Book Advances: What they Mean to an Author

Front and rear covers for "Backyard Deer Hunting"

Front and rear covers for “Backyard Deer Hunting”

Self published titles that bypass conventional publishing houses are becoming increasingly significant parts of the modern book market.

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From the publisher’s point of view an author’s book advance is often considered as a production cost which, like all others, should be kept as small as possible to maximize the potential profit from the risky business of book publication. However, this view is somewhat shortsighted because this is the first indication to a prospective author of the publisher’s intent and how seriously they intend to promote the book. No advance, or a miserly one, is a strong indication that the book will receive minimal support from the publisher and they will do little or nothing to promote it outside of listing it in their catalogue, showing it on their website and exhibiting it at a few trade shows.

The lack of a significant author’s advance also indicates to potential wholesale buyers and distributors that, “If the publishing company did not think that the book was worth paying for, why should we bother to stock it?” The payment of a significant advance to an author is in most cases the first advertisement for the book and an indication of its importance. Regardless of the topic, there are increasing numbers of books published each year, and the announcement of a significant advance paid to an author is a first indication that this title is expected to be a contender for the best sellers’ lists.

Advances are designed to enable the author to cover the physical expenses of producing the book including the necessities like paper, toner, postage and a working computer as well as allowing him to work on the book without having to do other work to meet his monthly bills. A writer who is stressed out worrying about how he is going to pay his electric bill is not likely to give his book maximum care while he is trying to raise sufficient scratch to live on. This is not meant to support, “the lifestyle to which he would like to become accustomed,” but to allow a reasonable living. There is a maxim in the writing business that, “Paying work goes out first,” which is as true now as it ever was.

A common argument against paying advances is, “If we pay author “A,” then we will have to pay the same amount to every other author in our catalogue.” This is not true and never has been. Writers who have previously produced numerous books, who offer multiple books, titles that have the potential to turn into a series, have demonstrated that they promote their own titles, are good copywriters, enthusiastically promote their works through the social media and do well when interviewed on TV are worth much more than a writer who just sends in a book and does nothing else. Past demonstrated performance as well as future potential are both significant factors in determining who might get an advance and who would not. These factors also indicate how much that advance should be.

Writers who feel that they have been ill treated by a publisher or are offered no incentives to publish with that firm are increasingly likely to self-publish their own works and bypass commercial publishers. In today’s marketplace the connections between the producer of content and his consumer is becoming more direct. Producing, keeping and shipping inventory which was once the bane of all authors is now unnecessary with the advent of print-on-demand publishing houses.

Another even less expensive alternative is for the author to produce the title as an E-book, which brings the cost down to about $500 a title. Today’s author also has the possibility of selling ads to go into his softcover and E-books which further reduces the price. Should the E-book become popular, it is not uncommon for this already-published title to be re-edited and sold to a major publishing house for a considerable sum. A decade ago publishing houses controlled the book market, but this is increasingly not the case. Authors are now becoming their own publishers with their own imprint that is marketed through regular book channels.

The offer of a meaningful advance increases the possibility that a prospective writer will elect to have a publishing company produce and market his book. Publishing companies who want the best books from the best authors need to be prepared to pay for them.

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