Aug 14 2009

Only 10% of novels clear their advances?

That’s what Agent Kristin says.  Clearing the advance is the point at which a novel sells well enough that the total royalties exceed the advance.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Only 10% of novels clear their advances?”

  1. Mr. Briton 15 Aug 2009 at 12:23 am

    That’s quite a sobering thought….

    How much would someone generally get paid as an advance, assuming they had not previously published a novel?

  2. B. Macon 15 Aug 2009 at 12:55 am

    According to Tobias Buckell, the median first novel gets about $5500 with an agent and $4000 without.

    Some other factors that affect likely pay…
    –An unusually interesting and well-written proposal. More publishers will be interested, they will probably be willing to pay more, you can secure a high-quality agent, etc.

    –Major writing credentials, like writing for a newspaper or magazine, screenwriting, running a hugely popular blog, etc. Ideally, the author has already built-up a large and driven audience. My best guess is that you’d need at least 100,000 regular readers before this would matter.

    –Audience size/advance publicity. Anything that suggests the book will sell significantly more copies than a competing manuscript. I’ve heard that a rough rule of thumb is that the advance is usually around 1$ for every copy the publisher expects to sell. (I can’t remember the source, though– sorry).

    –Genre/writing type. If the target audience is very niche and the projected sales are very low, the advance will probably not be very large. Publishers will probably put more on the line if they they think the book will sell. Novels/fiction generally sells fewer copies and receives smaller advances than nonfiction. In most cases, nonfiction authors have a stronger negotiating position because the pool of prospective writers is more limited. (Pretty much everyone has the credentials to write a fantasy or sci-fi novel, but very few people have the knowledge, training and/or experience to attempt a how-to guide or history book on a particular subject).

    –The author self-published the book and sold thousands of copies. This establishes that the work is good enough to sell and that it has an audience. It also suggests that the author is skilled at marketing, promotion and salesmanship. My best guess is that 2500 sales is significant enough that a professional publisher would take notice. (Make no mistake: that is extremely difficult and almost unheard-of).

    –Major nonwriting credentials, anything that will clearly make readers more interested in buying the book. For example, a serviceman back from his third tour in Iraq could sell a national-security thriller more effectively than I could.

    –Size of publisher. A bigger publisher will often pay somewhat more. Then again, they are also more selective.

  3. B. Macon 15 Aug 2009 at 1:29 am

    PS: If you thought that it was depressing that only 10% of novels clear their advance, check this out. According to a rough survey by Tobias Buckell, considerably fewer than half of all novelists broke in with the first novel they wrote. 44% wrote at least three novels before getting one published. Umm, yeah. You just wrote a novel and it wasn’t good enough to publish. Good luck on the next one! Ack.

    Survey results…
    32% wrote one novel
    13% wrote two
    11% wrote 3
    8% wrote 4
    9% wrote 5
    3% wrote 6
    13% wrote 7 or more novels
    6% wrote some short fiction first
    5% wrote a ton of short fiction first

  4. C.R.on 15 Aug 2009 at 8:22 am

    Looking at it from another perspective, consider the Harry Potter novels. According to my figures(er, WAG) from Wikipedia, they’ve sold over $2 billion worth of books. More than the gross of the movie ‘Titanic’. And it didn’t cost $200 million to produce like the movie did. So the ‘motivation’ for a publisher to work and sign talent would seem to me to be overwhelming. You’re not the only ones dreaming about money trees and such.

    Of course, not saying everyone will do that good. But Stephanie Meyer may be coming close.

  5. B. Macon 15 Aug 2009 at 1:46 pm

    “According to my figures(er, WAG) from Wikipedia, they’ve sold over $2 billion worth of books…. So the ‘motivation’ for a publisher to work and sign talent would seem to me to be overwhelming.”

    If the typical first novel sold billions of dollars worth of books, I think that publishers would be very generous. But the problem is that the median first-novel sells thousands rather than millions of copies. When a publisher decides to add on a book of marginal quality, it’s almost always an [insert book title you’ve never heard of] rather than a Harry Potter.

    It’s sort of like signing undrafted players in the NFL. It happens occasionally, but almost everyone with a lot of promise gets drafted. Collectively, the NFL’s scouts are really good at identifying which players can succeed. Similarly, publishers are usually good at identifying which novels can sell well. (Case in point: Twilight’s manuscript sparked a bidding war that resulted in an advance of $750,000). Books that appear to have potential will get published. If a publisher wants to publish more books, it has to delve deeper into a thinning pool of books that don’t look encouraging. You’d have to bet tens of thousands of dollars* that they can sell enough copies and that probably won’t happen.

    *The expenses of adding on a marginal novel are considerable. The author’s advance, assembling and printing the copies, distribution and a bit of promotion are likely to amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

  6. C.R.on 15 Aug 2009 at 9:29 pm

    When you say marginal, do you mean the publishers thought it was marginal and decided to take the risk publishing or that the sales ended up marginal? For instance, HP was rejected by eight publishers before selling; so they apparently thought it was even marginal, eh?

    A year or so ago I read a blog by a Tor editor that broke down the expenses for an ‘average’ (hypothetical) novel, ie they thought it was marginal and was unlikely to sell much so they did the minimal package. She, hypothetically, had the publisher overpay the advance. IIRC, $12,000 instead of 5 Gs because the CEO personally liked the author, or was distantly related; some reason she plucked out of the air. She figured so-so sales, low enough that they wouldn’t ask for another book from the writer. They lost $20-22,000 if I remember correctly.

    Not so good, she remarked. But every editor she knew had at least a few on their resume.

  7. Mr. Briton 16 Aug 2009 at 12:56 am

    ‘13% wrote 7 or more’

    Well that’s….good to know….

    $5500 is not that much considering the time it can take and the money you have to put into getting your novel published. Don’t quit your day-job indeed….

    Still, if you are successful, you’re looking at a decent amount of money for something you know you love doing so it’s well worth trying. I guess having a back up plan is always a good idea 😛

  8. B. Macon 16 Aug 2009 at 2:47 am

    Yeah, when I say marginal I mean a manuscript that looks like it’s borderline-publishable. It doesn’t appear lucrative enough to incite a bidding war. (To some extent, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy– a publisher will focus its limited promotional resources on the books it thinks will sell the most, so the marginal books are pretty much on their own).

    Mr. Brit, I agree that it is extremely important for a young and/or inexperienced novelist to hold down a day-job. I wouldn’t even consider quitting the day-job until I made noticeably more writing over a few years than I did from the day-job. Novel-writing is unreliable and it’s so hard to gauge how much you’ll make next year or the year after. (In most professions, I think wages tend to gradually rise… however, a novelist that sells too poorly will probably receive a lower advance on the next novel, if he can even get it published).

  9. C.R.on 16 Aug 2009 at 6:42 am

    “To some extent, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy– a publisher will focus its limited promotional resources on the books it thinks will sell the most, so the marginal books are pretty much on their own.”

    Valid point. And when you say publisher, it may mean the sales department–not the editor staff–think the ms has limited appeal. The CEO, who is usually more businessman than editor, thinks they’re right and limits the production run to cut his ‘perceived’ losses. The run sells out in a year (good for a SF novel; SF is rarely a blockbuster). Let’s say you heard about it and look for it but it’s not on the shelves. It doesn’t even exist as far as the general reading public knows; the publisher didn’t push it. The publisher finally says print more! But by then the glitter has worn off; they missed their chance.

    I think this happens in comics a lot too. Take ‘Gigantic’. I liked it a lot but it’s hard to find, hard for anyone to discover, because the limited printing has sold out. The next issue probably is the last and is on hold, because the writer impressed the brass with this comic and kicked him up-hill to work on more of a ‘flagship’ comic. So apparently the comic is dead in the water, with the next ish in limbo.

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