Further to yesterday’s post: the size of your advance says nothing about your capabilities as a writer. It speaks only to your publisher’s assessment of your market value. They can get it wrong. How a book does is very often a crapshoot.

Several NYT bestselling authors I know of received tiny advances for those insanely huge selling books. I also know some first-time novelists who got six-figure advances, who not only didn’t earn out, but didn’t sell 10% of what they needed to in order to earn out.

In all cases the books were EXCELLENT.

It’s luck and chance and forces beyond your control.

For those who don’t know what an advance is or what earning out means go here.


  1. anonymous on #

    What’s worse a big advance that does not earn out or a small advance that earns out but not in a huge way. Is the publisher going to drop you if you do not earn out a big advance? Would they also drop you if your small book was not very profitable?

  2. John Scalzi on #

    A big advance that does not earn out means that your publisher may not have made money (NB: your publisher makes money *before* you earn out — even so); a small advance that just barely earns out means your publisher has made money. As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to make money for your publisher than not.

    Your first question is independent of your second and third questions. Some publishers are happy to have authors who have smallish but consistent sales; others only want to focus on big hits. Likewise, if a big author has a major flop that doesn’t earn out, they might still not be dropped because there’s the hope the next book sales will revert to form. It all depends on who you are publishing with.

  3. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Anonymous, this isn’t an absolute. It depends on the actual numbers involved (what’s a big advance? What’s a very small advance, etc.) and also on the publisher.

    Say you get a 100,000 dollar advance, and, for the sake of argument and ease of math, you make $1 royalty per book. You sell 80,000 copies of your book. You haven’t “earned out”, but your publisher is likely extremely happy with that performance. Because of the economics of book publishing, they probably started “making money” over the printing, publicity, “keeping the lights on” cost of making your book a while back.

    And that’s assuming your publisher prints as many copies of your book as it takes to earn out. Thre are a lot of variables to consider, such as “sell through” percentages.

    Now, say you got a $1000 dollar advance, and sold 4,000 copies of your book. You have “earned out” but you aren’t setting a big publisher on fire with that that amount. You may, however, have made a small publisher whose books usually sell in the 1k range extremely happy.

    This is a really common question amongst writers, but there are a lot more variables that go into the Profit and Loss statement than just the advance paid. They could drop you in either scenario that you’ve described, or they could keep you. They could only print a fraction of the number of books it takes for you to earn out, but if you sell through 70% of that fraction, they could be thrilled. Or they could be disappointed, because last time, you sold through 80%.

    It’s not an either or.

  4. Justine on #

    What Scalzi and Diana said.

    There’s no hard and fast answer. It really depends on what kind of publisher, what kind of book. Sometimes a book has gotten amazing reviews and won prizes but not sold very well. The publisher is very likely to stick with such an author.

    Or maybe the house just really believes in the author despite bad sales and reviews and etc and their failure to earn out. A writer won’t automatically be dropped for not earning out. Even if they got no where near earning out. As Diana points out you can not earn out but still be making your publisher money.

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