Books not earning out (updated)

Ever since I first started learning about publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of the books published by legitimate publishing house don’t earn out. But I’ve never seen any concrete evidence to back this claim up. Since I started learning about children’s & young adult publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of their books do earn out. I’ve heard the same about the romance genre.

As far as I know no publisher releases what percentage of their books earn out. All we have to go on is anecdotal evidence.

I’m starting to wonder whether this oft quoted stat—sometimes it’s 7 out of 10 don’t earn out; other times it’s 9 out of 10—is solely about adult publishing. Because the same people who’ve told me (at several diff imprints and publishing houses) that the majority of their kids books earn out, look at the adult half of their businesses and roll their eyes. “I don’t know how that’s sustainable,” they’ll say.

Does this mean that it’s the majority of adult trade publishing that fails to earn out and not the majority of all books?

I would love to hear from people in the publishing industry. Do the majority of the books you publish earn out? If they don’t are the majority of them profitable for you even though they aren’t for the authors? And what about agents? What percentage of the books you sell earn out?

I totally encourage anonymity.

Update: For those asking what “earn out” means: Typically when a publisher buys a book they pay the author what’s called an “advance.” Say, the author is paid $1,000. They will not get any further money from the publisher until the earnings of the book are greater than $1,000. For each book the author gets a percentage of the book’s sale price usually somewhere between 6-15% (depending on what format and some other factors). So at 10% of a $20 cover price the author has to sell 500 copies to earn $1000. For every book sold after those first 500 you’re earning $2 a book. Hope that makes sense.


  1. Cellobella on #

    Sorry for the noob question… what does “earn out” mean?

    Is it a good thing or bad?

  2. Anon on #

    I wonder how much of that is due to what kind of rights the publisher buys and how aggressive they are about pursuing foreign publication. I see more deals in children where they take world rights and make their money back selling it overseas. I know a lot of kidlit authors whose books have earned out before they even get on the shelves in the US. The adult pubs seem to either not care as much as the kids about keeping foreign rights, and don’t actually pursue them once they’ve got them. Children’s pubs seem to be much more aggressive selling overseas. On the flip side, I’ve seen adult publishers say world is a dealbreaker, and then never actually pursue foreign publication.

  3. Anindita on #

    There’s a difference in advance size between adult trade & children’s/YA, so more adult trade books need to be sold in order to earn out.

  4. Anon Agent on #

    I’d agree with Anindita. I think the discrepancy has a lot to do with the huge advances often paid to adult trade titles. Which isn’t to say thank children’s books can’t garner huge advances, but I feel like a six figure or more deal in YA almost always has the backing of the publisher, who will throw their full weight behind making sure it does well and earns out. On the adult side, a six figure deal is, if not standard, than more often expected, and with so many big advances, it’s hard to give those books the chance they need to do well.

    I mean, look at the crazy figures paid to celebrity authors. Yes, the books do well in sales, but $4 million dollar advance well? Very, very rarely.

    A nice deal is children’s publishing is more often the standard (to use the PubLunch classification), rather than just the bottom of the totem pole.

  5. Anon on #

    Wow, I can’t disagree more with comments 3+4. Int he past few years, they seem to be handing 6 figure advances to every person who walks up with a vampire book or a magician on their hands.

    My adult books don’t garner anything near the advances my children’s titles do.

    I think the difference is that they give award-winning “literary” titles big money all the time at adult houses, knowing they won’t earn out, but they are feathers in the publisher’s caps. In children’s, it seems they pay more for books that earn money, whereas adult commercial writers are viewed as the bottom of the totem pole, though they’re the ones keeping the lights on.

  6. Shveta on #

    Anon Agent, if you’re checking back for comments, why do you think there’s that discrepancy between advances in children’s vs. adult publishing? *curious*

  7. anonnypie on #

    Both my YA books so far have earned out in the first year – first one has doubled its advance, so far, second will, too. I was not underpaid – these were relatively healthy advances for first-timer. I mean, nothing extravagant…solid middle of the road. Howevs, I was paid more for future books and fear it will take much longer…maybe 2-3 years. But, I seem to be writing the kind of books that will stay in print long enough for that to happen, so far.
    Aside from dollars, there is also “value in the marketplace” that is not measured in dollars. Maybe some authors bring a certain kind of credibility to houses that otherwise publish lighter fare. Maybe a super successful and hugely profitable series that also has film tie-in and long life on the best seller list can allow a particular publisher to carry along books that may not earn out or earn out as quickly.
    I was surprised at the 7 out of 10 figure quoted in the NYT piece, because anecdotal evidence among my YA writer friends suggest the rate is much higher. And, again, not talking necessarily about tiny advances.

  8. Justine on #

    Anon no. 5: It really depends on the genre. Average advances for adult romance are very low. I know a NYT bestselling adult romance writer who is still only getting around 30k per book. So sure you are not alone in getting bigger advances in YA/kids than for your adult books.

    I think it goes back to my theory that these statements are mostly about a very specific part of publishing. I think they’re talking about not just adult trade but mostly adult litfic as the not earning out part of the business. Because the majority of the folks with the biggest advances write in the adult market. Very few writers of YA or childrens are getting advances of 500k or more per book. That’s a regular thing in adult land. Unless Publishers Lunch is lying to me!

  9. Michelle Sagara on #

    I think the PL figures are the inflated figures — the ones that include escalators, etc. I.e. the money that the author is paid on-signing and on delivery is much less than the money reported, because of course escalators don’t occur unless conditions in the contract are met (NYT extended list, NYT print list, number of copies sold, blah blah blah).

  10. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Data point only: my literary short story collection got an advance of 25K, and earned out in foreign sales. It probably wouldn’t have earned out in domestic HC/PB. The paperback numbers are still trickling in, but after it only sold 3000 of the 8000 copies print run in HC, the publisher lost interest in the PB and stopped publicizing it, so PB sales have been very slow.

    So hooray for foreign sales. And sort of wish they’d aimed for a smaller HC print run. Ah well.

  11. john cash on #

    Can anyone say if the advances are different for adult versus Y/A books in the UK, or in Oz, as opposed to the US? Might it be better strategy for a US author in Y/A to submit to UK or Oz publishers?

  12. Justine on #

    john cash: Economies of scale mean that advances are bigger in the US in all genres. Australia has population of 20 mill. US is way more than 300 mill. Very few YA writers in Oz can make a living. I know many who can in the US.

    Besides, I think a smaller advance that earns out is much better than a big one that doesn’t. I’ve known too many who’ve gotten huge advances for their first book, which has then tanked. It’s hard to recover from that.

    I think most of us are arguing that the inflated advances in some sections of US adult trade publishing is a bug not a feature.

Comments are closed.