Making Advances

Yesterday was my birthday. It was fun. I went out to dinner with the family and ate cake. It might have also been our puppy’s first birthday. The rescue vet records estimated January 13, so close enough. We put a stupid hat on the poor guy and fed him some ice cream.

For gifts my wife and son made me a really cute bumblebee out of pipe cleaners, my son drew me a giant flag of Gondor because I’ve been reading The Return of the King to him (he’s only six, but hanging on Tolkien’s every word), and my wife gave me a keyboard I really wanted. This here Logitec solar powered beauty that can toggle between my computer, phone, and tablet. Thanks, honey, it rocks!
pipe cleaner bee
After lobster alfredo and lemon cake, I also got a royalty statement from JournalStone. I was delighted to see the spreadsheet for what they had already told me to expect: my first novel, The Devil of Echo Lake, has earned out its advance (with a little help from a foreign rights sale and my second book), and this month I’ll see my first royalty check for about $400. Yay!

By coincidence, just a couple of hours before I got the statement, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Facebook when Caitlin R. Kiernan posted a photo to her Live Journal of a royalty check  for her novel Threshold, published by Penguin in 2001. Her book also just earned out its advance, and this was the first royalty check she has received for it since it was published twelve years ago.

I don’t think she was bitching about that. It’s a pretty neutral post. You can see it here. But she made the pun that it was a “reality check” to show aspiring writers that the idea of retiring on royalties is delusional for most of us who aren’t Stephen King.

Reality Check. That made me chuckle. But I didn’t worry that she’s been living on Ramen all these years because I also knew she must have been paid a nice advance up front for the book. So nice that it took twelve years for her percentage of sales to exceed that amount and start paying royalties.

But it was a little too easy for readers unfamiliar with the terminology to assume she was saying that $82.28 was all she had ever been paid by her big New York publisher for Threshold. So there was a little brush fire of outrage for a couple of hours. She’s a brilliant writer, and some fans thought she’d been screwed, and a man I greatly admire—the big hearted, fair minded Mike Davis of the Lovecraft eZine—encouraged his legions of followers to subscribe to her newsletter to help her out.

Ms. Kiernan soon reminded everyone that yes, of course she received an advance, and most writers live off advances, not royalties, and most books don’t ever earn out, and that’s publishing. To ever see royalties is considered icing on the cake in traditional publishing.

Which, combined with my own royalty statement, got me thinking about advances and royalties in general, and how misunderstood they often are.

I have at least one author friend who says he doesn’t like advances because they make him feel indebted to the publisher. I get it. Many authors, myself included, can relate to the fear that if their book doesn’t earn back the money the publisher put up to acquire it, then they will have become a liability in the publisher’s eyes, and will have a harder time selling future works to that publisher. Fair enough.

While it’s certainly true that a publisher needs to make back their investment in an author and a profit on top if they’re going to view that author as an asset, it’s a mistake to think that the earned-out advance is the threshold (Kiernan pun, sorry) at which this happens.

Of course the publisher has expenses and investments in a book well beyond just the advance. That’s why they get paid first on sales and take a much bigger slice than the author’s 7 to 10%. But a publisher usually starts seeing a profit on a book long before the author’s royalty percentage adds up to the amount of the advance. Unless it was a big advance and the book performed below expectations. And no author wants to be in that boat, even though they get to keep the money. No one lines up to publish your next book if Publisher’s Marketplace told the world about your million-dollar advance and then the book tanked.

Smart authors want their books to be assets, not liabilities. Smart authors want their publisher to succeed and thrive. And smart publishers know that good work comes from authors who can prioritize writing because it pays them. A balance has to be struck, and in the small press world where I work, that usually means modest advances. The fact that I’m seeing a first royalty check fifteen months after DOEL was published and Kiernan is seeing hers twelve years after Threshold was published tells you that her advance was a LOT bigger than my two grand. Penguin made an investment and it paid off.

Here’s the thing, though: as John Scalzi has pointed out on numerous occasions, the advance = the publisher’s skin in the game. You can tell how much confidence a publisher has in a book, and how many copies they expect to sell by looking at that number.

These days I see a lot of small presses offering great royalty splits with authors, and that’s good, it can make for a solid partnership, but most of those presses don’t pay any advance at all to acquire the work. Writers should remember that no money down means very little risk, and it also means that the publisher doesn’t have to be as discerning about the books they accept.

Think about it. A publisher that fronts a few thousand dollars to buy the rights to a book is going to more carefully weigh the merits of that book and view it as an investment. Whereas a publisher who only offers a royalty split needs only to assess whether or not the author has enough friends, family, and social followers to sell beyond the production costs. It’s a different game. Low risk. Any unexpected success is a bonus.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all small presses only offering a royalty split are bad. The good ones can do a better job of production and promotion than a self-published author, and that’s the bar they have to meet to be seen as valued partners.

By the same token, if a publisher pays one author a $5000 advance, and another author a $500 advance, which book do you think will get priority when it comes time to push new product?

So I don’t think authors need to feel guilty about wanting to see proof of commitment in the form of decent advances, especially at a time when we have so many self-empowering options. Authors should value their own work or no one else will.

As for me, I’ll try to be a bit clearer than CRK: I’m very happy with my publisher. JournalStone has treated my books right, and as my birthday wound down and that statement popped up in my inbox, the icing on the cake tasted pretty sweet.

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