I promised some friends that I wouldn’t blog about the business of writing for a while and I haven’t in ages so, um, you two? Avert your eyes.
Recently some dear friends of mine sold books for the very first time. A small round of applause for their hard work and good fortune! Yay, them!
And as you do (and as I did) they’ve started planning how to spend their advance money (such that it is). They were suffering from the missaprehension that they would be seeing the money sometime soon. I disabused them.
Now I would like to disabuse you.
Before I begin two things:
- 1. I’m only talking about publishing payment practices in the US of A and I’m only talking about mine and my friends’ experiences of them. I have never worked in publishing. I’d be grateful and interested to hear about varying experiences both here and in the rest of the world. And I’d love to hear from those who pay as well as those who receive.
2. I suspect some of you are hazy on what exactly an advance is. (I was.) 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. So when a writer is made an offer of money for their book that offer is an advance.
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 dosh from Wesleyan until the royalties (a percentage of each book sold, can vary from 5% to 12% depending on format) on the book exceeded the $1,000 needed to pay Wesleyan back.
Here’s what happens when you sell a book:
A choir of angels sing and fairy dust descends from the air
Once you have accepted an offer on your book the nitty gritty of the contract must be negotiated. This is tricky to do and involves things like “escalation clauses” and “sub-rights” and is why it’s a stupendously excellent idea to have an agent do it for you. Believe me they earn their 15%.
How long that process takes depends on whether your agent already has a specific pre-negotiated contract with the publishing house or not. When I negotiated my contract with Penguin USA for the Magic or Madness books it didn’t take very long because I had no idea what I was doing and said yes to pretty much everything. Ah, the perils of negotiating a contract agent-less.
Once that’s done the contract has to be drawn up. How long that takes depends on the publishing house. Once it’s done your agent checks it. Believe it or not, sometimes there are things in the contract that shouldn’t be there, items that have specifically been negotiated out. This is another reason it’s such a great idea to have an agent.
One of the items specified in the contract is not just how much you will be paid, but how you will be paid. Typically (but definitely not always) your advance is split into thirds. The first third you get upon signing the contract, the second upon delivery and acceptance of your manuscript, and the third upon publication.
If you have a three-book deal of say $15,000 a book1 your total advance is $45,000. Thus you get $15,000 up front as the third on signing because you are signing for all three books. Then you get another $5,000 when the first book is delivered and accepted because that is a third of the $15,000 advance for that book. Then another $5,000 on the publication of the first book. And so on for the second and third book. Your $45,000 winds up being spread over at least three years, but sometimes more than four or five. This depends on how long before your first book is published.
Back to the contract:
Once your agent approves it, you sign it, and the contract is returned to the publishing house where the department that handles payments issues a cheque. I have seen the gap between signing the contract and receiving the cheque be anywhere between two weeks and a year. Any of you had a quicker turnaround? Slower?
The gap between accepting the offer and the contract being offered can also be many weeks. So it’s not only possible but usual for it to take at least six weeks between the intial offer and your cheque showing up. And, frankly, six weeks is fast.
And remember that’s just the first third. The other two thirds will come to you in third of a third parcels over the next few years. It means that your writing earnings could well look like this (minus your agent’s 15% which I haven’t taken out on account of my mathematical ability is not up to it):
2007: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2008: $10,000 (publication of 1st, delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2009: $10,000 (publication of 2nd, delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 3nd)
It will especially look like this if, like me, you didn’t know enough to make sure that your three-book deal wasn’t joint accounted. I sold my trilogy in 2003 and although the first two books have already earned out their advances I have not seen any royalties. Nor will I until the third book earns out as well. That’s what joint accounted means: The accounting for all three books is tied together.
It’s also increasingly unusual for a book to come out that quickly. I have several friends who sold books last year that aren’t scheduled for publication until 2009 (or in one case 2010). In which case their spread could look like this:
2006: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2007: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2008: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2009: $5,000 (publication of 1st)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 2nd)
2011: $5,000 (publication of 3rd)
Obviously living on $5,000 a year is tricky. Most full-time writers I know are getting bigger advances than that, or writing more than one book a year, or doing other kinds of writing, or all of the above. Scalzi did a recent breakdown of his fiction writing earnings over the past few years.
The more salient point: Most writers I know have a day job.
Each one of those payments comes less quickly than you think it will. I naively thought that my payment on delivery & acceptance of my first book would come automatically as soon as my editor had accepted the manuscript. It did not come until I asked for it. Or rather several weeks after asking.
This is not unique to publishing. It is, in fact, the lot of the freelancer: No matter who you work for, no matter what the industry, the gap between doing the work and getting paid is a LOT longer than we freelancers would like.
Hope this has been helpful.
Do please fill the comments thread with criticisms, questions and accounts of how it works in other places. I’m all ears. (Or, you know, eyes. Whatever!)
- That’s an above average advance for most genres I know about. I chose it because it’s easier to do the maths with an advance of $15,000. [↩]