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On Giving Up The Publisher's Advance

Question of the day:  I often write with the incentive of the advance. How did you get around not having that advance?

Great question and definitely one that I wrestled with before making my decision. It came down to this: for me, that financial incentive wasn't enough any longer. Advances have significantly shrunk these days, and it used to be that you got a huge advance (for our argument, let's classify "huge" as six-figures), you could count on publisher support. That's not the case any longer. So not only can you no longer count on this publisher support simply because they paid you well, but now...they're not even paying you as well. Advances have been cut/halved/reduced a lot. So that was one factor.

The second was/is that even with a semi-decent advance - once you've taken out agent fees, taxes, and the three-payment system, I couldn't bank my career/this book on these smaller payouts. (To clarify for those who don't know how it works, the publisher pays you in three installments: upon signing the contract, upon approving the finished manuscript and upon publication, and then your agent gets 15% of each installment payment. If you're publishing in hardcover, this might even been drawn out to four installments. So a 50k advance - which I think is a very healthy advance these days - becomes $16,600 for each installment. Then your agent fee (which is well-earned, I should add), takes it down to about $14,000. Then you factor in taxes, which depends on your bracket obviously, but for the sake of our argument, we'll take it down to about $9-10k. And this is spans oh, a year to a year and a half.) So, that's 27-30k of income over 18 months. Certainly, it's money. And I don't want to piss people off by saying that it's NOT money. It is. I get it. Please do NOT think that I don't think that 30k isn't real money. But stretched over that long of a period and at the risk of my book fading off into the night because the publisher didn't do right by it? That wasn't worth the risk to me. It WILL be worth it to some people, and again, I want to emphasis that. 30k is certainly nice money; it can be A LOT of money, particularly in the freelance world, which I came out of. But still, for me, it was time to figuratively put my money where my mouth was and skip this incentive - which is sort of the carrot they dangle so that you keep chasing after them - and change my goal.

My goal this time, quite simply, was to publish the book I wanted to in the manner that I wanted to. Again, I realize that this isn't everyone's goal. And that is totally cool. But I wanted to try something new; I thought I was up for the entrepreneurial thinking this required, much like a start-up. I cared less/care less about the book hitting lists and the money involved and care so much more about honoring the book. 

Of course, like any start-up, everything is a gamble. But I really did look at it like a start-up company. There are no guarantees, but if you believe in the product, you put some money into it and risk not getting it back or not earning it back. As I said in this recent Parade Magazine interview, my goal was to break even, which I understand isn't a very lofty goal, but I had NO idea what to expect. However, because the economics of self-publishing mean that you earn a lot more per sale of each book (70% of every e-book, for example), I knew how many copies I had to sell and thought earning-back was a reasonable goal. What I didn't totally count on (in a good way), was all of these subsidiary rights - audio, large print, foreign that are all now coming in, film. So I've way out-earned my initial costs already. And frankly, I've out-earned what a publisher would have offered me in today's market. (I say all of this not to be like, "look at me, rolling in the dough!" but to offer some perspective.) I think it was much easier for me because I had my backlist and publishing history, but I'm not going to say that I haven't actually been shocked. I have been. It was a gamble, but so far, a really good one. I really can't imagine I would ever do it differently again.

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks so much for sharing this journey with your readers. As an emerging writer it's hard to get accurate information about the self publishing experience. I recently saw a bio of a new church member that said she was an author with such-and-such publishing house. I got exciting thinking I could connect with another local writer. Turns out she's the only writer with such-and-such because she formed the publishing house. While there's nothing wrong with forming your own publishing company, I felt deceived a bit and am not very interested in connecting with her now. This is the kind of example that contributes to the reputation of self publishing.

I appreciate your honesty about how your traditional publishing experience has helped you. I still want an agent and hope to go down the traditional route, but I'd never say never say never.

December 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Maria
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