Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The debate re author advances

Stories regarding dwindling author advances have been circulating around the Internet for a while, and Mick Rooney recently discussed this subject extensively on his blog. In many ways this is not new or even big news, but The Times newspaper has got hold of the story, and so now it is.

The article in The Times which was published on July 11th, states that in some cases authors are having their advances slashed by as much as 75 percent. Historians are some of the hardest hit, with some the article states, turning to historical fiction instead in a bid to earn more money. Some who have previously commanded advances of over £100,000 have seen these slashed to just £30,000 (which I have to say still seems an awful lot to me).

Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, said that she was avoiding a new contract because of the uncertain state of the market. “I would not be surprised if I were now offered half of my last advance,” she said. “A few years ago we got really handsome advances to write books that did indeed become quite good bestsellers, but never earned out their advances. Then the publishers started asking jobbing authors to write books that did annoyingly well, but they’ve dried up, too. Now, as far as I know, what has replaced us are books about the history of science.”

Professor Jardine goes on to say that print on demand technology, which has been around for some ten years now in the UK, has shaken publishers confidence in their existing business models, and is a huge issue, causing them to avoid risky authors.

This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that if Jardine and others like her did not earn their advances back, then they were obviously too high to begin with. An advance is just that, an advance against sales, which is offset against future sales. The author only starts to earn royalties once they have sold sufficient books to earn that advance - if they do not, then no royalties are paid. The advance is usually non refundable - and in many cases, is all the money the author will get. Claims that the industry are taking advantage of authors during the recession do not then stand up.

One unnamed historian states that she knows another female author in the same genre who is hawking a book on a very marketable topic and has been offered an advance of just £25,000, which represents three years work. This she says is pretty serious.

To me serious is when you spend five years writing a book (as I did), living off an inheritance and savings. At the end of those five years, after receiving countless rejection letters from agents and publishers, you self publish, only to be told that book stores will not stock you as the books are not returnable. This is the true reality of publishing for the silent majority, and I cannot help feel that many of these historians who are now complaining so vociferously are a bit precious - it is clear to me that they do not live in the real world.

Is cutting author advances such a bad thing - in fact, should authors receive an advance at all? Is it fair that the publisher takes all the risk, shelling out money upfront in addition to the actual cost of publication for a book that may or may not sell? The advance which is usually paid in three parts (a third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of the manuscript and a third on publication), comes directly from the publishers marketing department based on the projected profit and loss sheets which are drawn up when the publisher is considering making an offer. It would be nice if we all earned these mega advances, but the majority of authors are lucky to get more than £10,000 and a substantial number of these never earn their advances back.

These are many factors which decide the level of advance paid - sales of previous books, the authors experience and business acumen, their agents negotiating skills (if they have one), interest from other buyers - all these things play a part. The advance signifies the publishers belief in the author, and the higher the advance generally speaking, the higher the marketing budget.

It is easy to see with all of this that the odds are stacked heavily against the publisher, who is expected to shoulder all the risk, so why continue in this way? It makes no sense and is an outdated method of doing business which is no longer relevant or useful. If advances were abolished then good writers would still earn good money, and publishers more to the point would also make money - since less would be wasted propping up authors whose sales do not stack up. This would leave more to go towards nurturing new talent which the industry so desperately needs. As one commentor on The Bookseller, which published the story today notes, too many have been riding the gravy train for too long, that it has taken on an aura of normalcy, something which is theirs by right, when it is clearly not. To defend this institution is nothing more than protectionism, which keeps new authors out and the double whammy of the recession and new technology has revealed the gaping cracks which were there all the time.
Of course if advances were to be abolished, authors would need to be compensated with considerably higher royalties, and that is matter for the industry to debate and work out. It is time in many ways that the balance of power shifted more equally between author and publisher and this may be one way to redress the imbalance. It remains to be seen how and if this can be done, but if not I fear that the flood of authors choosing to embrace the self publishing route, when they realise that they can and often do earn more, will soon turn into a hemorrhage.


Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Hi June,
thanks for pointing me over here. I think, alas, the traditional industry will keep on maintaining things don't need fixing until the break's so big it can't be bandaged over. I do think authors are a little to blame, expecting advances that just aren't feasible. The question is what that big break will be. I have a feeling what we really need is for an author with a small, innovative press, or a self-publisher, to go stratospheric and then NOT leap on the mainstream publishing wagon but pull others away from it. By which time it will be too late for many of the old companies.

Part of the reason the status quo is so stubbornly maintained is that many in the self-publishing game do themselves no favours both on the business side (the existence of pernicious vanity companies) and the author side (putting out books that haven't been properly edited). This gives fodder for the traditionalists to use to create generalisations about self-publishing. Add to that the fact that most authors are solitary curmudgeons, and a divide and rule policy is easy to enforce.

Fortunately there are some great sites out there for self-publishers (like www.publetariat.com). Rather like the nacsent universe, we have lots of matter floating, but it will start to acrete, and form larger bodies, and then the non mainstream sector will be a force to be reckoned with.


June said...

Thanks Dan - I wondered if you would Google me and find this blog and am pleased to see that you did. You make some interesting comments there. I fear that the hole is already beginning to form a crater and the bandage factories I hear are all on overtime ...

I know what you mean about self publishers doing themselves no favours, frpm talking to and reading other authors books, but also from the negative reception I initially received from certain book stores (especially one which has been in the news this week with store closures). I was lucky in that I chose one of the few print on demand companies in the UK (in fact the first one in this country) who was able to get my book on sale or return, the change in attitude when the book sellers realised this was really quite humerous, and it turned things around. It seems to me then that there are not so much anti POD or anti self publishing, as long as have a good product, but that it is all about the money. If you have a good book at the right place that they think they can sell, then they will stock it and fortunately mine has and continues to sell. This is all due to my hadrd work and nothing to do with a traditionalists marketing budget.

A friend once told me that the self publishing was the feminine way of publishing while the traditionalists used the masculine way - despite the fact that for the first time in the US at least more POD books were printed than lithographic (and it is only a matter of time before it happens here too), the traditionalists continue to cling to their old and doing as much as possible to keep us out. How often do you read any news about the self publishing sector on The Bookseller - the only things I have seen this year are articles on the Amazon/Booklocker law suit and various takeovers by Authorhouse. Wd do not get a look in and so are forced to form our own communities.

Chris Nichol said...


I followed Dan here from the Bookseller. I actually agree with everything he says here too but have real problems with some of the things you say. Now as a publisher I disagree with this "Is it fair that the publisher takes all the risk, shelling out money upfront in addition to the actual cost of publication for a book that may or may not sell?"

Publisher's don't take all the risk. Authors put in vast amounts of time and as we all know time is money. Their committment in the project is their time and their expertise. The publisher's committment is in money and their time and expertise but in no way can they be said to be taking the risk. I find it hard to marry this with your claim to have spent 5 years writing your book. Wasn't that risking a collosal waste of time?

Finally, I won't comment on the nonsense of 'feminie and masculine' ways of publishing but would question your statistic about more books being printed POD then by litho. I doubt this very much. More titles perhaps but more books no. And even then I wonder how much of this is being done by mainstream publishers. Certainly we now do our initial print run just for pre-publication dues and any projected initial sales by litho and pretty much straight after that go to short run digital (if not POD). Its much better for the cash flow.

I also think that you've got this bit about face "print on demand technology, which has been around for some ten years now in the UK, has shaken publishers confidence in their existing business models, and is a huge issue, causing them to avoid risky authors."

It isn't that POD (or more accruately short run digital printing) is shaking our confidence in existing business models as such but actually allowing us to run less risky models. No longer do we have to print vast numbers of a book to get the unit cost down to sell at a price that we think will attract vast sales to justify large advances and leave us open to large returns, remainders and pulping. We can do smaller print runs, risking less capital, squeezing margins on printing that might be saved on fewer returns. Capital is the problem. There is a credit crunch and spending less on royalties and print-runs also happens to be less risky - so publishers do that.

Dan will be horrified because innovative publishing goes by the way but commercially successful publishing remains possible.

June said...

Fair comments Chris and you are of course entitled to your views.

One thing I would take issue with is your comment regarding those words "print on demand technology, which has been around for some ten years now in the UK, has shaken publishers confidence in their existing business models, and is a huge issue, causing them to avoid risky authors." Apart from the bit about being around for 10 years, these are not actually my words, but those of Lisa Jardine. If you read the article again, you will see that.