The story so far: A couple of weeks ago, you got a call from your agent saying that your manuscript has been accepted by a publisher.
It’s your dream come true! You’re a real writer - it’s official! You ring round and tell all your friends. Your mum is so proud of you.
And then they start asking you: “So, how much is your advance?”; “I bet you can retire now, huh?”; “When are you going to buy your own Lear jet like Patricia Cornwell?”
The sensationalist stories in the press about authors being paid millions do the rest of us a huge disservice. Most writers don’t find themselves in the thick of a bidding war; most writers are lucky to get into five figures. In the moment of your crowning glory - you’re going to published, for god’s sake! - you are deflated by your well-meaning friends whose questions only serve to emphasise what you CAN’T buy with the money you’re being paid.
Some big name authors started with £500 for their first book and worked their way up the same way you might do in your day job - with long hours, commitment and striving for excellence. The more books you write, the more you become known and the more you become known, the more valuable you are - so your fee can go up.
What was my advance? For a two book deal from a first-time novelist, I was pretty lucky - I got into five figures - but not high up enough in those figures to keep me in the style I’d imagined (a ranch in Montana or some other vast American landscape a la John Grisham…)
How does an advance work? It’s an advance against royalties. Essentially, the publisher is taking a punt on you and your book and giving you some money up front. When your book hits the bookshelves, you get a royalty ie a percentage of the sale price. The publisher recoups the advance they’ve paid you by keeping your royalties until it breaks even and pays back what they’ve advanced you. The good thing for you is that if the royalties don’t break even, they don’t ask for the difference back from you.
So the financial risk lies entirely with the publisher and you can see why they tend to be cautious when doling out lump sum payments. They have no way of knowing if your book will make them anything back on their investment. All they know is that subjective gut feeling that your editor and her team has that they loved your book and they think it could sell.
Which is why in these competitive times, publishers prefer to take a punt on sure-fire successes like celebrity books. It’s like if you’re investing in the stock market - you’re more likely to invest in a strong well-known brand name multinational that’s safe like Boots or M&S than One Man and His Van Plc.
Here we are, we writers, thinking we’re creating literature and art. And at one level, we are - and those in the publishing industry do get excited and passionate when they come across great writing. Yet, at another level, it’s just economics.
So, don’t take it personally - whatever your advance is. There’s one thing that’s certain, at any given moment, somewhere in the world, there is a writer who’s just got a book deal and been told the sum of their advance and in that writer’s mind, it won’t be enough!