainly be rounded up to $100,000 so it can be spouted as a ‘six figure advance’.

The editor goes into more detail:

I’d say that most first novel advances tend to be between $5,000 and $10,000. Some people use a more instinctive approach to determining advances, but I base it entirely on how many copies I think I’m realistically likely to net —there’s actually an easy equation for working out the advance based on cover price, royalty, and (presumed) copies sold. A really really simple version is that for a mass-market paperback, to earn out you basically need to net about twice as many copies as dollars paid for the advance, and for trade paperback, you need to net about as many copies as dollars paid for the advance.

If more authors knew the math that goes into it and the number of copies that adult genre authors actually sell, I think advances would make more sense. I’m definitely not out to screw anyone, but I am out to make sure my company doesn’t actually lose money. If it makes first time novelists feel better, I don’t pay established novelists more just because they’re established—I have to have a sense I can sell the right number of copies. If I think it will be a 20,000 copy mass-market seller, I’ll pay accordingly. In all cases, a driven agent can usually push me a little higher, but not further than I’m comfortable. I find good agents are straightforward with editors, and have the long term interests of their clients in mind. They ask for more $$ than I’d ideally pay, but have a good sense of when there’s no more wiggle room or when they’re setting their client up as a losing investment (unreasonable advance that won’t earn out, and a publisher unlikely to invest again), and they fight for the things they know a) a publisher will give up if pressed and b) will actually benefit the author to hold on to.

Lately I’ve been frustrated by the apparently widely accepted "rule" that a lower advance means your publisher isn’t going to do anything for the book. It does frequently work one way (if they spend a lot, they’ll do a lot), but that doesn’t logically mean the inverse is automatically true (if they spend little, they’ll do little). While it’s certain that a publisher will push an expensive book very hard because they have to make back the advance, I often pay less for a book with the idea in the back of my head that I’ll be able to spend more $$ on the packaging & promotion for a book that might not otherwise receive it. All of the money comes from the same place, so if I haven’t "used up" a lot of money on an unrealistic advance, we can find the money for a pricier package or some additional promotion. Often when I ask for something from my publisher, they first ask me how much I paid for the book—when that number isn’t too high, I almost always get approval for the "extras" I want. In my mind, if I spend more $$ on packaging/promoting rather than up front, the book is likely to sell more, and the author is more likely to earn out and receive royalties—so we both win.

Of course, for all my Pollyanna-ing, I’m sure it doesn’t always work like that in some places, or even [at my publishing house] all of the time. I definitely try to use a less-expensive advance as a springboard to other things, but yes, you can get a low or midlist offer and have your book thrown out into the market without much backing. In that case, I’d say the author should do whatever they can to make the book a success via personal promotional effort, forcing friends to buy it, whatever—if the book succeeds, the publisher will notice the previously invisible lowlist book & put more into the next one, or if the author hasn’t signed a multi-book contract, they can walk and go to a new publisher with a successful book that beat the odds under their belt.

For more gossip and information about the business of publishing go to the blog of "Max Perkins", Bookangst 101. The site is devoted to the many pitfalls and joys of publishing. Don’t forget to read the comments, where there are many fascinating (though sometimes uncomfortably bitter) stoushes. Enjoy.

Several people wrote to ask me, why, if the pay’s so bad am I trying to make a living as a writer? Good question. Because I’m insane? Because I prefer to live in a state of permanent stress about money? Actually spazzm (love that name) nailed the answer to that commenting in the metafilter discussion by editing the final sentence of my original essay thus:

"The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug’s game. Enter at your own peril."


Sydney, 5 February 2005