Demystifying the 6-Figure Book Advance for Authors

Book advances for first time authors

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

What exactly is a beach read anyway? Summery, sexy — or sexist? (Sophie McManus for The Washington Post): “If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction, you know we’re neck-deep in beach-read season. Lists of hot summer page-turners tumble from every magazine and corner of the Internet. But what, exactly, is a beach read?”

A 4-Part Checklist for Writing Strong Back Cover Copy (Chad Cannon): “That back cover copy (BCC, as we say) is often the make-it or break-it factor on the consumer’s journey toward purchase. If you read it and think ‘Psssh not for me,’ or ‘What? I don’t get it,’ then you set the book back down and move on. But if the copy captures you, you open the book, peruse its insides, and perhaps purchase.”

Working with Cover and Interior Designers (Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer): “Almost every publishing professional advising self-publishers says the same thing: focus on editing and cover design. Those are the two most important elements of your book, the ones that will make the biggest difference in how your book is received and how it will sell.”

Frontlist Fiction Hits a Dry Spell (Jim Milliot for Publisher’s Weekly): “Publishers have been expecting difficulty getting media attention for their books in the second half of 2016, as coverage of the presidential election dominates the various media outlets where authors usually drum up publicity.”

Demystifying the 6-Figure Book Advance for First-Time Authors

Let’s talk about this big subject today: book advances.

But first, you have to let me whine for 2 seconds, please, because I did an extremely dumb thing. I decided to try to close on three books in the two weeks before my wedding. Because obviously, wedding planning isn’t that hard, right? And because I didn’t have two big business trips already. And because it’s not a busy season in my life, at all.

Let’s just say the past few weeks have involved a lot of hand-wringing and whining and wine. Lots of wine. Wine is my new maid of honor. Wine might be my new groom. (Jarrett, thoughts?)

But now that I’m almost through it (and getting married Saturday the 27th!), it does feel absolutely exhilarating. And it got me thinking about this business of selling books and how complex and ever-changing it really is.

Each of the three books I sold had wildly different circumstances. Two were from first-time authors and one was from an already-established, highly successful author. Yet it doesn’t matter whether it’s an author’s first book or tenth book–my goal is always the same:

I don’t want to just to sell a book to a publisher. I want to represent books that will sell-through to readers. 

I want every one of my authors to be well-compensated for the time they put into their book, but I also want to place them in a strong position to earn out their advance so that they can write a second book. This means finding that perfect mix of the right publisher (a publisher that excels in the category and will bring strong enthusiasm and resources to the project) and the right advance level (one that compensates the author handsomely and is achievable to earn-out).

That’s why, when I sign an author, I need to 100% believe that they are capable of both earning a high advance and earning-out that high advance. And yes, there are situations when I believe that an author can earn out even a 7-figure advance. And yes, there are also situations when the right move is to have an author accept a lower advance from the perfect-for-them publisher.

In fact, twice this year I’ve had authors turn down six-figure book advances for a slightly lower advance from a publisher that they really loved. I know that’s not a popular move, and most people would fight tooth-and-nail against it. But you know what? It was the right thing to do.

And it’s worked out wonderfully both times: One author wildly exceeded expectations and received a significantly larger six-figure advance on her second book from the publisher she loved working with. The other wowed her publisher so much that they designated her as one of their lead authors for the season, and I have no doubt that she’ll earn-out and grace us all with a second book.

Yet advances are still a thorny subject, even for agents. I’ve been in nearly every book advance scenario possible, and I’ve come to realize that there are certain myths and misunderstandings that are weighing on authors and their expectations.

And I totally get how this can be such a difficult topic. Money can flare up the worst sides of us, and too often authors can get side-tracked by advance envy. But I promise you–cross my heart–that your advance matters so much less than you think. What matters more?

  • Your drive
  • Your ingenuity
  • Your commitment to investing in your career
  • Your passion (and your ability to protect that passion from the drain of the prosaic)

So today let me walk you through the most common questions I get about advances and tell you exactly how to get your  head and your heart aligned toward the right goals:

Should I aim for a six-figure advance?

Well, it depends. (Our very favorite answer in this industry!) Let’s look at it this way: an advance is essentially one business (the publisher) making an investment in another business (the author). The investor is making a bet that they’ll recover their investment, plus generate a profit, and the investee uses that capital to fund their business (by paying their cost of living, paying themselves a salary, paying a publicist or branding expert to build their author brand, etc.).

A six-figure advance can be a wonderful thing when it’s a solid investment: the royalties for copies sold exceed the advance, the publisher recoups its investment, and the author begins to earn royalties. Everyone is happy, cake is served, and high-fives go around.

The problem is that most books don’t earn out. By some reports, 7 out of 10 books don’t earn back their advance. So 70% of the time, authors are not smashing through the advance ceiling. But believe it or not, that’s actually okay.

That’s because publishers can still make a profit from a book that didn’t earn out its advance, as long as the gap between upfront investment and revenue isn’t massive. (See Steve Laube’s great explanation of this math if you really want to wonk-out.)

So what matters most is how close you came to earning back that advance. If you almost earn out your advance, you could still get a second book deal.

And that’s ultimately the goal, right? It’s not to get rich off of one book. It’s to have a long and happy career as an author, one that allows you to make a decent living from your art.

That’s why I always tell authors that aiming for a six-figure advance is short-sighted. Aiming for great book sales is smart.

Will I be able to publish another book if I don’t come close to earning back my advance?

Let’s go back to the scenario where an author receives a six-figure advance, but this time the book doesn’t come close to earning back the advance. What happens next?

Well, publishers meet several times a year for a post-mortem of their titles, and they’ll sit and review all the books they published that season and see which ones met expectations and which ones didn’t.

That’s a very important distinction—it’s not about reviewing how many copies each book sold on its own. It doesn’t matter if two books sold 15,000 copies each. If one of the books received a $100,000 advance and the other a $15,000 advance, the one with the smaller advance will be perceived as a success (because it met expectations) and the one with the larger advance will be perceived as not having met expectations.

This is the point where the publisher takes a good long look at what went right, what went wrong, and most importantly, whether they’d like to continue their business partnership with an author.

If the loss on the book was too high, or if they felt the author didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, then the publisher may decline the author’s next book. The author’s agent is then free to take it out wide and share it with editors at other publishing houses.

This is where a good agent can help you, because it becomes our job to explain to editors exactly why your previous book didn’t have its best shot in the market and why your new book will be very different. Is it a different category? Was your first book on a niche topic? Was your first publisher a niche publisher? Has your platform grown significantly since your first book?

Lackluster sales of a first book are a big hurdle we have to overcome, but it is absolutely possible to overcome them if we can make a strong argument about why your new book will be different.

So should I not pay attention to the advance amount at all?

Absolutely not. Advances matter. Because of course (of course!) the big picture is a little bit more complex than what you see on an offer letter.

An offer letter from a publisher will outline their upfront investment in your work (the advance) but it doesn’t delineate the back-end investment they’re making in terms of marketing and publicity. This is incredibly important because not only are they fronting the cost of producing, printing, and distributing the book (which is a very significant cost, as most self-publishers know), but they’re also earmarking a portion of their overall marketing and publicity budget for you and your book.

Which books get a greater cut of the overall marketing and publicity budget? The big books. The lead titles. The ones they’ve invested more money in upfront and which they want to push to success by investing more money on the back-end.

That $100,000 advance most likely comes with an additional $50,000+ in marketing and publicity dollars that will be invested not only into selling your book, but also into building your brand. So the larger the advance, the more money a publisher will put into promoting your book, and the higher the likelihood that your book will succeed and lead to a second book deal.

This upfront capital also allows you to invest in your own business in a way that you might not be able to otherwise. I always, always recommend that my authors reserve a portion of their advance to reinvest into their book and business, since this is such a crucial juncture in the growth of your career. You want to give yourself every possible advantage that your debut will be a big success, because the doors that will open to you from there can truly and honestly change your life.

What’s the easiest way to get a six figure book advance (and another one after that!)?

Well, that’s the big question right?

It’s the big question that was resounding around the room when I spoke at BlogHer a few weeks ago. The room was packed with bloggers who wanted to write books, and at the root of every question was this one:

How do I get a book deal?

For nonfiction, the answer is simple: build a fan base. And to get a big advance, build a big fan base. Every single book that I’ve sold this year for over six-figures has been because the author had a massive following. For fiction, it’s a little bit more difficult to quantify, but there are things that will make you highly attractive to publishers: incredible writing, a timely, interesting story, and third-party affirmations of the quality of your work (this can be anything from reviews of your other writing, prestigious degrees or positions, previous publication in highly regarded outlets, the praise of successful writers, and the backing of a respected agent).

Two nonfiction case studies, for the unconvinced:

  • A few years ago I had an author come to me with a finished book proposal. The idea wasn’t right, but her platform was fantastic. I signed her right away and worked with her one-on-one to develop a stronger book concept. We ultimately sold her book to one of the big-five publishers for six-figures.
  • Another author had always dreamed of writing a cookbook but she heard an agent speaking at a conference about the importance of a platform, and it dissuaded her from working further on her book proposal. Instead, she started a blog, built it over several years, and eventually I scouted her and signed her. We sold her book at auction for 6-figures to one of the top cookbook publishers.

The lesson?

When you have a great book + a strong platform, the doors of opportunity will fling open.

Everything falls into place when you’ve done the foundational work to build your business as an author. Agents will come to you. Editors will be eager to set up calls with you. Publicity and marketing teams will get excited about what they can do with you. And most likely, you’ll end up with a bidding war for your book that results in a six-figure advance.

But I hope you’ll take a good long look at that advance and see it as the investment in your business that it is. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right–to break out as an author and put yourself on a positive career trajectory.

In fact, the two authors cited above had achieved such financial success from their platforms that, once the time was right for their book deal, they were able to reinvest a large chunk of their advance into the success of their book: they hired a publicist, set aside an additional budget for advertising, earmarked funds for giveaways or other promotional tools, or reinvested the money back into other aspects of their business.

So, if you learn one thing from this article, it’s to take the long-view of your career. Make a long-term commitment to your business, and never forget that your most valuable asset is a devoted fan-base. From there, all other success will flow naturally and easily.

For further reading about book advances for first-time authors:

  • About That Book Advance… (Michael Meyer for The New York Times): “Yet despite the economic downturn, and the fact that 7 out of 10 titles do not earn back their advance, the system doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In recent interviews, a dozen New York-based publishers and agents told me, more or less, ‘Publishers have to keep buying books,’ and ‘They have to bid for the best books’ — which in large part means those that will sell.”
  • How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal (John Romaniello on TheFour-HourWorkWeek.com): “…There are authors who never–as a principle–want a maximum advance. … This ensures that all of their books are financial ‘winners’ for their publishers, even in a worst-case scenario. This ensures future book deals. After all, [an author] would reason, if the book succeeds, the advance is irrelevant. If the book doesn’t “earn out” the advance, you might have created a rope for hanging yourself… professionally, that is. Advances can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, higher advances tend to ensure more publisher support in terms of print runs, marketing, and PR. On the other hand, if you bite off more $$$ than you can chew, it can backfire with a vengeance.”
  • Betting Big on Literary Newcomers (Jennifer Maloney for The Wall Street Journal): “Literary fiction, long critically revered but poorly remunerated, is generating bigger and bigger bets by publishers. Thanks to a spate of recent runaway hits such as ‘The Goldfinch’ in 2013 and ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ last year, publishers are increasingly willing to pony up enormous advances to secure potential blockbusters.” 
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Book advances for first time authors