Chip MacGregor

July 13, 2012

What’s a fair advance?


Kathy wrote and asked, “I’m in negotiations on my book contract. What’s a fair advance?”

Um…that question is impossible to answer, Kathy. “Fairness” depends on your mood today, the publisher’s perspective, your expectations, and a hundred other variables. But the advance will largely come down to “how many copies can the publisher can sell?”

Agents will sometimes create a formula to try and establish a book’s worth based on past sales, your history of advances, size of audience, and the proposed marketing for the book. They may take into account what you think the book is worth to you, based on your time and energy. It’s funny, but authors often approach a negotiation as an emotional thing — i.e., “I feel this advance isn’t big enough.” But that’s a trap. Your feelings may not be correct. And you can’t always compare your contract to someone else’s contract and be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. (You’ve seen this before — “They offered Nick Sparks a million bucks, but all they could give me was ten thousand?!”)

Try not to think of the advance as the only important part of a contract. Some of the romance publishers pay fairly small advances — but they sell a lot of copies, and the authors don’t complain when those big royalty checks come in. Instead, think of your book as a project that has a lot of opportunity to earn money for you, over the long haul. We’re all moving away from an advanced-based way of earning a living, so here’s your chance to get ahead of the curve. Think long term — advance, royalties, ebooks, foreign income, etc.

If you need a formula for determining the immediate value of your book, you might find it helpful to think like a work-for-hire writer. If he needs to make $1000 per week in order to meet his budget, he’ll try to determine how long a project will take him to complete. The creation of an article that will pay $600 is measured by time — he needs to be able to write it in three days in order to stick to his budget. If he’s afraid it’ll take him two weeks to complete the article, that’s $2000 worth of time, so it doesn’t make financial sense to say “yes” to a $600 project.

Still, that’s a tough method for a novelist to follow. You might spend a year creating your book, and the publisher is only willing to offer you a $10,000 advance — pretty skinny money for a year of your life. (Perhaps this is why so many novelists are women married to men with careers.) But most novelists aren’t in the business strictly for the money — they’re in the business because they have stories in their heads, and they have to write them down. That’s the life of an artist — any artist. There aren’t a lot of poets, musicians, scupltors, and dancers who are making a fortune off their art. We do it for art’s sake, I guess, and to be able to use this great gift God has granted us.

So…you may not be happy with my answer, Kathy. A “fair” advance is the one you and your publisher can agree to and feel good about. Let me know how negotiations go.

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