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Book Advances, Royalty
Checks, And Making A Living As A Writer
know what kind of payment to expect once a novel has gone
under contract at a publishing house. Money is a
frustratingly taboo subject and the sources for authors
trying to get educated on book advances and royalties are
scant. Though for many writers the whole issue of money
is secondary to the satisfaction of having a book
actually published (bestselling author Matt Richtel joked
that he would have sold his novel for a six-pack of
beer), compensation is nonetheless a topic worthy of
The percentage of writers make a living off of their
writing is pitifully small, and that's one reason so many
fiction writers keep their day jobs. Brent Ghelfi, author
of VOLK'S GAME, has been in law and business for years.
Michael Loyd Gray, author of CONFEDERATE NATION and
DECEMBER'S CHILDREN, has been a college professor for
thirteen years. Matt Richtel, author of HOOKED, is a
veteran reporter for The New York Times as well as a
comic strip writer. These jobs double as novel fodder as
well as an additional way to pay the rent.
The situation of these authors matches the experiences of
Jessica Faust, one of the founding literary agents of
Bookends, Inc. When asked what percentage of her literary
clients make enough to live off of, she estimated fewer
"If you want to make your living off your writing,
you need to do more than write books, at least
initially," says Faust. "There are a lot of
great ways with magazines and newspapers. Authors I have
that really want to make a living often write more than
just books. Then over time as their careers grow,
hopefully they can survive just on what they make on
their books. Don't expect to pay off your house with your
first book deal."
While Richtel, Gray, and Ghelfi all have hopes of one day
making a comfortable living as a writer, this simply
isn't possible yet. All three authors had varying advance
amounts, some in the six-figure category, but even the
most encouraging of advances doesn't guarantee dependable
income over the long run, which is what making a living
is all about.
In some cases, a big advance can actually hurt a writer's
potential long-term earnings because if the first book
doesn't earn out its advance, the odds of contracts for
future books diminish considerably. Three of our clients
at The Editorial Department have found themselves in this
position-a six-figure advance from a major publisher that
didn't earn out and thus made their next book difficult
or impossible to sell. This is far too common in
publishing when it comes to first novels, no matter how
talented the writer. The challenge of being a small fish
in a big pond-particularly with the majority of
advertising and promotion dollars going to established
bestsellers-is very real. Earning out an advance is part
of the reason new writers must work so hard on their own,
regardless of what their publisher is or is not doing for
them on the promotion front.
"Over the long term, it does interest me," says
Richtel on the subject of making a living as a writer,
"but I'm very skeptical. I'm not even to the point
of cautious optimism because I have a wife, we want to
have a family-I think it's possible to eke out a living
as a fiction writer when your expenses aren't those of a
mid-career person. For me, making a living means paying
my bills and not living in terror."
Exact numbers of book advances are frustratingly hard to
come by. Perhaps reluctance to talk dollars and cents
when it comes to book advances is a by-product of either
embarrassment or a sort of survivor's guilt while other
writers continue to struggle or starve. Regardless, an
advance is perceived as an indicator of value rather than
an educated guess about a cut of future earnings.
Faust describes the advance this way:
"With most publishers an advance usually reflects
your book's earning potential the first year it's on
sale, less costs to the publisher. What does that mean?
Traditionally when publishers run those elusive numbers
they try to estimate how many copies a book will sell its
first year in print, then they try to figure out how much
it's going to cost them to make that book-design the
cover, pay for paper, printing, binding, and shipping
costs-and then they will figure out how much you might
make on the book based on your royalty percentage. And
that's your advance. It's your share of the book's profit
its first year in print. Of course the publisher (and
you) hopes you far exceed that number and that first
royalty statement blows the advance out of the
Manuscripts are printed in hardcover, trade paper, or
mass market editions, determined by comparison books,
review potential, high concept, and quality writing.
Rick Horgan, Executive Editor of Crown, an imprint of
Random House, was kind enough to break down those
"elusive numbers," which end up sounding like a
complicated high school math problem. Horgan estimated a
distribution of 25,000 copies on an average commercial
fiction launch for an author's debut novel in hardcover.
The publishing house might announce 50,000 copies, but
this is a "gross exaggeration because publishers
always over-announce," Horgan says. Of those 25,000
copies, 65% will sell through with the remaining 35% in
returns. To put it simply, if the publisher ended up
selling roughly 15,000 copies, with the author making 15%
in royalties on a $25 hardcover ($3.75 per book), that
equates to about $50,000 in author earnings on a
Many novels also have a paperback life. The formula Crown
uses is half-half the distribution, half the author's
royalty rate, at half the book's selling price. If the
hardcover had a sell-through of 15,000 copies, the
paperback run would be 7,500 to 10,000 paperbacks, either
trade paper or mass market. The typical sell-through rate
of trade paper is 70%. The typical royalty rate is 7.5%
of $13.95 ($1 per book), making about $7,000 in profit
for the author on the paperback run.
"If it had some legs it would sell a little bit more
in the next few years," Horgan says, "but it
tells you that for a hardcover fiction novel, publishers
probably will be thinking $75,000 and the agent will
probably try and pull them up to six figures." This
is a specific example for a hardcover novel, however.
"If you sent me a book that was a trade paper
submission," says Horgan, "say it's a TV
companion guide to that Keifer Sutherland show, '24,' an
episode guide. You'd view it through a whole new lens. No
one's going to pay $25 for this book, every other TV
companion guide in the universe, they're trade
paperbacks, you'd price it at $13 at 7.5% royalty rate.
You'll try to get out 15,000 copies, you'd look at what
previous TV companion guides ultimately netted. You
probably won't project a net more than 20,000 copies.
Therefore the advance I'm probably going to pay is
Academic and poetry presses distribute much smaller
quantities-2-3,000 copies-at a rate more akin to pro-bono
work. The economic model is simply different and can't be
compared to big New York publishing houses like Random
Advances are rarely paid out all at once. Usually, half
of the agreed upon amount is paid on signing the contract
with the other half due once the revised manuscript is
delivered and accepted by the editor. According to Faust,
however, this payment schedule is on the move.
"It seems that more and more publishers are dividing
payments into thirds, or more," says Faust.
"Partial payment on signing, partial on delivery and
acceptance, sometimes partial on the delivery and
acceptance of proposals for any other books, and the
dreaded partial payment upon publication. I hate that.
Authors hate it. Agents hate it and publishers love it.
It's becoming standard now at most houses, so complain
all you want, you're not getting out of it, no matter how
small your advance is."
While negotiation on the advance amount occurs between
agent and the editor, there is something the author can
contribute to a larger payout: marketing.
Unless your last name is King, Steele, or Evanovich, a
book advance is probably not something a writer can live
on, unless he/she is going for the lean, hungry look.
While writers have very little control over the amount of
their advances, they have more responsibility for the
size of their royalty checks than anyone else in the food
chain. When and if a book has met and exceeded the amount
paid on the advance, the author starts making a
percentage of subsequent sales. As mentioned above, the
average royalty rate for a hardcover is 15% of the book's
list price, and for a paperback, 7.5%. The more copies
you're able to sell, the more money you make.
The success of a first book determines the future of a
second book: if a debut tanks, publishers are less likely
to take a chance on a large advance amount or to even
bring out the second book at all. Demonstrating
initiative and eventual profit on a novel is most
important for debut authors.
"I've taken seriously the marketing piece of this
and I've done so in part because I'm interested in seeing
if I could build an audience for myself that could create
a market for a second book," says Richtel.
"I've done so in an equal part if not larger part
because I really care about this book and the ideas in
it, and I really enjoy talking about them and doing radio
When purchased by a traditional publishing house, an
in-house publicist is generally assigned to your book.
This person should be well-connected and knowledgeable
about the most viable market for everything from Cajun
cookbooks to Jane Austen reprints.
"I didn't leave it entirely in the publisher's
hands," says Richtel. "The publisher did a
pretty good job-by first book standards an amazing job.
They contacted hundreds of media outlets, but I also
wound up working with a publicist I know locally who was
able to contact more tech-centric journalists, people who
might know of me or some of the subject matter in the
book that the publicist at the national level probably
wouldn't . And that paid huge dividends."
On a smaller scale, authors can continue to follow
Richtel's advice without his New York Times contacts.
"I also followed the lead of a number of authors who
have given me counsel, who've said 'Go into bookstores,
introduce yourself, for the love of God, don't be a prima
donna about it,'" Richtel says. "I've been
fairly unabashed in sending out a handful of e-mails to
friends and other people asking them to spread the word.
I've put up a website, I've had a bunch of cards printed
out with the name of the book on them and tried to give
them out in a not-too-offensive way."
The initiative of a writer is also important to literary
"I'm not signing a book, I'm signing a writer,"
says Kelly Mortimer, literary agent at Mortimer Literary
Agency. "I look at the writer's potential... What
kind of personality do they have? Are they a go-getter,
or do they lack the skills they need to promote
Faust thinks marketability is the most valuable quality
in a first novel. Whether the marketability derives from
the writing or the author is inconsequential as long as
there's something to pitch.
"For a first novel, if you can come up with a really
interesting hook, that's what's going to get you in the
door almost more than anything else," Faust says.
"Once you have a track record and your name itself
is the marketable product, I don't think you have to
worry so much about the hook."
With such a competitive industry as publishing, it's
natural to seek out alternative modes of publication.
Print on Demand and self-publishing companies have gained
popularity as a way to publish a manuscript with little
or no editorial intervention and regardless of a
third-party publisher's notion of sales viability. When
an author chooses to self-publish, the need to be his/her
own publicist becomes especially important. Instead of
helping a publicity team, you are the publicity team. The
financial burden of promoting a book is on your shoulders
and dependant on the contacts you have. Gray
self-published his first novel and published his second
through Publish America, a blend of traditional and Print
on Demand publishing.
"You do have to do a lot on your own with Publish
America," Gray says. "Publish America does make
the book available in a variety of databases and does
some promotion-they send out press releases to some
select markets and things like that. I certainly didn't
have to pay for it, but I still have to get it into
Borders and Barnes and Noble."
In other words, using a less traditional mode of
publishing puts more of the burden on the author. Gray
would have to contact every individual Border's location
to ask them to sell his book as well as Barnes and
Noble's regional distributor, a contact that probably
isn't in his rolodex. The benefit of an in-house
publicist at a traditional publishing house is that they
are professionals at marketing a book. They know what
works, they know who to talk to, and they know what makes
people buy, buy, buy.
You Can Do
Despite the rumors, traditional publishing isn't going
anywhere. There are back doors and loopholes, but the
surest way to make money by book publishing is through a
literary agent and publishing house. While
self-publishing and Print on Demand might be a viable
technique to get a new voice to the public, it's
generally best thought of as a stepping stone to making a
living as a writer. The exception here is when an author
has a significant professional platform of some sort that
can be exploited to sell books. While authors who
self-publish probably have the hardest time when it comes
to selling their books, authors of traditionally
published books are well advised to be highly proactive
rather than leaving the marketing to their assigned
publicist, no matter how good they may be. To make the
most money off of a book deal, authors, editors, and
literary agents have lots of recommendations.
"Look into promotion," Mortimer says.
"Local newspapers and radio stations love to feature
hometown authors. Make contacts. Every author dreams
about having a big book signing. Unless you're famous or
have some angle, these often end up as if you threw a
party and no one showed. Instead, try public speaking
with a signing afterward. A serious writer has to have a
website, and give their readers a reason to go back to
it. Have contests, writing tips, interviews, etc. Make
more contacts. Oh, and one last thing. Make
In the same vein, Richtel owes a lot of his success to
his business contacts through The New York Times.
"Fiction, as much as everything else, is who you
know," says Richtel. "I discovered that the
agents that made an offer to take me on were largely
those who I had a personal connection to through a friend
or through a work colleague. It was a startlingly high
correlation between who wanted to take me on and who I
had a connection to, and that flows in part from the
Times. You know a lot of writers as a journalist."
Making the job easier for the often overworked editors
and agents is another technique to increasing a payout.
"It's really important to have an idea that can be
easily summed up," Horgan says. "It just makes
everybody's task of pitching something easier. That's
very helpful. Know your genre, too. There are so many
people working in genres who have read only sporadically
in their genres and they make the mistake of using
devices that have been used way too much already. The job
of a writer is to assess and build on what has been done,
so they have to know what has been done already."
Building a platform is another way to make yourself
attractive as a client and marketable author. In the
context of publishing, a platform is the marketable
aspects of a writer, encompassing past accomplishments,
media exposure, and public notoriety. A platform is the
best indicator of your ability to sell your book on your
own-this is why celebrities are such a hot commodity.
While Faust believes that a writer's platform isn't as
important in the grand scheme of things, Mortimer
"A strong platform is vital to a debut author,"
Mortimer says. "I'm in a situation right now that
really chaps my hide. I have a couple of exceptional
manuscripts editors loved that have gone to committee
numerous times and get shot down because, 'The writer
doesn't have a strong enough platform.' My advice to
aspiring authors: GET A STRONG PLATFORM. NOW!"
Richtel felt being able to write "New York Times
journalist" next to his name affected his advance
amount, Ghelfi has several more book proposals lined up,
and Gray has been working for years on collecting short
"I've discovered that when you're soliciting agents
or soliciting editors, if you can send them a letter or
e-mail saying I won this, or I won that, they pay more
attention to you," Gray says. "It all adds up
to a record so they can see I'm not a rookie, I've been
out there and done some things... I was very fortunate to
win some nice short story awards and that opened some
doors. They don't look at you as some wannabe but as
someone who's done it."
The most important aspect of wringing the most money out
of a book deal is something that all the interviewed
writers and agents agreed on: The absolute necessity to
love what you're writing.
"Make sure it's exciting and interesting to you,
because if it's not then it won't be interesting to
someone else trying to read it," Ghelfi says.
"I think that anybody who gets into writing with the
expectation to be rich and famous is making a big
mistake... I tell people, if you love it then you're
doing it for the right reason."
When an author cares about his project, it shows. The
writing is more passionate, the author is more willing to
devote the long hours to editing drafts, and marketing
the book becomes a labor of love instead of a chore.
Putting your utmost effort into every step of the
publishing process is what will affect your book sales,
and thus your bank account.
Founded in 1980 by Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
coauthor Renni Browne to help writers turn promising
manuscripts into salable properties, The Editorial
Department is the oldest independent editorial firm in
operation today. What sets us apart from others in our
field are our 27 years in business, our high rate of
success with conventionally published first fiction, our
literary agent matchmaking program, and our commitment to
candor and high standards in evaluating our clients'
Our editorial staff comprises a team of dedicated
editors, many of whom are published writers themselves
with distinct areas of specialization. While we can't
guarantee you publication as a result of working with The
Editorial Department, we can dramatically improve your
Check out our website at: http://www.editorialdepartment.com
Between the Lines, our e-zine: http://www.editorialdepartment.com/content/view/50/356/
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