Advance and Retreat
I was looking over some stuff this past week (well, two weeks really) about book advances being incomparable to the advances we were seeing 15 years ago (okay, the book advances others were seeing 15 years ago… I was still in college then and had no clue I was going to be a published fiction author one day) and I caught myself wondering why anybody would want to give ground to a publisher on the topic of advances. I mean, I hear people bemoaning the fact that a lot of people are getting less and less for advances, and that sucks. But these are also people who deal with the Big 5, people who have agents to deal with the bean counters at the major publishing houses.
So the agents have been negotiating smaller advances on behalf of their clients? Considering that agents only get paid a small percentage of what they negotiate, this seems to be a strange business strategy.
Nonetheless, there are advantages to having a small advance. You can earn it out faster, which could inflate your sell-through percentage and cause the bean counters to take a closer look at your “successful” novel (MATH TIME!!! 10000 copies printed and you “only” sell 7500, that’s a 75% sell-through rate… which is a fabulous percentage in today’s market) and an author could build up from there. They can use that high sell-through number and call for a higher advance on the next book (theoretically).
Of course, this scenario assumes that the publisher is going to help out with marketing and actively try to push the author’s name out there. We’re talking front page interviews on the company’s website, free snippets, ad space in Publisher’s Weekly… the list is long. The author will also be expected to do some promotional work like signings (signings are awesome!) and also push their book harder than Atlas does while holding the world up.
A few years back an author named Elizabeth Kostova wrote a book called The Historian. It was a decent book, in my opinion, but the main news behind it was the $2 million advance it received. A $2 million advance meant that the publisher was putting a lot behind a book from an unknown author to be a huge success (they were banking on the Twilight fans to crossover and the Anne Rice fans falling in love with it, I believe). With that size of advance, the publisher needed to make sure that there were a ton of books out there to recoup their advance. If the publisher is going to pay roughly $1.50 per hardcover book sold (which is about the average I believe) then they’re going to have to sell 1.3 million copies of the book.
But… huge but… you have to factor in sell-through rate. Remember when I said that a 75% sell-through was amazing? I’m guesstimating that Little,Brown (the book’s publisher) pumped out something like 4 million copies of the book to send out to bookstores so it could potentially hit a high sell-through rate. This seems like a lot, but you also need to remember that the publisher has put a lot of faith and money into this book and author. That $2 million doesn’t even begin to cover the marketing spree, the extra payments to be on end caps at bookstores, media blitzing, various TV shows… You can assume that the publisher probably matched the $2 million advance with a $1 million promotional budget. Sound absurd? Depends on who you ask.
Ms. Kostova’s The Historian was on the NYT bestseller list for 18 weeks. That’s pretty damn awesome, quite frankly. Assuming that the average sale per week to make it onto the NYT bestseller list is something on order of 10,000 books (again, pretty impressive numbers), after 18 weeks on the bestseller list she would have conservatively sold 180,000 books. Optimistically, let’s say that she sold 30,000 books per week and call it 540,000 books sold.
4 million in print, 540,000 sold… that puts her sell-through rate at 13.5%.
Ouch. That return rate had to hurt the publisher.
There is a reason that Little,Brown did not push her second novel. Oh, you didn’t know she wrote a second novel? She did. It was actually much better than the first. It’s called The Swan Thieves. Go check it out.
Now, an author can be set for a long time on that initial $2 million advance. But part of being an author is being in business for yourself. If you’re first novel tanks (ignore the NYT bestseller list and focus on the part that the publisher pays attention to, which is the sell-through), it’s going to be very, very hard to sell your next book to any publisher. Especially if you come in and try to get a similar advance.
Smaller advances can be good for young authors, as I was reminded today by Larry Correia’s wife. They can help build that sell-through rate and make the author more appeasing in the eye of a publisher. At the same time, though, it means that the author has to continue producing. Writing a book and getting paid peanuts for it means that you can’t be a “one and rich” author (not that there are a lot of those out there… most authors who are wealthy worked their butts off to make it happen). That’s why the really successful authors have a backlist of books. Larry Niven has something like 100+ books and short stories in his backlist.