Pub Rants

Earn Out

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STATUS: Typical Denver. 75 degrees one day. 45 degrees the next. I actually wore gloves this evening while walking home from the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RAIN by George Winston

Generally speaking, the statistics are rather grim when it comes to authors earning out their initial advances. Of course I don’t have actual numbers at my fingertips, so what I can safely say is this: the percentage of books that never earn out is high—over 50% of the books sold (and probably reality is more like 80% but without actual numbers, why be more depressing?).

Beyond the statistics, there are actual several factors involved with an author potentially earning out.

1. The level of the advance. After all, it’s a lot easier to sell-thru and earn out if you only received $5000 as an advance for your book than if you received $150,000.

2. The format of the book. Hardcovers have a higher price tag so an author can sell fewer books but make a higher royalty percentage and thus earn out faster than authors who are publishing initially in let’s say mass market format. (Although mass markets have a better price point and thus have more potential to sell more copies in general but I think you guys get the picture.)

3. Royalty structure. The higher your percentages are for the royalties, the easier it will be to earn out.

4. How long your book stays in print. Often authors can earn out their advance over time so long as the book(s) stay in print.

For example, just this week, I received a royalty statement for an author who just earned out the first advance for a book that was published originally in 2005. The author is solidly midlist and has consistently sold steady over the last 4 years. The advance was a nice five figures and since the book sold well over time and the title never went out of print, the author is now earning royalties.

Ah, this is how publishing is supposed to work. An advance that is representative of how much a book will sell and then grow from there. It was hugely exciting to cut the check for royalties earned and I imagine that the author was even more excited to receive it!

30 Responses

  1. Jm Diaz said:

    Are royalties vs. advance payment negotiable with the publisher. I’m one to believe (and I may be alone on this) that royalties carry more weight than the advance. I’d be willing to take a smaller advance for a higher royalty percentage. AM I mistaken in my thinking?

  2. Don said:

    My understanding is that royalty rates are generally pretty level within a given publisher (although if you’re say, J.K. Rowling, you have a bit more say than if you’re Ann Onymous).

    And the size of an advance generally correlates with the resources the publisher will put in the book, so getting a smaller advance might be a smooth path to obscurity.

    If I’m wrong, I’m sure Kristin will disabuse me of my misconceptions.

  3. Jm Diaz said:

    Thank you Don. Did not quite think of it that way. It makes sense, and I am not looking for any path (smooth or otherwise) into obscurity.

  4. M. Macijauskas said:

    Oh my, I never comment, I only lurk. But I love George Winston and this is my favorite song of his. If you like this, his album “December” is gorgeous come holiday time.

  5. Anonymous said:

    “And the size of an advance generally correlates with the resources the publisher will put in the book, so getting a smaller advance might be a smooth path to obscurity.”

    Perhaps because the size of the advance is directly proportional to how well the publisher thinks the book is going to sell? In that case it’s a matter of books that are likely to sell well getting more attention than books that are more of a gamble. The size of the advance is a symptom of their trust in the book, not the cause.

    Think about it: Why would asking for a smaller advance lead a publisher to invest fewer resources into a book they think is going to sell well?

  6. Mechelle Fogelsong said:

    I guess I incorrectly thought the purpose of the advance is to give the author some cash so they can afford to pay for publicity–going out to bookstores and public venues where they can brag up their book, hoping to get people to buy the book and spread the word. Am I wrong? Isn’t that the purpose of an advance?

    Or do publishers handle all publicity while authors bask in the sun in Tahiti, sucking on pineapple-shaped fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages and enjoying the lavish luxuries only published authors can afford due to their phenomenal advances?

  7. BronzeWord said:

    Hi, I value all your articles. I learn something everytime I read one. I twit all your articles on @LatinoBookNews and would like to let you know, but I have not been able to discover whether you have a twitter name or not. This is letting you know. Thanks for all the work you do here in support of writers.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors

  8. Anonymous said:


    I can’t tell if you’re being snarky, but I always play the straight man anyway, so …

    You’re wrong. The purpose of the advance is to pay for the mortgage and child care.

    The advance is the only money most writers (myself very much included) ever see. That is what we live on. Perhaps if my publisher gave me six figure advances, I’d spend some on promotion; instead, they pay me below the minimum wage. Ten grand for a year’s work. So no, I do no spend money on shit that’s actually *their* job. In theory, at least, the reason a publisher grosses more from each of your novels sold is because they take care of editorial, production, distribution, and *marketing*.

    If they do the first three of those and drop the ball on the fourth, they’re crap. Exactly as crappy as if they’re great at the latter four and suck at the first.

    Obviously, if I had a spare few million lying around, I’d do some marketing. Or if I had a platform of the sort that actually makes a difference.

    I guess there are writers who are independently wealthy, or have a spouse with health care and a real income. God knows what they do with their pin money. But that insultingly meager advance is what I -live- on … and 99% of author-generated publicity is a waste of time and money.

    Desperate in Dubuque

  9. Gordon Jerome said:

    It’s a strange fate to be faced with that if your first book doesn’t earn much for the publisher, it may kill your chances of ever having a second book published. But if you self-publish you have a good excuse for not selling any books.

    I like Kindle books. I would rather read from my Kindle than from a traditional book when it comes to reading novels. It’s more comfortable. In fact, I’m reading Stephen Kings novella UR right now, which was only published for Kindle books.

    I have a Kindle publishers account. I’m wondering if that’s the best way to go.

    Problem is, then I don’t get a professional editor to look at my work for free. I don’t get any advertising or marketing. I don’t get a place on the B&N New Fiction shelf, and I don’t get any advance.

    But here’s what must be considered–if I won’t get any of those things anyway through a traditional publisher, and if as a result, my writing career in traditional publishing is buggered–it may be a fact I have to face, pure and simple.

    It may be better to get started now. Surely, one day, Kindle’s going to stop letting just anyone be a publisher.

    Anyone have any advice?

  10. Caroline Starr Rose said:

    I remember Moonrat saying a few months ago (and please forgive me, as my memory is fuzzy)how great it would be if authors and publishers could agree on lower advances. The rest of the money typically put toward the advance could go to marketing.

    I think this is a great idea.

    Sorry if I’ve misquoted, Moonie!

  11. Anonymous said:

    My understanding is that authors, esp. debut authors, are expected more and more to pay for and do their own marketing and publishing. For years I’ve been reading in writing books and on lit agent blogs that publishers don’t like to put a lot of money into authors they don’t know will sell well. It strikes me as only one of the many reasons why traditional publishing is floundering now – they acquire new products to sell, then throw them out there with little to no publicity budget and then wonder why the author didn’t earn back her advance.

    The novelist MJ Rose made a good case for publishers paying their writers MORE rather than less:

    Note, she’s not arguing for more mindlessly ridiculous advances – she’s saying if we have to do our own publicity and promotion, those investments should be subtracted from the advance.

    I wonder how well the Kindle – or the Toyota Prius – or the iPod – would be selling today if its owners had just thrown them out there with little advance warning and see if they sank or swam? Why do publishers think books are any different?

    I wonder how many great authors never got discovered or nourished not because they weren’t published but because the publishers were too cheap and/or lazy to promote their first work properly. Now the author’s career is ruined, while a one-trick pony like Dan Brown, whose greatest coup was actually a marketing one (pissing off the Catholic Church which can always be counted on for free publicity) sells millions before his latest book is even out.

    And then they ponder whether they should make the move to e-books while their market disappears into the Kindle. I wonder why anyone has *any* faith in the utterly blinded publishing industry anymore…

  12. Vivi Anna said:

    Publishers don’t, at least the publishers I have, push you to do advertising and promo. They won’t necessarily do any either, but it’s not a given that you HAVE to do anything but write a good book.

    But in this day and age you’d be crazy not to do some. Blog tours and sending your book out for review are cheap easy ways to get word out about your book.

    Advances are for the most part the only money you’ll see on a book, it’s an author’s paycheck for writing the book, so learn to budget properly, because that may have to last you for a year.

    I know authors that spend exorbent amounts of money on promotion and I know authors that don’t do much of anything. And personally I haven’t seen that much difference between their careers.

  13. Gordon Jerome said:

    I really like what Anonymous had to say above, or actually, I don’t like it, but he or she put it very well. I think it’s true.

    Combine that with what Vivi says and you get a good picture of what to expect. But if I have to do the selling–the selling, for god’s sake–of my book, what pray tell is the publisher for? The printing? The distribution? If the editors are too busy to edit, and the marketing is too expensive, then all that’s left is the printing and distribution. But distribution is pointless if it means one copy spine out on the shelf of a Barns and Noble store. Distribution is pointless without marketing.

    You know, I want a big fat advance. And I won’t spend a dime of it promoting my book–that’s the publisher’s job. I say that because I know that just like Vivi said, I can spend it all or not spend it at all and it hardly makes a difference. I can’t get B&N to put my book on a display by the front door.

    I can live with that. I can live with writing a book and being happy if only a hundred people read it. Fiction may be going the way of poetry, and that’s okay with me. Good poetry is something I’ll read anytime and anywhere I can find it. Same with good fiction.

    Of course, try to find it–that’s the problem. If the mainstream publishers won’t put it out, then I have to rely on the authors publishing it in some way that I can get it. Right now, that’s Kindle. In fact, as soon as I post this, I’m going to Amazon to see if any new ghost stories have been published. Unlike a B&N brick-and-mortar store, I can search Kindle Books that way, and if I find one, I’ll have it for less than ten bucks and in less than a minute on a device that’s easier to read than a print book.

    By the way, what’s a blog tour?

  14. Inadvertant Critic said:

    Honestly, it strikes me that the reason publishers can get away with making authors do their own marketing is that the “self-publishing” revolution is quickly convincing authors that it’s a privilege to be published, rather than a business deal in which the writer makes a sale to the publisher, and the publisher buys it because it thinks it can make more than it spends by doing its work–which is producing and marketing the book. Yes, the writer needs to be willing to be marketed along with the book–tours, appearances, etc–but booking those things is not the job of the author, and shouldn’t be. But I can hardly blame traditional publishers for thinking that, if PublishAmerica et al can dupe writers into actually paying them to acquire a product, then it’s hardly unreasonable to assume that more publishers’ jobs can be fobbed off on writers as well.

    Now, I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t take an active interest in their sales and do things like blog and speak at local events and so on. But advances… yeah, that’s called “what you get paid for the book.” You use them for the same things you use a normal paycheck for. I am known to occasionally purchase things I need for work out of my paycheck, but certainly, it’s more expected that it will be spent on my light bill!

  15. Kate Sheeran said:

    Gordon, here’s a great explanation of blog tours:

    While I would never, of course, ask how much you or any agent personally makes, this raises so many questions to me about how agents make a living. I took a guess and said ok, a healthy five figure advance might be 25k. I think I’m guessing high. If an agent makes their 15%, how much goes to their agency? How many successful clients do you have to have to actually make a living and what in the world do you do when you’re just starting out? That has always seemed like so little money to me! Authors so frequently have day jobs, and yes it’s a pain (especially if you’re trying to meet deadlines as well!) but this IS your day job. How does that work? I’d love to know more about it, given hypothetical numbers and circumstances of course.

  16. Madison L. Edgar said:

    You know what? I just started writing a couple of years ago but I honestly have never wondered how much money my MS would make. I mean, of course my mind sometimes drifts to it but I have to remind myself why I started writing in the first place. It’s what I love to do. If I start thinking about the money I could make, that’s when it becomes a job. And, to me, writing isn’t work. It’s fun. It’s my escape from work.

    I’ve done a lot of research about the publishing industry but one thing I never delve into is money. I want to get published so I can see a kid walking out of Barnes and Noble with my book in his hand. Not so I can walk out of an agency with a check in mine.

    Anyway, sorry for the ramblings.

  17. David Kearns said:

    I would like to say the exact perfect thing here, that makes Kristin take notice of what a good little boy I am and become my agent: then, together (music, harps here, perhaps a sprinkling of flute) we will get us a great big advance and healty royalty from a bi publishing house.
    I’ll go live in the Hamptons, and, and…(wakes up)Damnit!Back to self publishing on the iternet

  18. Gordon Jerome said:

    Thanks for the link, Kate.

    And I’ve wondered that myself, about how agents make a living. I mean obviously, they sell rights to publishers and studios, whatever. But the big names already have agents, and there are a lot of big names, but not that many.

    You know, my wife is an artist. Down here there are three art galleries, they’re owned by rich people who have nothing better to do with their time and want to convince everyone they are capable of appreciating “good” art. I get a feeling agents are much the same way, especially the ones in New York: otherwise rich, but needing something to do other than shop. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t make yourself powerful with it. And what greater power is there than to set yourself up as a gatekeeper to the publishing world. I mean, a smooch on the buttocks is a smooch on the buttocks.

    I figure it’s the same thing with agents as it is with art dealers. Fortunately, my wife doesn’t want to part with any of her paintings, so we’re spared the chore of kissing the butt of a rich person who has nothing better to do than open an art gallery for the sake of ego.

  19. Anonymous said:


    Every agent I know, with one exception who reps a huge estate and is worth many millions, is very much a worker bee. They make money like this: 15% of 100 clients.

    Maybe 30 of those clients sell a project in any given year, for an average (including royalties of previous stuff, foreign sales, sub-rights, whatever) of what? $20,000? That’s three grand to the agent, times thirty. $90,000. It’s not a killing, after expenses, but it’s a living. And there’s usually a handful of clients who bring the average up significantly..

  20. Tamara Hart Heiner said:

    I went with a press small enough not to pay out advances, so no worries there. I don’t really see the point to them. I want to be like that midlist author and just make royalties, steady income. My dream.

  21. Anonymous said:

    1) It might sound like a workable theory — the publishers paying smaller advances so they can put more on marketing — but it has absolutely zero relationship to reality. Publishers allocate marketing dollars in direct proportion to the amount they spent on the advance. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. On my last sale, the only reason I held out for as much money as I got was because I wanted the publishing house to really push the book. If I could have guaranteed they’d push it anyway, I’d have taken less than half that much money — but there is no other guarantee. If you test this theory out yourself, be prepared to spend a couple of months stuffed in the back of a handful of bookstores before you get remaindered, because nobody heard of your book, ever.

    2) You, as an author, do have a responsibility to promote your book, but there is the kind of promotion you can do (personal, smaller, often effective on the small scale) and the kind of promotion only your publisher can do (getting you on the front table in B&Ns across the country, pushing for reviews in national publications, etc.) The kind of promotion your publisher can do has INFINITELY more impact than virtually anything an individual author can do on her own. You could do in-bookstore appearances all day, every day, for a year and not move as many books as you would just by having a stand-up display in national bookstores. You have to commit to doing what you can do, but you would be a fool to ignore the greater capabilities of the publisher’s marketing team.

    3) For me, too, writing is more fun than work. But I have just gone full-time as a writer, and let me tell you, it is a LOT better to have your fun be your work. It’s wise not to make that a necessity, but why in the world wouldn’t you go for it? I promise you, it’s worth trying for.

  22. Earned Out Before Paperback said:

    As a published author, I encourage the not-yet-published authors to continue to vow never to spend any of their advance on marketing, or to do any PR themselves.

    Makes more room on the shelves for MY book when they get remaindered and disappear into the dust.

  23. David Kearns said:

    Lyrics to “In the Gallery” by Dire Straits seem timely here.

    “Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse
    And a fine coalminer for the NCB that was
    A fallen angel and Jesus on the cross
    A skating ballerina you should have seen her do the skater’s waltz

    Some people have got to paint and draw
    Harry had to work in clay and stone
    Like the waves coming to the shore
    It was in his blood and in his bones
    Ignored by all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds
    He might as well have been making toys or strings of beads
    He could not be in the gallery

    And then you get an artist says he doesn’t want to paint at all
    He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall
    The birds of a feather all the phonies and all of the fakes
    While the dealers they get together
    And they decide who gets the breaks
    And who’s going to be in the gallery

    No lies he wouldn’t compromise
    No junk no bits of string
    And all the lies we subsidise
    That just don’t mean a thing
    I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
    And now all the vultures are coming down from the tree
    So he’s going to be in the gallery”

  24. Courtney Milan said:

    I guess I’m equally baffled by the people who think that the point of an advance is to give authors the money to market their book and the people who think that marketing is all the publisher’s job.

    There are some kinds of marketing I can’t buy with my advance (e.g., coop dollars). There are some kinds of marketing my publisher can’t buy with publishing dollars (e.g., my answering e-mails from fans promptly and with care). There are some things we can do equally well, but quite frankly, the burdens are not split evenly.

    An advance is an advance against royalties, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not given for any reason except to guarantee the author a certain level of royalties. What the author chooses to do with it is her prerogative. If she chooses not to market at all, that’s her choice. If she chooses to spend four times her advance on marketing (and yes, I do know people who have done this), that’s also her choice. The advance isn’t “for” anything.

    But in this day and age, if you don’t do even a little marketing–at a very minimum, springing for a domain name and a decent design–it’s probably not wise. And that’s true whether your advance is massive or tiny (and in some cases, may be more true for the tiny).

  25. Inadvertant Critic said:

    The advance isn’t “for” anything.

    That’s exactly what most of us are saying in the “it’s the publisher’s job” camp, since the original question had to do with whether or not the advance was supposed to be “for” marketing. It’s not. It’s payment, same as any other paycheck. The publisher doesn’t have the right to determine what you do with it. You can use it for marketing, or you can use it for groceries or to pay the student loans off. It’s yours.

    Most of the things a writer can do–such as answering e-mails and so on–aren’t things that you particularly spend money on. You also should expect to do appearances at libraries and bookstores in your area gratis… though if you need to fly somewhere for marketing and stay in a hotel, that ought to go on billable hours. I think most of us don’t really think of that as marketing because, erm, that’s just bragging about the book. ;p

    Most of the things that money goes for come from the publisher. On the other hand, if I want to make up handbills and send them out, or pay for a website for myself to pimp a book, then that’s my call. But it’s my money to make that call with, which is why the answer to the original question is that marketing is the publisher’s job. It may well also be the writer’s choice, but choice is the operative word, and it has nothing to do with the advance.

  26. Anonymous said:

    Just to clarify for those who haven’t yet sold a book, unless you’re a lead title, the publisher is not going to:

    * Create a website for your book
    * Print bookmarks
    * Print postcards
    * Pay postage
    * Create a Facebook page
    * Create an Amazon Author page

    So if you’re okay with going without a website, bookmarks, or postcards- if you’re okay with sending no additional review copies and having no online presence- then yes, you can choose not to spend ANY of your time or advance on marketing.

    But even these little things *are* marketing and promotion.

  27. Wildfire said:

    I guess that I’m spoiled (in some respects), then, by my publisher of my nonfiction books. Not to speak of my nice royalty checks. If I were sane and didn’t love writing fiction (almost more than life itself), then I would be just focusing on my nonfiction books.