July 20, 2021
A book advance is one of the more elusive parts of the publishing process. Receiving an advance is a big deal—it means that a publisher views you and your work as a worthwhile investment and believes that people will want to spend money on your book. The idea is to provide the author with funds to complete the book—whether for research or living expenses—although many advances are too small, and much of the advances these days come after the manuscript is finished. Advances vary greatly in both amount and frequency of installments, and many publishers, especially small, independent presses and academic presses, don’t pay advances (the Guild objects to the practice of not paying advances since they play an important role in enabling the author to work on the manuscript). Royalties are not paid to the author until the publisher has fully recouped the full amount of the advance.
The payout schedule of book advances has changed quite a bit over the past couple years. It used to be common to receive one half of the book advance upon signing your contract and the other after completion of the manuscript. Publishers have recently gotten increasingly creative with distributing book advances, paying them out in three, and even up to six, installments, depending on the publisher and size of the advance (with larger advances paid in a greater number of installments). A portion is still usually paid on signing and acceptance, but in smaller amounts, with an additional payment added on delivery of a certain portion of the manuscript, and another portion held back and paid on publication. A common example we see today is a six-part payout: on signing the contract, three to six months after contract signing, on delivery of the manuscript, on acceptance of the manuscript, upon publication date, and one part 12 months after publication.
Many authors worry about their social media follower count, but it’s important to note that it’s less about the number of followers you have and more about the strength of your following. The more an author is engaged, the more appealing they are to publishers. The question being asked is: would the people interacting with the author online actively buy the author’s book?
This is more of a case with regard to nonfiction. Authors publishing YA novels or graphic novels may find that the strength of their social media following is taken into account when editors are entertaining a potential acquisition. Fiction tends to view it as a “value-add,” or a perk, but not as directly factored into the author’s advance and sales expectations.
An agent’s job is to find a publisher for your book and to negotiate the terms of a contract so that the author gets the best possible deal. From the start of a new project, the agent is thinking about how to pitch the book, including how to shape the conversation surrounding it. This means thinking of comp (or comparable) titles to help prospective editors visualize where and how the book would be sold.
The agent also ensures that the contracts are paid on time. The funds are usually paid to the agency, who then administers the payment to the author (after the agent deducts their commission, which tends to be 15%). Remember, though the agent shapes the conversation, you, the author, make all the final decisions.
Most publishing houses’ first offer of an advance is often lower than what they can actually pay, with the expectation that there will be some negotiation. Even if they can’t budge on the advance, it may be possible to negotiate to retain sub rights, such as translation and audiobook rights. There is no harm in asking for more, as the worst a publisher can do is say no. Authors Guild members receive free contract reviews and other legal advice. If you are a member with a question about your contract, contact us. Need help with your contract or have a question about a book advance? Join the Authors Guild.
If your agent has done a good job and got you a high advance, it’s possible that your book may never earn out. Many, if not most, books with major publishers do not. But do not fret—the author need not pay back any unearned portion of their advance. An advance is considered an investment in the author and the book. The publisher absorbs the loss, should there be one. However, the sales numbers of one book can affect the ability to sell the next project due to the agent and editor now having a track record of books sold. To learn more about book advances, watch our webinar All About Advances: What Authors Should Expect When Negotiating with a Publisher