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Advances Should Remain Advances

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Most trade publishers have traditionally paid their authors “advances against royalties earned.” The advance is a way to give authors some of their royalties up front so they can finance the writing of the book. On one hand, the author doesn’t receive royalties until the advance “earns out,” that is when the amount earned surpasses the amount of the advance. On the other hand, the author doesn’t have to repay the advance if royalties come up short of the amount advanced. Traditionally, the author received half the advance upon signing the contract and the other half upon acceptance of the manuscript. This payment structure gave the author a chance to earn income while writing the book and waiting for it to be published. It also encouraged the publisher to bring the book to press in order to create a stream of income for both parties.

That’s changed in recent years. When publishers pay advances, the advances increasingly are split into smaller and smaller pieces. In the last decade or so, we started seeing three-part payment schedules: one-third on each of signing, acceptance, and publication. More recently we’ve been seeing four-part payments: signing, acceptance, publication, and one year after publication (or on paperback publication). We’ve even seen five-part payment schedules that squeeze in such milestones as “the successful completion of a promotional tour.”

These advance-splitting policies ensure that authors won’t see a large portion of the “advance” until well after the book is finished, and much of it even after the book is published. As a result, many authors have to self-finance the costs of any research or travel needed for the book, and have to find other ways to support themselves while writing it.

Professional writers whose books do well in the marketplace should be able to write for a living without having to take on second and third jobs to make ends meet. Those extra jobs dramatically slow down an author’s research and writing, increasing the chance of missed deadlines. The end result may be a book that is inferior to what the author could have produced if able to give the book her full attention, contrary to the interests of the author and publisher alike. If a publisher seriously believes in an author’s work (and no rational publisher signs a contract with the intent to lose money), it should pay the advance in advance—in a manner that gives the author income while working on the book.


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