Archives: book advances

It’s expensive to launch a “successful” book, whether the investment is the publisher’s, yours, or a combination of both. And by successful, I’m not even talking about New York Times bestsellers, whose successes seem as much the result of a quantifiable financial investment as they are the result of unquantifiable variables like reader enthusiasm and sheer serendipity. By successful, I’m referring to any book that earns out its publisher’s investment and sells through its first printing. Any author who’s gotten that far should be immensely proud.

Here are some of the most critical costs I’ve seen responsible for creating a successful book:

*Print run (the number of books printed)
*Co-op (exhibition or shelf space the publisher is buying, whether at Barnes and Noble or, to offer your book exposure to browsers. Involved explanation here.)
*Marketing & publicity (ranging from advertising to a freelance publicist)
*Buying back books (for events or giveaway/review purposes)

For authors who receive an advance in the tens of thousands of dollars, a robust first print run, co-op, or hefty publicity/events support isn’t likely. And even the rare, proactive publicist who works with you at your publishing house…his/her efforts may simply not translate. If your hope is to exceed expectations and give your book a real shot on the market, you will need to find ways to supplement what’s lacking in the publisher’s investment.

Here are some ways to properly prioritize your time and energy that won’t cost you a dime, excluding gas money.
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I remember meeting two years ago with an internationally published author who came to me with this perspective: “If I could find a major publisher in the U.S., I wouldn’t even require a book advance.”

When I asked writers if they would take a “free” book deal on Facebook, I got several immediate “Yes! Yes!” responses. The logic makes sense: if you have already written a book just lying on a shelf somewhere or in an agent’s slush pile and you’ve spent years writing this thing, would the offer to see your book to market, in print and in stores, not be somewhat compelling?

E-book publishers like Amazon, Diversion, Vook, Thought Catalog and many others are already offering writers the opportunity to publish using their resources – different from the go-at-it-alone approach of self-publishing – and given demand, these publishers are getting more selective. But when the author I spoke with prompted me to look into print publishers who might consider a free book deal, I found only a few paperback romance and/or smaller vanity publishers, none of which I’d heard of before.

In publishing, like other industries governed by people, not products, herd mentality still reigns. Just consider the premise of book auctions, perhaps spurred more by competitive interest than merit, often placing false value on books that more often than not lose money. And yet, even while low-cost equations like Amazon and smaller startups like Storyville or Wattpad push us toward Anderson’s prediction of “economic gravity,” print publishing remains the celebrated, curated system in which only those books deemed promising have a shot. And the fee paid for the material symbolizes that internal enthusiasm and support.

There are plenty of writers who couldn’t, or shouldn’t, in today’s publishing landscape, make the free book deal. If you need an advance to travel and research your book, how could you? If you have a competitive offer, why would you? But for the vast majority, the benefits are worth considering: the advance may be zilch, but the royalties and creative control are more advantageous than any standard book contract. (You can find a short overview of e-publishing options and pros and cons here.)

Forward-thinking authors like the person I spoke with also realize that nothing in this world is actually free. You, too, will be “charged” with promoting your book—that’s after the uncompensated work you’ve already done writing it. And your publisher will theoretically be investing in your book’s production, design, marketing and distribution — with or without the added book advance.

I am not arguing that publishers become the sort of “anyone and everyone” aggregator model established by Amazon. What I’m suggesting is that there are many proposals and manuscripts that come so close to making the cut…so what if there were more leeway in making “buying” decisions? With allowances for greater risk-taking, open-mindedness and creativity, the realization that successful marketing lies in both the estimable (promotional costs) and the inestimable (word of mouth), traditional print publishers like their e-counterparts, may soon find value in the model of the free book deal.


*A version of this essay was originally published May 30th, 2012. Since then, several of the bigger publishers are experimenting with new digital imprints that offer no or near-to-nothing advances.  Slowly, perception may be shifting…

It sounds like an oxymoron. But as a follow up to our fairly grim outlook on book advances, I wanted to shine a potential bright light: a possible everybody-wins solution to the financial dilemmas facing both authors and their publishers today.

Last week, I spoke with an internationally published author who came to me with this perspective: “If I could find a major publisher in the U.S., I wouldn’t even require a book advance.”

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There’s a question authors ask, around which there’s alot of hype and not alot of clarity: “What can I expect for my book advance?

It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask an agent after several conversations and a verbally understood agreement of representation; not recommended to ask upon preliminary conversation.

Why should an author be cautioned against asking this question at the get go, however important it is to know?
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Books are made on word-of-mouth.
At least those books that receive critical acclaim or top the bestseller charts. Think The Help or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and countless others.

This is more than publicity. This is the unquantifiable magic of human capital. No matter how much you spend, it can’t really be predicted.

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I heard it then when I started in book publicity at HarperCollins, and I still hear it as a consultant 8 years later.

The author asks: “Does publicity translate to sales?”
And the publisher responds: Not always.

“Am I going to get the Today Show, the New York Times, and NPR?”

“Then, what is feasible?”
Well, unfortunately, it’s sort of wait-and-see.

“How do I increase visibility?”
Start a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. Here’s a template to guide you through it. (This answer is new, and even the question is, because it was understood the publisher would do everything!)

“Do pre-orders help? Special sales?”

“How are you handling these?”
Please direct your question to and he’ll be happy to answer!

As devoted as publishers are to the books they acquire, the industry, in the last few years, has seen fewer acquisitions of debuts and “mid-list” (not quite bestselling) titles. Publishers are still gambling on the rare blockbuster bestseller: which means the books with the most commercial, often those written by celebrities and not writers, per se, are given the most investment in the ramp up to publication day. This means all remaining titles can fall to the wayside, and this can be hard to swallow; challenging even for those authors paid a substantial advance and naturally expecting that “the love would be there” come launch. with in-house publicists particularly good in approaching radio and television connections for appropriately “big” (i.e. controversial, political or celebrity) books. These publicists turn to proprietary media lists, which they figure, if these outlets worked for one book, should theoretically work for the next book in a similar category. But this is a paint-by-numbers approach. There’s rarely time to craft a comprehensive promotional strategy in the short lead time to publication when, given production time, finished books have just hit your desk. There’s negligible bandwidth to listen to an author’s specific ideas, to manage those expectations, or even to leverage an author’s particular connections, possibly the best resource authors have to promote themselves.

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