Well, it’s a beautiful day — sunny, without being too hot — and after that refreshing dip in the self-esteem pool with Jordan yesterday, I think we’re all in good shape to tackle the great advance mystery once again. The good news is that this time, there is some good news.
Oh, yes — I heard those whimpers of anguish after my last two posts on the subject. “So, Anne,” I heard some of you crying, “are the stories we’ve all heard about monumental advances just great big lies? Why, oh why would anyone do anything so cruel to people who are treading a hard path and want to dream big?”
No, the huge advances still do happen sometimes, if the book seems marketable enough to a publisher — but again, the big numbers are usually affiliated with NF books that already have plenty of name recognition behind them. A sterling platform, as they like to say in the biz. Occasionally, though, a first book has BESTSELLER written all over it in letters so large that even the accounting department at a major publishing house can see them, and those books do in fact attract large advances, often due to competitive bidding.
But again, it’s extremely rare. Usually, the big advances go to writers with established track records — and thus established readerships. The big advances, in short, are not often evidence of a publishing house gambling on a new voice, but rather of their putting their chips on a relatively safe bet.
As you may have noticed if you have been querying for awhile, people in this industry are not, generally speaking, wild risk-takers. You also may have noticed that their rhetoric at writers’ conferences might lead a naïve listener to conclude the opposite. That’s one of the mysteries of the industry, too.
But honestly — how big a chance is a publisher actually taking by bringing out the next HARRY POTTER book? Practically none. And when a publishing house does take the occasional chance on a new author, they like to hedge their bets, putting as little money on the line as possible.
Often, too, the big numbers we hear for fiction are for multi-book deals, which throws the aspiring writers’ sense of realistic expectations off still further. But they do undoubtedly happen from time to time, so please, do not give up hope.
At the same time, you will probably be better off in the long run if you are not expecting so much money that your life will change radically overnight when your first book sells. It’s not a bad idea to do some research. For those of you who are taking Jordan’s advice and tracking down the 411 on a favorite author, try to find out how much that writer got for her first book. And if your favorite writer is not someone whose big break came within the last decade or so, you might want to do some research on someone who writes in your genre who did. Not to stomp on your hopes, of course — just to inoculate yourself against elevated expectations of the industry.
Trust me, the more you understand how publishing works, the juicier you can make your dreams about succeeding in it. It honestly does make more sense to think in terms of making your entire writing career a success, rather than just dreaming big about one book — and not working on the next while you are marketing the first.
If you really want to get a clear mental image of what could happen if everything goes right with your first book, and if you have an extra $20 lying around that you are willing to invest in it, you could do worse than to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace’s daily e-mail updates: they give a ballpark estimate of how much books sold each day commanded. After a couple of weeks of following the sales, it becomes pretty apparent that the vast majority of first sales are on the low end. “A nice deal,” as PM likes to call it.
Study the exceptions: what can you do to make your book seem that appealing on a marketing level? Not to make it more shallow, mind you — one of the surprising things you will learn from following the trends is that some deep books are very sought-after — but to see what the fad-hungry industry thinks is hyper-marketable right now. Is there a way to spin your book concept so it sounds more like the sought-after ones?
This is a useful exercise, because it helps ground your understanding of the ever-changing industry in the present, not the past. And this is a distinct advantage, since so much of the information writers get about this industry is still geared to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago — which, come to think of it, is often when the wild success stories we hear on the writers’ conference circuit are set, isn’t it?
This can be a trifle misleading to writers trying to break into the biz now, because back then, new authors were routinely offered three-book contracts by major publishing houses. Thus the big advances. It wasn’t because people in the industry felt more affection for writers as a group back then; it was a simple matter of economics. Given that the publishing house hoped that the newly-signed author’s second and third books would be even bigger than the first, as the author’s name recognition grew amongst readers, it only made practical sense to give writers of promise enough money that they don’t need to be working 40+ hours per week in order to pay the rent. When you are banking on someone’s future books, it’s definitely in your best interest for him to be writing full-time.
Those were the days, eh?
But by the end of the 1980s, too many second and third books did not justify the promise of their authors’ first — and pop quiz: why was this a problem?
Good for you, those of you whose hands shot in the air immediately: it IS because once a publisher pays an advance to an author, they cannot get it back, even if the book did not sell enough to justify the advance.
The publishers lost money, and multi-book deals for new authors became comparatively rare. And since publishing houses are investing less in their new authors — both in terms of advance money and in terms of expectations for profiting of these authors’ future books — they have also fallen into the habit of promoting new authors’ books less assertively.
No, you didn’t just fall into Never-never Land there for a moment: it really is a Catch-22. Books that are not well promoted by their publishing houses are far less likely to sell well than those that are — which means that they do not establish as strong a track record for their authors. Which means, in turn, a smaller advance next time, typically.
Yet, basically, when a publishing house takes on a new author, it is looking for that author to establish a track record with the first book, the kind of sales success that used to be the result of massive publicity campaigns by the publishing house. Then, if that sells well, they will be eager for the second. And yes, that generally means the process is less lucrative up front for writers.
Unless, of course, there is competition over which publishing house will buy a book. Then, the sky’s the limit. That’s prime NYC publishing logic for you: something that other people want is viewed as inherently more valuable than something only one person wants, or even knows about.
I can’t resist bringing in my favorite example of this kind of thinking. Years ago, when I was writing for the LET’S GO travel guides, my companion and I found this marvelous beach in southern Washington, 21 miles of unbroken sand, so much beach that people were allowed to drive along it, scanning for sand dollars. It was early on a weekday, so we were the only people as far as the eye could see. So, naturally, being good West Coasters, we settled down to enjoy all of that natural solitude.
After we had been there about 15 minutes, another car came driving slowly along the beach. It drove past us, disappeared for a few minutes, then returned to park perhaps 20 feet away from us. A bunch of cooped-up, fractious kids jumped out, whooping, and their presumptive parents began setting up a fairly elaborate campfire set to roast hotdogs inches from our outraged noses.
Understandably, my companion and I were fairly miffed. Surely, with 21 miles of beach to choose from, their party and ours could have shared the scenery without being on top of each other’s lunches. It seemed like such bizarre behavior that I felt compelled to ask the mother of the screaming children why they had picked that particular place.
She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. “Well, that’s where the people were. It must be the best place.” Need I even say that their car had New York plates?
And that, my friends, is the basic logic behind competitive bidding, or indeed, any industry buzz that makes a book seem more valuable. Not everyone who gets into the bidding, or who is doing the buzzing, has actually read any of the book in question, so it usually isn’t a matter of the writing, or even necessarily of the story: it’s all about wanting to grab that elusive object of desire before the next guy does.
There are a couple of ways that a book can become the object of competitive bidding. First, if there is enough initial interest from publishers (again, often a matter of name recognition and industry buzz), the agent could elect to put it up for auction, as was the case with THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which the industry had decided would be a major bestseller long before it hit print.
More commonly, though, an agent will send out a book to several editors at once, and if more than one editor wants it, the publishing houses start bidding against each other for the book. The one who offers the higher advance, of course, gets to publish the book.
And that, as you may well imagine, is a great situation for any writer, first-time or experienced.
It’s also a pretty good reason to ask any agent who offers to represent you, “So, how do you plan to market my book?” before you sign an agency contract. There are plenty of agents out there who do not favor mass submissions, where editors at several publishing houses are all reading the book simultaneously. Instead, they prefer to target one editor at a time, tailoring the submission to wow that person in particular.
Both methods have their pros and cons, of course – but that is a matter for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!