Advances vs. working on spec

Over at his Whatever blog, John Scalzi has a post about advances and what they represent. Every author would like to have a fat advance as part of a great contract, but what does a zero advance contract mean?
This is why advances are a good thing: They put the author at the front of the line to get paid. Which, given that the publishing industry is all about selling what the author provides, is where the author should be. If a publisher doesn’t have paying the author first as its default, then it tells me something very significant about what they think about authors — and what priority authors are in their publishing scheme.
The whole post is informative, as are the comments. Well worth a read. Scalzi's summation - that an advance puts the author first in line to be paid - clarified a lot of muddy water for me. Well done you, Scalzi. However, what about other forms of compensation? Monetary or non-monetary? Up-front or delayed? Guaranteed or conditional?

What I do here at Landless is monetized through only one horrifically ineffective mechanism. Although I certainly expect to be in a situation where I and my agent/lawyer will review and consider a publishing contract which will address the subject of advances against earnings, I'm not there yet. My knowledge of novel publishing is analogous to a virgin's knowledge of sex: purely theoretical, based on avid research. So what's my take on advances?

When it come to being paid for my fiction, I've written for payment (i.e. one check up front, no royalties), written for exposure (i.e. for free, with no expectation of royalties), written for self-publishing (where I bore all the costs of production & got the majority of sales revenue) and written on spec (where I bore none of the costs of production & got a small fraction of sales revenue).

Of these, by far the worst monetary ROI was the "on spec" writing. Sales are driven by promotion and publisher organizational ability. Where I have skin in that game, I work. If I've already been paid, or don't expect to be paid, my work is to write, submit and move on. Where my payment is tied to sales, my effort is proportional to my expected reward. Self-publishing pegs my share of the gate at anywhere from 35-70%. My percentage for "on spec" jobs ended up being considerably lower than that.

I haven't made any formal calculations of this, but enthusiasm for promotion of any one item starts to crap out below the 10% level. Busting your chops to sell $100 in product in order to get $10 is getting close to the point where I'd make more selling washing machines at Sears.

A low percentage is offset (to an extent) by leveraging the same amount of promotion to sell multiple products. When BUY MY BOOK! becomes BUY ALL MY BOOKS!, then $10 can turn into $20 or $30 - a much better ROI. If the percentage is too low, though, even that doesn't help. Under those circumstances, it's better to take the lessons learned, walk away and go do something more productive.

An advance against sales means the publisher is willing to put itself in the hole based on confidence that there will BE sales. The bigger the hole, the more commitment to the project. For any book I've written, I'm already in the hole for my blood, sweat and ink. I want my partners to be right in there with me.

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1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately having a publishing contract doesn't guarantee you'll get paid either.


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