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Saturday, July 2, 2011

5 Questions to Ask Before you Turn Down a Small Advance

I'm back! We have successfully moved 13 years' worth of stuff (including two home offices) into our new home. Now we are unpacking, which means soon I'll be back into a good work groove.

In the meantime, I wanted to mention my latest piece in the July, 2011 is of The Writer on small advances. One of the reasons I got into ghostwriting and coauthoring is because I found my platform didn't matter as much as my client's did when it came to first, selling the book, and second, the size of the advance we'd garner.

But when you're writing your own book (and I write books on my own, in addition to coauthoring and ghosting), you may face the question that's the heart of the piece--how low is too low? In other words, is a small advance worth it?

This is a timely question as advances are shrinking across the board--unless you have an Oprah-sized platform or a million followers on Twitter. Before you turn down a small advance, I suggest you ask the following five questions:
  • How much time will the book take? A relatively straightforward service book or a collection of previously published essays will likely take less time than a book that requires months of research and dozens of interviews, for example.
  • Will the book further your career, and if so, how? Will it help establish you as an expert in a field you write about? Will it help you transition from freelancer to book author? Will it continue to build on your platform?
  • How small is small? Some authors would turn up their nose at an advance of anything less than mid-five-figures; others will do books for a lot less than that. In other words, what you consider insulting may be more than acceptable to another writer. Only you can determine whether a "small" advance is worth it to you.
  • How many books do you expect to sell? No, you don't have a crystal ball, but if you can reasonably expect to sell tens of thousands of books, a small advance may be offset by royalties down the road. A book aimed at a tiny niche audience is unlikely to produce as many royalties--and remember that four out of five don't earn out, or pay any royalties.
  • How much do you want to do the book? I've taken on tiny advances (as in $2,500) for projects I really wanted to pursue--and have gone the POD route when I couldn't sell my book to a traditional publisher.
For a more in-depth look at this issue, check out the July issue of The Writer. Up next, straight talk about money, and a new survey of what freelancers are making today.


  1. In my experience most writers - even experienced writers - have a hard time judging how many copies of a book they will sell. One issue in the marketplace that probably doesn't get discussed enough is the idea of sales velocity. For instance, most bestseller lists really focus on sales velocity versus number of copies sold. For example, a book that sells 1000 copies in its first year will not likely hit any bestseller lists and might even be considered a failure by the publisher. Another book that sells 1000 copies in the first week will probably hit a bestseller list. If the book then drops dead and doesn't sell another copy ever after (it happens), the publisher may view it as a success, even though it's sold the same number of copies as the other book.

    Publishers think that way about a lot of different types of books, but writers may find themselves with a book that will not sell tons of copies immediately - how-to, self-help, certain types of reference and histories - but will sell steadily for years.

    Traditional publishing - which is pretty much under siege at the moment - generally wants to sell tons of copies of a book in the first 6 weeks it came out, then they forget about it and move on.

    e-books, self-published or otherwise, seem to be changing that paradigm. They don't get yanked off the shelf or remaindered or returned, so they're allowed to build an audience. At least, that's the current thinking. So sometimes it's better for an author to think, will this book continue to sell for the next 2 or 5 or 10 years? Or will it sell well this year and then kind of fade out because it's so current?

    It's a consideration.

  2. Mark, I agree with your comment re: traditional publishers wanting big, immediate sales or they lose interest. And they're willing to do so little for mid-list authors it's not surprising so many authors and choosing POD and e-books. Very good point re: how many books will you sell *overall,*, not just in the first few months after publication. A publishing expert told me at ASJA this year that a POD book doesn't really build/reach an audience for three years. Obviously this isn't true of all books, but I thought it was an interesting concept and definitely supports the idea of considering sales over years, not months or weeks.

    Thanks for weighing in! :)