Pub Rants

Does The Size Of The Advance Equal Success?

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STATUS: Blogging a bit late tonight. Busy day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MR. JONES by Counting Crows

The answer is yes.

The answer is no.

The size of the advance paid can increase the likelihood of success as the publisher is more likely to commit significant resources toward a title that a large advance was paid for.

However, the size of the advance is not a guarantee of success for any specific title.

I remember reading an article in Publishers Weekly last year (and I wish I had saved it). The article outlined two thriller titles being released by two different publishers. Both thrillers were in hardcover and the lead titles for their specific imprints. Both titles had a solid six-figure advance. Both titles had significant resources allocated for the marketing and promotional push. Both titles were from debut authors.

One title hit the New York Times Bestseller list. The other title had, in the publisher’s own words, “disappointing sales.”

So what happened?

Quite simply, no amount of money can force a public to want and buy a book. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. If the publishers knew what created that ground swell to catapult a title onto bestseller lists and a million copy sell-thru, they’d do it for every book.

It’s a dangerous to assume that the size of the advance paid is the only indicator of possible success. (Or that a publisher who has paid a large advance will always pay attention to that title rather than embrace a newly bought title that might sell even better.)

And every agent I know has a story of a little book that could. The book that was a hard sell, that didn’t have a big advance, that had almost no marketing or promotional budget attached and yet defied all the odds.

A great success story that exemplifies this exactly is agent Deidre Knight’s 90 Minutes in Heaven—a book that was not sold for a lot of money and certainly wasn’t released with a lot of hoopla. Initial print run was by no means huge. The hardcover sold modestly well but then when the paperback version released, an explosion happened. The book kept gaining traction. Word of mouth. The ground swell that money can’t purchase started to happen. In the end, I don’t know exactly how long the title stayed on the bestseller list but I do know that it was for more than a year. This book has now sold millions of copies.

So does a large advance equal large success?

The answer is yes and the answer is no. All the stars ultimately have to align.

16 Responses

  1. Peter Cooper said:

    I’m thinking “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” as another fine example of a book with low expectations and an even lower first print run (what I wouldn’t give for one of those first eds).

  2. Mariana said:

    Makes much sense. After all, any “enterprise” an investor is willing to invest in is a sort of a lottery. There are many rational and factual information the investor uses to support his decision, but ultimately there is no way to know with certainty if the investment will be lucrative, as there are so many random factors interacting during the whole process.

    In this sense, it feels that books are similar to ventures, for no one can predict with certainty what the public’s response to it will be. That is, one can work to make it more viable by making a great cover, investing in marketing etc etc., but the final result is unpredictable.

    Great post!

  3. Anonymous said:

    There are exceptions to every rule, of course. And not to pick on Kristin in any way, but I always sort of hate it when someone picks one example of a book making it and saying, see, you don’t really need in-house support (marketing money). Because, for the most part that isn’t true. Lots of books that don’t sell in hardcover don’t GET a paperback version released at all, so you can’t count on further sales.

    No, a big advances don’t necessarily equal best-seller status. But, at least your book is on the radar as far as people knowing about its existence. Ally Carter’s books didn’t explode onto the scene, but she had the advantage of being a lead title and they stuck with her until the books started taking off. That is not true with non-lead title books.

    Debut YA authors on the NYT best seller list are there not because people love thier product (they haven’t read the book to know it) but from a publisher’s push.

    Not knowing of a book’s existence IS a sure fire way to NOT get sales.

    A paltry advance, a publicity person at the publishers that will not return your emails, even though she said she’d “get to you later” and you know, it’s way past “later,” no ARCs of your book available at the Expo or ALA, and no one bothering to follow up on the quotes you’ve gotten for your own book (because they didn’t bother to get any themselves) WILL result in the author never wanting to work with that editor or publisher again.

  4. David Kearns said:

    Peter Cooper, thank you for mentioning Harry Potter, a series actually written by a well-deserving author! Who actually struggled up through the nonsense, all by herself. Whose unique voice is easily identifiable from those who rely on ghosts or a team to do her work for her. Then we come to the man of the hour Dan Brown, will the real DB step forward?
    Here’s a clue America: when your own daughter has a greater facility with the English language by reading Harry Potter, than you do via Dan Brown and the romance novels, something needs to change. The huge advances form part of a larger pattern of oppression aimed at the American mind; we writers ape “what works” i.e “what pays” it’s a horrid arrangement leading to the death of books. Then, no one gets paid for this any more.

  5. Anonymous said:

    This happened to me. Hardcover, low six-figure advance, good marketing push, co-op, etc. The book tanked. Readers just didn’t like it that much.

    Which really, really sucks. I had every chance in the world, and my writing just didn’t take wing. Still, the failure of my big-advance book was much better for me than the failure of the novel for which I got a *small* advance. At least I had the comfort of the money.

  6. Paula said:

    I find this post very interesting, Kristin, especially in light of what children’s book author Editorial Anonymous said on her blog today. She said that authors should step aside and let publishers and their staffs, who know how to sell books, do their jobs when it comes to selecting illustrators (and other things like covers, I presume). But here you are telling us that publishers very often get it wrong. I know you’re not responsible for what anyone else says, but can you comment?

  7. Kerry said:

    I just finished a study of 200 YA books for my dissertation and we found that the size of the advance was one of five factors that could predict the success or failure of a book with up to 80% accuracy.

    so, it’s not the only factor, but it was a very strong one.

  8. Anonymous said:

    In my opinion, it’s not the size of the advance that matters as much as it is the marketing push that is more likely to accompany a larger advance. Yes, there are big-advance books that flop. There are small-advance books that succeed. But I think a big marketing push maximizes a book’s audience. If a highly promotoed book flops, well, it no doubt would’ve flopped even worse without the push. Whereas I suspect there are a few books that, with a little more support, would have found their audiences.

  9. Tabitha said:

    Kristin – has an author ever asked a publisher to reduce the size of her advance and put the extra money toward marketing instead? Is that even possible?

  10. Anonymous said:

    Kerry: Say more! Say much, much more! What size of advance? What’re the four other factors?

    Tabitha: New authors sometimes ask their agents that, and the agents gently break the news. Your publisher will be happy to give you a smaller advance. They will be happy to apply the excess money in a fungible way to the marketing department, too.

  11. BubbleCow said:

    I would add that for some (new) writers getting a huge advance and then not getting the sales to match can mark the end of their writing career, as publishers will be wary of future books. Sales figures are king.

  12. Anonymous said:


    That’s true, but getting a small advance and then not getting the sales to match can *also* be trouble. Though I see a lot of this ‘end of the career’ stuff, and I’m not sure what it’s based on. There are always other projects, other houses, and other pseudonyms.

  13. Christina said:

    Most people, expecially with the bad economy are going to more paperbacks. If you are an author which would you prefere? if the publisher and staff want hardback, how do you know that is the best for you and your book?