And speaking of those advances…

August 11, 2010

My last post touched on publishers paying out-of-whack advances in order to attract the hoo ha authors and their hoo ha stories and, in the process, are going belly up. Everyone dreams of the gynormous advance – buying small islands, telling one’s boss to go blow themselves, playing Hemingway and writing and boozing it up while raking in grand royalty checks. But reality is far less forgiving and far more cruel.

What goes up, can come down

I know any number of authors who received some pretty hefty advances – at least 50k – and are now without homes. Or agents. I’ll rewind to a few years ago. Their agents sold their stories to Big Hoo Ha Publishers for some nice coin, even though they were debut authors. The books came out and…and…didn’t do as well as everyone had hoped. The authors didn’t earned out and their sell-throughs were dismal, so the publisher was out the advance and all the investment they put into producing the books – including the big print run.

Within a year or so, the books were quietly taken OP (out of print), and they were dumped. Their agents also dumped them because they knew none of the Big Hoo Ha publishers would touch them. See, authors who don’t earn out are generally given wide berth, in case their lack of success is akin to germ warfare and they’re contagious.

They go from on top of the world to scraping the bottom of the barrel because they were given a set of parameters they couldn’t meet – such as that big advance.

In another case, the author had a three book deal and a very hefty advance. The publisher decided to stick it out because their investment made it too big to fail in their minds. So they poured more money into the series and gave it a huge promotional push. The author was sent on book tours and a few TV events.

And the book still failed to meet the financial outlay. It didn’t come anywhere near to advancing out. The books are still in print, limping along, but she will never get another deal with the publisher. What went up, came crashing down.

But what if…?

But let’s say their advance had been modest  – then what? Well, for starters, they would have advanced out in a blink of an eye and began earning royalties almost immediately, depending on the size of the print run.

The advance has traditionally been tied to the print run – the bigger the advance, . The size of the advance has been the equivalent of saying, “we believe in you.” The bigger the advance, the more books they need to ship out because they have a bigger belief the book will be a hit. But that belief is a crapshoot because we can’t control the one thing that our success hinges upon – The Marketplace, which is a very fickle mistress.

Some books become major hits when no one expected it. Conversely, expected hits have tanked. A huge advance puts a lot of pressure on the author to perform or be deemed unsuccessful. Problem is, once the book is published, it’s pretty much out of the author’s control. Yes, they can promote heavily, but you can’t control what readers buy.

Traditionally, large publishers print up very large numbers of a title in order to saturate the marketplace with that book. They have to do this in order to earn back their investment. And if it fails, they’re left holding the bag. The first person they’ll blame is the author, and they do that by bidding them adieu.

Where Reality and Dreamland Collide

So that large advance you or your agent is pushing for may be your downfall by adding undue pressure for you to succeed. You’re a debut author without any kind of track record or readership, so it’s a scary time. And let’s say you earn out and your book enjoys a pretty good sell-through. You may be offered a contract on another book. And guess what? Your advance will be even bigger, and the print run will be astronomical. To me, this is a setup for failure because they keep raising the bar. At some point, the bottom will fall out – and guess who eats it? Well, yes, the publisher, but also the author.

Once you’ve bottomed out, you’re damaged goods, and no one will touch you.

This is an infinitely stupid way to run a business. Why should it be so hard to tailor one’s business in order to enhance the success for everyone? The Big Gun mentality is to make bigger bucks with fewer authors. This means a lot of risk AND a lot of great books that won’t be included in their lineup. But that’s the way with conglomerate publishing. They are owned by companies who know squat all about publishing, yet they insist on fantastic results.

Let’s face it, getting the big bucks is great. Fan-freaking-tastic. But just know what befalls you on the other side of that coin. These are tough times and publishing is in a state of evolution. Be sure that you have all the facts in order to make decisions that will ensure your success rather than becoming yesterday’s news.

Ooo ooo take the money and run…

March 13, 2009

“So what do you think; should I hold out for a big advance or take the smaller one and shaddap?”

Interesting question that has a couple of answers because there are several elements at play.

First, who’s the publisher?
If it’s a small trade press, the advances are going to be smaller. At that, the economy has forced larger presses to drastically reduce their overall advances as well. But in general, they still fork out more than we small fries.

Next element to consider is whether your agent has tried those big presses first and struck out. And by striking out, I don’t mean the money, oddly enough. I’ve had agents bring their authors to us because they did have meetings and great interest from the big presses, but they wanted to make too many critical changes that would “enhance” the book – something that I’m dying to rant about some other time. I mean REALLY…the book is already fabo, so why mess with it? Ach, don’t get me started.

Anyhoo, there comes a point where the author and agent have a creative breakdown with a big house and decide to take it to a smaller indie…like us…who will adore, fawn, slobber, cheer, and generally make fools of ourselves over the loveliness of the book. New York’s loss is our great gain. But our advances are far south of the Big City. It’s a tossup. You want quality or quantity (meaning the money)? For some, it’s about the integrity of their books, and they know the small fry will take loving care of their books AND they have good distribution. In that case, they’ll take our malt shop advance.

How big is the advance?
Are we talking millions, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands? While the huge advance is something every author dreams of, there is also a back end that can signal an author’s demise. And the beast goes by the name Sell Through. Authors given a big advance have great expectations put on their shoulders. Publishers don’t hand out huge sums of money (at least not anymore) because they’re feeling saucy. They expect that book will be litgasmic and sell tons of books. The larger the advance, the more they’ll throw their weight behind the author in order to get a nice return on their investment. And this includes huge print runs in the hundreds of thousands. Yippee skippee, I hear you shouting from the top of the barstool.

But what if you don’t sell through? What if out of a hundred thousand books, 65,000 come barreling back in returns. Your publisher will be suicidal, and you, dear author, will…as they say…never lunch in that town again. You’re jinxed, bad luck, a dark cloud. I’ve seen this happen so many times, it makes my head spin like The Exorcist.

So was it better to take that huge advance and hope to The Great Cosmic Muffin that you have a hit? Well, frankly, I don’t know about you, but it’s a gamble I’d be willing to take. However, the question is should you wait for that huge advance to come your way, or take the advance figure offered.

There is some risk in this because that big offer may not come around. The smaller advance means a smaller print run, and in my book this means that you have a higher chance of a great sell through. There’s less risk and less pressure not to piss off your editor. This also means that your agent will negotiate for more the second time around because you’ve proven yourself and gained an acceptable readership. I’ve seen authors climb the ladder quite nicely this way.

But there’s also this to consider; being pigeonholed. Once you’ve established yourself as a solid midlist author, how easy is it to climb out of that nest? I’ve seen it go both ways. Some stay right where they are and never move – which isn’t so bad because they are making money. The ones who moved up to the big nest were authors who promoted their yolks off. Everywhere I turned, there they were, creating a face and name for themselves. Their sales numbers climbed due to the exposure, so their editors were willing to throw in more marketing support (proactive authors always get the best grain). The increase in sales made their editors sing and crow from the tippy top of their weather vane (got that whole chicken thing going on today for some reason).

So. Hold out or take what’s offered? In the end, listen to your agent and discuss this at great length because there is a lot at play. But, hopefully, after reading this, you’ll be able to have some added perspective that you didn’t have before.

As for me, I have to go clean out the chicken coop…

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