Advances are a concept specific to traditional publishing. To learn about them, I’ve looked at standard form contracts, spoken to several writer friends including Melodie Campbell and done research.
What is an advance? An advance is a prepayment by a publisher to a writer of a portion of the royalties expected from early book sales. It’s paid in installments, as specified in the publishing contract, from the time the contract is signed to the time the manuscript is finalized. Advances generally are non-returnable, except if the manuscript is not published because the writer fails to complete and deliver on time.
Looking at advances from the writer’s and publisher’s perspective. For a writer, an advance is income to pay personal and book expenses that is received well before royalties on book sales are paid. The lucky and rare writer who gets a large, publicity-worthy advance also has a promotional tool because a publisher is making a big statement about her book.
An advance for a publisher represents economic risk because it’s usually non-returnable. The publisher believes the advance will be earned out by sales. If it’s wrong, it loses money. A publisher might protect against this risk by calculating the advance using low expected sales or offering the writer a higher royalty rate for waiving the advance.
A large advance can be a double-edged sword for a writer. If the publisher does lose money, it could slash advances on future books or not publish those books. A writer who can get by without an advance might be better off long-term if she can negotiate a higher royalty rate in return.
So how big are advances? Public information on the average advance for a first-time fiction writer is spotty and anecdotal. This post from Michael Kozlowski dealing with the U.S. market suggests that the average advance from major publishing houses is between $5,000 and $10,000. Individual advances will vary dramatically based on many factors like market conditions, genre and the publishing house. Now and then, a highly sought-after book earns the writer much more.
The market for book sales in Canada is relatively small, so first-time fiction writers should be prepared for a much lower average advance.
Compared to self-publishing. The idea of this blog series is to evaluate what a first-time writer should think about in choosing between traditional and self-publishing. Average advances by publishers may seem low, but there are no advances in self-publishing. The self-pub foots the costs of publishing her book upfront and bears all the risk of not recouping them.
So, the option of getting an advance, however modest, is an advantage of traditional publishing.
Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze
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