Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Book Advances

October 7, 1009
Mr. Stephen-Gonna-Be-(Rich-and/0r)-Famous-Parrish and I were having an e-mail conversation the other day and we drifted into the topic of book advances (or lack thereof). And Stephen said something along the lines of, he believed that authors should make their money off royalties and not advances. (He also suggested he should run and take cover after making that statement, which is also true).

To which I replied:

Well, there's a lot of thought depending on how you deal with royalties. Since I make my living as a writer, with my nonfiction market research reports, I'm often paid half up front and half when I'm done, which is a work-for-hire arrangement. And why not? It takes me anywhere from 3 to 9 months to do it and I need to live on something while I'm working (and I don't get royalties for them). There's also a school of thought that if you're not going to pay an advance, you should get a better royalty, which I would be all for, since my novel advances have sucked. Would I bitch less if the royalty was 25%? Maybe, although we're writers, so we bitch about contracts and publishers.

The thing I dislike most with publishers are their arguments that:

1. we're taking all the risk. (Um, I suppose that depends on how you evaluate risk as the spending of money versus the spending of time, etc, time is money, etc.).

2. We're going to spend it on promotion. (Show me).

3. We want you to do as much as you can to promote your book. But we're not giving you any money in advance, so it's going to come out of your pocket.

4. Very few businesses work in a way where you do the work, then get paid for it a year afterwards. You'll see that by reading your contract, you'll get royalty checks that come after the last COMPLETE royalty period, so depending on your schedule, money won't show up for months after the book comes out. Then there's something called "reserve against returns" which is to say, they hold on to some of the money from your royalties just in case some bookstores return your books.

* * *

Then Stephen made a comment about, "Hey, you just wrote a blog post." And so I did. Your further comments, gripes, and elucidations (and hallucinations) may commence.


Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I stand my ground.

There's a financial practice in retail called "January billing." Since Christmas is the season during which a high percentage of the calendar year's sales take place, retailers are allowed to pay for their merchandise in January, after the merchandise has been sold---after the retailers have made some money. Otherwise stocks will run thin. Manufacturers place their products, in effect, on spec.

Manufacturers place their products on spec. Authors are (arguably) the manufacturers of their products.

No analogy is perfect, but remember that an advance is payment against sales that haven't yet occurred. As though the inventors of Bic Underwear should demand a cut of the profit before the profit, before evidence of profit, even if there isn't any profit.

The bookstore? Paid in advance of sales? Ha ha.

The distributor? Ha ha.

The publisher? Ha ha.

The author? Oh, yes. And by the way, give the Bic Underwear designer five million dollars in advance. Why? Beats me. Will Bic Underwear make money? Beats me. What if it doesn't make money? What if the idea was bad? What if the inventor screwed up?

Tough. Gotta pay him in advance.

Or else---God forbid---he might take his shitty idea elsewhere!

6:45 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I actually think, if you could get the price point down and the product to be reasonably green, that "disposable underwear" wouldn't be such a bad idea, sort of like daily wear contact lenses.

Anyway, one of the advantages to a royalty only deal (and my understanding is that John Updike worked that way) is that publishing might actually become solvent because what the author gets paid might actually bear some resemblance to how many copies are sold.

One of the things that has long puzzled/intrigued me about publishing is how when you get big, those multi-million dollar advances that authors like Stephen King or Dan Brown or Mitch Albom may not actually reflect any sales = royalties kind of way. In other words, we know Mitch sells a ton of books and we want to keep him in the payroll, so we'll pay $10M upfront and we really don't care how many books he sells as long as he sells AT LEAST X AMOUNT, which we know he will, because we'll jam it down the throats of the bookstores.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

With most jobs the idea is that when you do your work you get paid and then it is up to the employer to do whatever it has to do with your work to make its profit. So reasonably, when you hand in a manuscript, you've done your work as a writer and should get paid. Why should the writer's pay depend on whether the publisher can do the publisher's job of selling the books?

Having said that, I pretty much agree with Stephen. Given how the publishing industry works, as opposed to how it should work or a rational busines would work, I'd just as soon get paid for books actualy sold and leave it at that. But then it's not my livliehood. But, heck, for the most part if you "benefit" by getting an advance that isn't justified by sales, you're going to be out of a writing job pretty quickly. Since publishers ultimately are going to tie the writer's compensation to factors beyond his or her control, including how the publishers do their job, then I'd rather just have exactly what I'm earning and not complicate matters.

Mary and I receive small advances from Poisoned Pen Press but ultimately earn a lot more in royalties. (And given the economics involved I suppose such arrangements are much more justifiable for small presses than for large NY houses) Of course we need to wait, but if you are writing books regularly there's always something coming in from some book, even if it isn't your most recent.

I only get paid for my legal writing after I've handed the project in. Usually an article will take a few weeks or maybe a month and payment will come withi a month, so I may have to work and wait for maybe two months without pay. However some projects are longer. I'm right now doing work on a project that is due next March and for which I will be paid in April. We've learned to manage ourmoney, that's for sure. There's no option to live from paycheck to paycheck.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Part of my writing income comes from magazine/trade journal work and that's how I get paid as well. Write the article, turn it in, get paid (hopefully) within 30 days of acceptance. I've got one publisher I semi-regularly work for that pays on publication, which is why it's semi-regular, because when I first started writing for them they typically turned around the articles pretty quickly. Now sometimes I wait 8 or 9 months. And then he'll e-mail me and say, "Hey, we haven't heard from you lately. We'd love to have more of your articles." And I get to say, "Well, you haven't published the one I sent you 8 months ago, but I imagine I can send you something soon."

Pay on pub sucks.

I'd probably be happier with getting royalties if I my publishing scheduled remained consistent with a single publisher instead of getting booted every couple books and having to pick up the pieces and start over again.

10:00 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

With all the changes in the industry going on, all of which will HOPEFULLY speed up the publication process, I could be cool with royalty only.

With a couple of caveats: that there's not much lag (like no more than three mos) and that royalties are pretty high. I sold my novella on royalties only, so we'll see how I feel about it afterward. All that said, so far it's only going to be an e-pub (paper depends on sales) and they're still taking 8 months to get it to market. We'll be over a year from my turning it in before I see any royalties. THAT'S kind of pushing it.

My husband and I are going to do a joint effort article on the current and future state of publishing for Electric Spec. It'll be interesting to see what, if any, conclusions he (a business/tech savvy guy outside the industry) and I (someone who knows quite a bit about the industry, I think) come up with.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, the trick is to have an uninterrupted string of books. Mary and I have been getting out only one book every two years lately which means there's a big dip in royalties certain years. Theoretically you could manage to get royalties continuously but we haven't been able to do that consistently even with our one small publisher.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I really like how e-publishers are paying. Most are monthly, starting with the first month you make a sale. You can start off with $300-1600 the first month, and then, depending on your story, your backlist, and all that sort, it can keep going or dwindle down until you sell your next story. That royalty arrangement can work, even if you're not getting an advance.

My two pubs are more online mags, so you get serial pay, and then they release them as ebooks awhile later and you get royalties. It's like getting an advance you never have to earn out. :-) I feel a little spoiled, LOL. It's too bad that couldn't be a more widespread arrangement.

2:45 AM  

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