Gianmaria Franchini on sliding book advances

Authors, agents, and editors talk honestly about money

George Orwell, always prescient, once wrote, “If booksellers wanted to be millionaires, they’d be in another line of business.”

Few writers count on becoming millionaires, and just the promise of a book advance is enough to keep many motivated.  But in this time of transition, when publishers struggle with uncertain book sales and march towards new digital models, advances have waned.  The bulwark against day jobs and exigent debt, the champion of getting the writing done, the book advance is in retreat.

That is what writer and editor Meghan Ward discovered after she surveyed 105 authors in November 2011. Ward had heard rumors from colleagues and agents about the precipitous fall of advances, and because she is shopping a memoir of her modeling career (titled Paris On Less Than $10,000 Dollars a Day), she wanted to put the rumors to test.

“We hear that advances have plummeted in the last few years,” she said.  “One agent told me that advances are a quarter of what they were a few years ago.  Though I did not do a direct comparison, my survey clearly shows that advances were quite high in 2008 and have steadily declined since then.”

The authors Ward surveyed reported an average advance of $124,000 in 2008, and that number decreased to less than $60,000 in 2011, though the survey was taken shortly before the year ended.

Because of its small sample size, Ward’s survey is not comprehensive, but it does represent a range of authors—an illustrative cut of the market at large.  Authors with and without agents participated.  A third of the authors sold non-fiction books; the rest sold young adult titles, novels, memoirs, short story collections, and other books.  Most advances were given by “big six” publishing firms – that collection of industry captains including Random House, Harper Collins, and Penguin – but independent and medium-sized publishers were also in play.

Except for memoirs and young-adult titles, which garnered average advances that held steady above $100,000, book advances trended downward across all genres, for all authors.

“It’s really, really hard to sell books,” said literary agent Andy Ross. “Publishers are not being irrational. Large multi-media corporations have bought many of them, and they have much higher expectations for the return on their investment. They don’t take many risks. I talked to Random House, and they said if they don’t think they can sell 20,000 copies of a book, they will not buy it.  The bar is very high, and the big publishers are under a huge amount of pressure.”

Daniela Rapp, an acquisitions editor with New York publisher St. Martin’s Press, said that in the current business climate her company has also become risk-averse.

“We are generally even more conservative in evaluating sales potential than we used to be—e-books are eating into our print laydowns,” she said. “That there are fewer opportunities for media exposure in both print and other outlets makes acquisitions of certain projects more difficult.”

What about writers themselves?  Freelance Journalist Steve Kemper, whose book Labyrinth of Kingdoms, about a prominent and forgotten explorer of Africa, will be on bookshelves in June 2012, received a $250,000 advance in 2001 for his first book, Code Name Ginger.

That advance, he said, ”was extraordinary then and would be more so now.” He added that the advance for A Labyrinth of Kingdoms was nowhere near that amount.  “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business what I got,” he said in answer to a point-blank inquiry, “but I got enough to make me feel comfortable to write the book.”

Kemper mentioned that during the writing of Labyrinths he was forced to spend more time then he would have liked on magazine work to make ends meet.  As a result, he needed two months longer than anticipated to finish the book.

Like Kemper, most authors were reluctant to share specific dollar amounts of advances. Some echoed Orwell’s reminder that writing is rarely a lucrative business–tightfisted market or no. And some have clearly made their peace with that reality.

“Even in these difficult times I look to writing itself as a great privilege. I’ve been lucky to make a living doing what I love, and many people—writers, non-writers, furniture salesmen, nurses—aren’t so fortunate,” wrote Peter Orner in an email. His novel Love and Shame and Love was released last year, and he just signed a three-book deal with Little, Brown. “I would write even if I wasn’t able to make a living at it. That’s the nature of this. Anybody who doesn’t write because they know they won’t get rich is a) smart and b) probably not a writer.”

Orner’s recent success suggests that book publishers are hardly calling it quits. But they are in the midst of a harrowing transition, especially in the form of the book itself. According to The Association of American Publishers, between January 2010 and January 2011, e-book net sales leapt 115.8 percent. (See this update on e-books.) But e-book sales still comprise a small percentage of net book sales, and are not necessarily driving book advances.

It’s also a period of transition for book contracts, as publishers have begun to toy with different models. (Read this primer on bucks and book publishing.) Traditionally, authors received half an advance up front, and half upon acceptance. Today, advances are given in ever-growing numbers of installments, and some publishers, like the San Francisco-based McSweeney’s, have offered writers smaller advances in exchange for lucrative profit sharing terms.

But new terms don’t always favor the writer.

“There is an experiment with giving advances in chunks—a third, fourth or even fifth at a time, where the final payment would be after publication,” said Ross, who once owned the defunct Cody’s Books in Berkeley.

“The purpose of an advance is to get writer to sign on and to give them enough money to write the book. Now, essentially you’re getting an advance after the book is written,” Ross continued. “That’s not even an advance, that’s a behind.”

{Gianmaria Franchini writes fiction and non-fiction, and will settle for a five-figure advance.}

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