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Original Essays

Book Advances

by Shira Boss
How much are we paid, up front, to write our books?

There's frustratingly little information available about book advances. A money taboo in our culture means that most of us, writers or not, don't readily discuss our finances. When it comes to how much authors make, there's even more speculation, rumor and misinformation swirling around, especially amongst ourselves.

I was having brunch with three other writers, and we started talking about book advances. One woman — we didn't know her as well, or we might have asked — mentioned about her book deal that her agent had turned down an additional $10,000 from the publisher for foreign rights. None of us asked how much her deal was for, but of course we all wondered. The second she was out the door, we tried to figure it out amongst ourselves: If $10,000 wasn't a lot for foreign rights, then she must have gotten... $50,000? At least?

And would we consider that... a lot? A little? It's hard to compare when you don't have much to go on in term of what others are getting.

Non-writers often get the impression that all authors are making big money, because big-money deals are the ones covered in the media. Writers themselves sometimes don't have much of a better idea how much our colleagues are making, or how much we ourselves might earn. (To learn how an advance works, read this note.*)

The lowest confirmed advance of someone I actually know: $750. The largest confirmed advance of someone I actually know: $500,000. Then there is the acquaintance who I heard earned "enough to buy an apartment in Manhattan," and another who I heard got "so little he has had to scramble for freelance work to eat while finishing the book." Writers will gossip freely about other people's deals, but when it comes to getting the facts directly, most of us are afraid to ask.

It isn't exactly like asking someone's salary, because salaries are more reliably based on education, occupation, experience, and other discernable factors. Book advances can swing wildly in either direction, depending on luck, timing, editors' hunches, and the Zeitgeist. (Granted, an author's track record of previous sales, platform, personality, book topic, etc. also factor in, more predictably.)

When deals are discussed by agents and editors, the language is often coy, as in "a healthy five figures," or "well into the six figures."

The only database of book deals I know of is from Publisher's Marketplace. But the information is submitted voluntarily, and many or most do not include information about the money, which is what we really want to know. When the money is disclosed, it's almost always in a range. A "nice deal" is between $1 and $49,000. A "very nice deal" is $50,000 to $99,000. A "good deal" is $100,000 to $250,000. A "significant deal" is $251,000 to $499,000. And a "major deal" is $500,000 and up.

The problem with those categories is this: most first-time book deals, even with major publishing houses, come with advances of less than $100,000. And for a first-time author (and many veterans, as well), getting six figures is not only "good" but, I think it's safe to say, "a major deal" for them.

Who's getting over six figures? From the media and the rumor mill, it can seem like a lot of writers are. Bigger advances are talked about more openly. If we did have statistics on all of the book deals and stacked them up, however, they would probably look like a very soggy pyramid, with a puddle-like base of low-money deals (and tight lips), supporting a soft peak of six-figure deals (and looser lips).

"At Columbia, professors constantly told us, ‘You can't expect to support yourself as a book writer,'" says Hana Schank, author of the memoir A More Perfect Union. "But there are so many counterexamples — you read about professionals who do get big advances — that you think, Sure, there are people who get $18,000 for their book, but that won't be me."

Kelly McMasters, author of the narrative non-fiction Shirley, attended the same MFA program at Columbia that Hana did, and heard the same admonitions against being able to pay for the $60,000 program with a book advance. However. "Every three to five years, someone will sell for a big number," Kelly says, defining that as $200,000 to $500,000. "And then everyone hears about it and it becomes, 'Everyone sells for this price.' But when you ask if anyone knows anyone who sold for that much, it's always the same example."

The example of her day was classmate Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, who sold her novel Set Me Free for between $251,000 and $500,000, according to Publisher's Marketplace.

When writers find out that someone very much like them has earned big money for a book, they naturally get protective of their own more modest figures. Kelly, who earned a fraction of Miranda's amount, says that amidst the talk of big advances, she might not want someone to know how much she got. "Because that number might devalue my project rather than make it more exciting to them," she says.

Which is how we get back to the general taboo against discussing money: Our culture most commonly measures success by money, and we don't want to look less successful than someone earning more.

But book publishing is a mysterious and even fickle industry, and when sizing one another up or trying to figure out what kind of money to expect, writers should keep in mind what happened to Ivor Hanson. He graduated from Columbia's journalism school and wrote a long New York Times story about being a professional window-washer in New York. His proposal for a memoir about this was rather hyped, he got an agent easily, and they had several meetings with big publishers who sounded enthusiastic. An auction with many bidders was scheduled, and the agent — most, smartly, do not do this — prophesied an advance of at least $100,000. Ivor excitedly awaited the call with news of his deal.

When the auction period had ended, the call came. Curiously, not a single bid had come in, for any amount.

The agent lost interest in selling the project, but Ivor didn't give up. He kept sending out his proposal to other agents, and eventually to small presses on his own. After five years, he sold the completed book, Life On the Ledge, to Two Dollar Radio, a start-up company. Ivor describes his advance as "in the low four-figures." (He does, however, earn a generous 30 percent royalty rate.)

If you do crave more information about how much money is being made, you should gather the courage and ask directly. When I queried a group of writer acquaintances about advances, several offered general comments until I asked outright if they would tell me how much they got. Almost like magic, each one gave the figure. Including the woman from the brunch, who it turns out got $65,000.

However, when I e-mailed three writers I don't have any connection to and asked if they would share the amounts of their advances, even if I didn't pass along the information by name, none replied. So the money taboo isn't broken, but starting locally, we can crack it.

* An advance is a prepayment of royalties from book sales. The most common contract terms in trade publishing are for authors of hardcovers to earn 10 percent of the cover price for the first 5,000 copies sold. That goes up to 12.5 percent on the next 5,000 copies and 15 percent for each additional copy after that. Paperbacks generally earn 7.5 percent.

The advance is a guaranteed minimum payment to the author, regardless of eventual book sales. It is paid in increments as the contract is signed, the manuscript delivered, and the book published. When books start selling, the author starts "earning back" the advance. If and when the royalties reach the amount of the advance, the author has "earned out" and will start earning additional royalty payments for each copy sold thereafter.

In reality, an estimated 70 percent of trade books don't make money for the publisher, and most authors don't earn out their advances so never get additional royalty checks. Which is why agents and authors want the advance to be as high as possible. spacer

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