The Reality Behind Book Advances

Irene Watson has a useful commentary on book advances over at Blogging Authors (Nov 13, 2011) that current and prospective book authors should read. Traditional and established publishing houses often provide an “advance” to an author-an upfront cash payment for their book. Advances can range from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on: 1) your ability to negotiate, and 2) how much sales potential the publisher sees in your book.

Irene, however, notes that sometimes advances come with strings attached:


“But, that’s not where it stops.  The huge misconception is that traditional/big time publishers promote authors.  They don’t…unless you have an important name.  When the author gets an “advance” it doesn’t mean the money goes into her or his pocket and he or she can take a trip they’ve always wanted to make.  It means that the marketing/publicity expense has to come out of it.  The author is expected to hire a publicist, attend signings/events (sometimes even arranged for by the publishing company,) travel, stay in hotels, promote, promote, promote, and it all has to come out of the advance. As well, the agent takes 15% off the top.  So, when we hear that an author got $800,000 advance, that’s all it is; it’s an advance for all the expenses and the higher the advance, the higher expectations for promotion by the author will be.” 

I generally agree, and it’s been my direct experience (now with seven books under my belt, five through conventional publishers), that new authors shouldn’t expect their publishers to market their book. They geneally put their resources into the authors they think will sell the most copies. If you have a weak marketing platform, or are not well known, or sell to a niche market, you probably won’t end up in that category.

Nevertheless, I think Irene might be taking this a bit far. I queried a friend who does get decent size advances on her books (and her books sell well), and her experience (as well as her published author friends) is that their publishers have not required them to hire publicists and they even usually cover travel, lodging and other costs associated with book signings, events, and book tours. This was her response to Irene’s comments:

Although it’s true authors are expected to do LOTS of promotion on their own, in my experience (and that of most writers I know), the publishing houses do a great great deal to promote our books. The advance IS yours to keep and do with as you please. There is never an obligation that you will use it for promotion, although many authors do. I’ve never known of an author “expected” to hire a publicist. I’ve always been assigned a publicist from the publishing house. Granted, that publicist is usually handling about 20 or so writers at any given time, but still, they work their *** off. I do set up a lot of events on my own, for which the publisher is very grateful. Often, even if I’ve set it up myself, the publisher pays for travel and lodging. They’ve never arranged something for me and then asked me to go on my own dime.

Despite this, I think Irene’s points are generally on the mark. An advance is an advance, and author’s should recognize it for what it is: an indication of the potential for your book to make money for the publisher. These advances are, however, deducted from royalties on book sales. Most authors would likely rationally choose to spend most of that on marketing and publicity, particularly of they are new and cultivating a reader base.

Most importantly, however, my belief is that if your publisher offers an advance, by all means take it. It shows the publisher has “skin in the game,” and they have a tangible motive to invest resources in your book. If they don’t offer you an advance, that commitment to your work will be weaker.

My takeaway from Irene’s post is that if you are negotiating with a conventional publishing house, you should be represented by a literary agent. Their job is to protect your interests while maximizing the potential for your book to do well. Irene’s post does a nice job of showing the pitfalls of not having a knowledgeable representative working for you in the publishing process.

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