Why Advances Matter

With 11 days to go, the First (Pro) Novel Survey is up to more than 200 responses, which is wonderful!  But it’s also generated some interesting feedback in comments and e-mails.  Some people are upset that small press, self-published, and e-book authors can’t participate.  Others say advances are part of a dying publishing model.  There’s been worry that advances can actually harm an author who doesn’t earn out.  To top things off, I’m told I’m completely out of touch with the current state of publishing.

Let’s start with the basics.  An advance is an advance against your royalties.  When I sold Goblin Quest to DAW, they paid me $4000, half on signing and half on publication.  (Slightly lower than the average, because Goblin Quest was a reprint of a small press title.)  For the sake of easy math, let’s say I got 50 cents in royalties for every copy that sold.  So for the first 8000 books, I got nothing — I had already received that money up front.  But once we sold book 8001, I officially earned out the advance and began receiving royalties.

Even if I never sold those 8000 copies, I keep the advance. Nor would I be blacklisted for failing to earn out.  A lot of books never earn out their advance.  Understand that the publisher doesn’t necessarily lose money on those books.  The math is a little messy, but publishers can and do still make a profit on books that don’t earn out.

Will publishers get a little cranky if they pay you a six-figure advance and you only sell 10,000 books?  Well, sure.  It might mean smaller advances in the future.  You might need to adopt a pseudonym (as many others have done), or change to a different publisher.  But it doesn’t mean the end of your career.

Remember the advance represents an investment on the part of the publisher, and I want my publisher as invested as possible in my book. There are never any guarantees, but which do you think will get more of a sales push, the book where they paid the author $5000 up front, or the one where they paid $50,000?

Finally, there’s the fact that royalties take a long time to show up.  Let’s assume your book is going to earn out, which means you’re eventually going to get the same amount of money either way.  Would you rather get that money today, or wait and get it in a year or two or more?

Writing is not a hobby to me.  It’s a career, one that helps me pay the mortgage and feed my family.  My advances mean I know I’m going to receive a certain minimum amount on each book.  I can start to plan and budget, meaning I’m better able to make a living with this.  (Now if only my publisher would offer a health plan for its authors…)

As for the frustration and anger that I’m shutting out small-press and self-published authors with this survey?  Yes.  Yes I am.  I’ve got nothing against small press and self publishing.  (Please see above, where I first sold Goblin Quest to a small press.)  But that’s not what I was interested in for this survey.  I wanted to learn more about how authors break in with bigger, advance-paying publishers.  If you have a problem with that … well, it’s your problem.  Deal with it.

E-book Privilege

I’ve been thinking about e-books a lot lately, for some reason.  (Amazon still hasn’t restored Macmillan titles, last I checked.)  In particular, there’s a debate in the SFWA Lounge about the shift from printed books to electronic.

I think we’re in a very dynamic time.  E-books are changing, and we’re waiting to see who’s going to be the dinosaurs and who’s going to follow the superior evolutionary path of the  platypus.  Will multipurpose devices (iPad, smartphones) do away with single-purpose readers (Kindle)?  Will Cory Doctorow single-handedly throw DRM into the abyss forever?  Will e-books approach 100% market share, doing away with all but a handful of print-on-demand artifacts?

It occurred to me that there’s an element of privileged assumption going on with some of these predictions.  I’ve had this conversation online with people who obviously have stable Internet access and a fairly high degree of tech-savviness.  I also see it at conventions, where people whip out their Kindles and iPhones to compare features.

The thing is, these are luxuries.  If you’re in a financial position to afford the latest toys, great.  But to project near-100% dominance of electronic books assumes that either the reading devices will drop to a price where all readers can afford them, or that if you’re poor, you simply won’t/don’t read.

Tobias Buckell jokingly called for a boycott of Kindles until they bring the price down below $99.  (He’s trying to break Amazon’s “monopoly” on the Kindle.)  But even $99 is a lot of money, and not everyone is in a position to invest that much extra money every few years (because the technology keeps advancing) in their reading.

I do think e-books are going to be a larger part of the market.  We’ve seen cellphone novels take off in other countries.  E-books make tremendous sense for certain markets — universities, for example.  And the technology keeps advancing.  But I don’t think you can assume everyone is going to switch to electronic books any more than you can assume everyone is going to get flat screen plasma TVs.

Printed books are relatively cheap.  $7-8 for a new mass market paperback.  A buck or less for a used one.  I don’t see that going away any time soon. What do you think?

Jim C. Hines