It's Not About the Money, Money, Money

I read an article in ‘The Irish Times’ recently that told of the massive advance for a two-book deal for first-time novellist, Kathleen MacMahon. In the article, the deal – with its £600,000 advance – for This Is How It Ends and a follow-up book, is hailed as: ‘brilliant news for debut novelists. It’s proof that there’s an appetite for great first novels’. The book will be published some time next year by Little Brown on this side of the Atlantic and by Grand Central in the US.
It is good to hear that new names are still getting a look in, as the publishing world goes through a pretty rocky period, but I’d question the wisdom of advances like these or even, in some cases, how accurate the figures really are.
For anybody who doesn’t already know, writers normally get paid in two different ways for their books. First, there’s the advance, which is basically a non-refundable loan (though you may have to pay back some or all of it if you somehow breach the terms of your contract). This a lump of money up-front to recognize the work you’ve already put into the book, and to help pay your way through the work that will still have to be done to get it into production. The amount is based partly on how much money your publisher thinks your book is likely to make, and partly on how much they want it and whether they have to bid against other publishers to get it.
Secondly, there’s the royalties. This is the writer’s percentage of every book sold, which generally falls somewhere between about 8% and 15%, but there’s no ‘standard’ figure, and your cut can be affected by how the book is sold, and in what form. You don’t start receiving any money from your sales until the royalties have paid off your advance. So Ms. MacMahon will have to sell a lot of books before her advance has earned out. Until her advance has been paid off, her publishers will most likely be making a loss on her book.
My first doubt regarding this and other massive advances is this: Who’s making the figure known to the media? In general, publishers don’t like saying how much they’ve paid for a book, because they don’t want all of their authors thinking they can get the same generous sum. Agents don’t blab about figures for the same reason; they don’t want their clients asking: ‘Why didn’t you get me that kind of money?’. Which leaves the authors themselves, and in most cases, you’d think people wouldn’t want the world to know what they’re earning.
The only reason I can think of that any of the parties involved in the negotiation would want the figure known, would be to create hype over the book. As is admitted in the ‘Irish Times’ article, that tactic can backfire, leading to people talking about the money, rather than the book (like I’m doing), or causing expectations of the book to reach silly levels.
My other misgiving is that money spent on advances is not getting spent on the promoting of the book – or on other books. You would naturally think that if a publisher pays a fortune for a book, that they will give it a hefty marketing push – they’ll be keen to make that money back, right? But this isn’t always the case. In fact, the publishing industry’s approach to marketing is hit-and-miss at best. If you’re looking to make a career out of writing, and you get a big advance for your first book, you really better hope it sells, because you could end up being regarded as toxic by your publisher if you become a big red debt on their accounts. A sure way to get dropped, particularly in today’s climate.
I can’t help feeling that the culture of trying to create hype for a book based a big-figure advance is really short-sighted. With the fast turnover of stock on the shop shelves, a book tends to get one big shove – it’s lucky if it even gets that – and then the marketing people lose interest. But this just doesn’t reflect the way books sell. This is not the music or film industry. We have no broadcast medium spreading the word quickly, so for the most part, word about a book spreads slowly. ‘Harry Potter’ did not become a phenomenon because of marketing – it was first and foremost because of word-of-mouth. The marketing just jumped on the band-wagon of what even the publisher admits was a surprise success.
With the publishing industry in a state of near-paralysis for the last couple of years, resulting often in fearful and conservative decision-making, you would have thought we’d be leaning back to taking a more long-term view. There are so many people being given a start and then being dropped when it doesn’t work out, it must be incredibly disheartening. I’d hate to be starting out now. It’s not all on the publishers, though they really do need to give up on this big-bang theory of selling books. They will always need the ‘tent-pole’ books, to stay in business, but it’s never a good idea to put up a tent in a hurry. It takes time for a lot of people to read a book. And in most cases, it takes time for a writer to establish themselves.
New writers need to be realistic too. Anybody working in publishing will tell you not to hang all your hopes on one book. The most successful writers, the ones who have careers that span decades (the ones I most want to emulate) have built their audience up over time. Once you’ve got your first book published, get the next one lined up, and the next one. And try to have a good time doing it, so you keep doing it, even when you can’t make a living from it.
I’ve met a lot of writers, and I have one of the best agents in the business, and I can assure any budding authors out there that in the children’s book industry, advances just don’t reach into the six-figure range, especially not for first-time authors – not unless  you achieve overnight, worldwide success and can lump together the sale of rights in thirty countries and a lucrative film deal all in one pot. For a publishing contract in the UK, anything over ten grand would have been considered doing pretty well for yourself, even back in the boom, and the US publishers don’t tend to be that much more generous.
Instead of huge advances, I’d like to see the industry being a bit more practical, and showing more vision: tackling the challenge of engaging people who don’t read books – actually enlarging the market; coming up with a coherent strategy with a view to digital media. I want to see us coming up with an alternative to the savage discounting that has resulted in the fact that, despite selling more books, we’re making less money off them. I’d like to see how we can help bookshops adapt to a new market, rather than seeing them closing down.
Yes, you’ll still have to pay me a reasonable advance if you want me to sign a publishing contract – but if you want to buy my book, what I really want to see, is how you’re going to sell it.