So if digital first publishing is becoming such a force to be reckoned with and self-published authors are raking in the big bucks, why aren’t more traditionally published authors jumping ship and embracing this brave new online world? In a word: advances.
Advances are golden handcuffs for midlist writers. They know if they come up with an idea for a book, write a quick synopsis–maybe a few pages–viola! They get money in the mail. Sure, it isn’t a ton of money. Sure, it takes forever to actually get it. But it’s guaranteed income and permission, of sorts, to continue their writing career.
Self publishing is much more of a gamble. You must write the entire book on spec. Without any advance. Without any guarantee of any money whatsoever. And then there’s the opportunity cost involved. If you’re busy writing for yourself, you’re not writing for a publisher. And not getting advances.
But let’s crunch some numbers here to see if those advances are really worth it. I apologize in advance for any math mistakes and feel free to correct them if you see them. I’m a writer and we’re notoriously bad at numbers!
Let’s say you make a decent $10,000 advance per book and you’ve just received a one book deal from your publisher. It sounds like a windfall, right? Well, not exactly.
Usually publishers will divide up advance payments into thirds. One third on signing. One third on delivery and acceptance. One third on publication.
So your first check, will be $3,333 minus your 15% agent fee. $2,833. Reserve a third for taxes and you’ve got a whopping $1,983 to spend.
Oh and don’t spend that check just yet. First your agent and publisher will have argue over the contract for a few months. Contract negotiations can take a long time–especially with all the new digital clauses publishers are trying to put into them. It’s not unreasonable to assume you won’t see the final contract for 3 months from agreeing to the deal.
Once you sign the contract, you’ll probably have to wait about another month for that check to be processed. So you’re now four months into the process. The point where many genre writers have already finished the book in question. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed in a manuscript before signing the contract.
Then there’s D&A. Authors mostly focus on the “D” –if I ideliver on this date, I’ll get paid. But not so fast. Many editors are so overworked it takes them months to get to your manuscript. I know one author who passed her book in back in April and finally got edits in October. That’s extreme, but still, on average it’ll take your editor at least a month to get to your book. Then you’ll get the revisions. If you’re a genre author, they might not be so heavy. But with YA and middle grade, there might be several rounds of revisions before the manuscript is accepted.
So even if you turned in your book 4 months from the time you agreed to the deal, it could be six months or later before you see that second check.
And then there’s the “on publication” check, which usually comes a month AFTER publication, from my experience. Which can be over a year from when you passed in the book.
So let’s say you get your offer November 1st, 2011.
- * First check – Februrary 2012
- * Second check – June 2012
- * Third check – July 2013
So that $10,000 dollars (or really $5,950 after agent commission and taxes) is spread out over a year and a half minimum.
And then there are the royalties. Which you won’t see for another six months to a year. And even when they do come and you’re lucky enough to earn out? They’ll hold a good percentage of your books “in reserve” just in case a bookstore ends up sending them back and they’re not really sales. And many books don’t earn out at all.
Now let’s look at ePublishing.
You start writing the book November 1st.
You finish the book March 1st.
You hire a freelance editor who gets the job done in 2 weeks. You bang out the edits, have a copyeditor give it a run through, and it’s ready to go up online April 1st.
On May 15th you get your first online check.
Now let’s talk royalties.
Your traditionally published book sold 10,000 copies. You make 75 cent a copy. (Trade paperback based on a standard 7.5 percent royalty rate.)
You’ve made $7,500 and are still $2,500 in the hole on your advance.
Your eBook sold 5,000 copies in the first month – HALF the copies of your traditionally published book.
You make $2.10 a copy. You receive $10,500. And you receive it on May 15th, 2011. In cash. Direct deposited to your bank account.
At this point, you’ve only received your $2,833 from your publisher. And your traditionally published book won’t be out for over a year. But with your eBook you’ve already got $7,667 in your pocket — money you wouldn’t have collected from your publisher in total for another year and two months.
And that’s just the first month. If you keep selling your ebook monthly – you’ve got a whole extra year to be pulling in income before your traditionally published book even hits store shelves!
Where's Waldo? Or, I mean, my book? Look hard!
Oh and by the way – for those you thinking – but with a traditional publisher, I’ll have my book in the bookstore! That has to count for something, right? – think again. With Borders closed and B&N tightening its belts, many midlist traditionally published books never see the inside of a mainstream bookstore. And if they do? It looks something like this on the left. Can you find my book in the stack? Will readers be able to?
Of course there is one advantage to advances. You don’t have to pay them back. So if you sell ZERO books, with a traditional publisher you’ll still have $10,000. (And a very unhappy publisher.) If you sell zero books online, you won’t make a dime. So there is a risk there, I won’t lie.
Bottom line: are advances really something a midlist author should remain dependent on? Or should we remove the golden handcuffs and take a chance on writing something on spec, for the digital first market? What will end up making us more money in the end?
Only time will tell. But as they say, “Those who dare, win.”