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December 24, 2004 6:54 AM   Subscribe

How much money do first-time novelists make? Author and upcoming first-time novelist Justine Larbalestier is constantly asked by aspiring writers what first-time novelists should expect in advance payment for their beloved texts. So she asked some of her author friends what they got for their first novels. The responses ranged in time from 1962 to 2004. What didn't change in all that time was the basic amount: Not much. Quoth Larbalestier: "The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug's game. Enter at your own peril."
posted by jscalzi (66 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
My first book (not a novel) came out in 2003, and when we met with the accountant to do our taxes, he was all excited to hear the details about the book, the book tour, the author's life (ha ha). Then when he got to the my financial part of things, including the advance I'd gotten for the book, he looked totally dismayed. Finally he said, "That's IT? Uh.... wow. This should be MUCH more lucrative for you!"

Yeah, you think?

The good news, though, is that I've earned out my should-have-been-more-lucrative advance and will now start getting that (in my case) $1.13 a book.

I'm all for transparency about these kinds of things, but I think the more shocking story for the public might be actual sales numbers. We all see the "Over 1 million copies sold!" stickers on books, we all see the various "bestseller" lists -- but anyone in publishing knows how closely guarded those actual numbers are. It's even difficult sometimes for authors to get sales numbers of their books from their own publisher. And everyone was so shocked by the low sales of the NBA nominees, which ranged from 200 to 2,000. I had been feeling pretty lame about my own 5-digit sales numbers until I saw that.
posted by mothershock at 7:43 AM on December 24, 2004


I've heard that some first-time authors can renegotiate if the book actually becomes a blockbuster--is that true? (i think i heard it about Zadie Smith)

A friend of mine published a non-fiction, humorous, gift-type of book--her first--and didn't get much for it at all. What she did get was an agent, and contacts at the publishing house, etc, hopefully making further books easier to publish.
posted by amberglow at 8:07 AM on December 24, 2004


It is even worse for academic books. I published a monograph last year with a major university press, they only printed 800 copies and there are no royalties on the first 500! If the other 300 sell I stand to make maybe a few thousand dollars. But at least my mom gets to go around saying "My son's book..."
posted by LarryC at 8:14 AM on December 24, 2004


On a similar note: A lot of technical writing is done on a "per page" basis. I wrote a chapter for a Solaris 8 Certification book and earned enough to almost make a full car/insurance payment. Since it was a "work for hire", I wasn't surprised to see that they later reprinted the same chapter in the Solaris 9 version of the book (it was about material that hadn't changed between the two versions).

For me, it was more about the "wow, I'm published!" factor than actually doing it for money.
posted by mrbill at 8:16 AM on December 24, 2004


My understanding is that publishers try and keep the details of advances under wraps as much as possible, for novels anyway. While Zadie Smith's publisher stated at the time that reports of a £250 000 advance were 'not entirely accurate' they didn't correct that figure (presumably not minding the publicity).

For a first time author I assume the main way to get a larger advance is for a 'bidding war' to take place between publishers.
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 8:21 AM on December 24, 2004


a bidding war would depend on how good or scheming the agent is, no?
posted by amberglow at 8:23 AM on December 24, 2004


It is even worse for academic books.

Nah. You can make tons of money by writing monographs. The way you do it is to build up a good record and get a new job somewhere else at several tens-of-thousands more than you're making now; the actual paychecks from the publisher are a small part of the payment for writing it.

Or write a textbook instead of a monograph, if you don't mind being part of the evil empire.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:25 AM on December 24, 2004


We all see the "Over 1 million copies sold!" stickers on books, we all see the various "bestseller" lists -- but anyone in publishing knows how closely guarded those actual numbers are.

I'm pretty sure The Guardian prints weekly and total sales numbers for the top ten fiction/non-fiction books every week.
posted by toby\flat2 at 8:41 AM on December 24, 2004


For me, it was more about the "wow, I'm published!" factor than actually doing it for money.

and every publisher knows that.

i've published three techical books each of which sold well but when i divide the number of hours that went into the research and writing into what i received in royalties i would have been far better off financially if i spent that time stocking shelves at walmart.

my publishers, on the other hand, made a nice bit of money for essentially doing nothing. it costs less than 10 USD to print a hardcover book in low quantity. printers like lightning source print single copies on demand for a shockingly low price.

the publisher lists the book with amazon (a miserable company who take weeks to get it up on their site) and send .pdf files to the printer. when amazon receives an order on-line it goes directly to the printer who prints out *one* copy and ships it directly to the buyer. amazon, the printer, and the publisher split the retail price and the author gets crumbs.

the publisher carries no inventory, does no order fulfillment, hardly does any promotion, and keeps the lion's share of the retail price.

self-publishing is just out of reach, but there is definitely a niche for small publishers.
posted by three blind mice at 8:50 AM on December 24, 2004


technical - in fairness to my publisher she did help me with my spelling and grammar.
posted by three blind mice at 8:53 AM on December 24, 2004


Chris Rice, the son of Anne Rice, published a first novel *cough* a couple of years ago. His advance? $400,000.
posted by orange clock at 9:04 AM on December 24, 2004


Let us suggest Chris Rice may be an outlier. But then again, it's not entirely unjustifable, since it's a good bet that Anne Rice fans would pick up his book, for curiosity's sake if nothing else. And in fact, I bought it for my own wife, because she is an Anne Rice fan (she thought it was a decent novel but not spectacular). Also, of course, if it was published with Anne Rice's publisher, that publisher would want to continue to make Anne happy. As a business decision, it's probably not a bad one. What the real question should be: What was his second advance?
posted by jscalzi at 9:23 AM on December 24, 2004


"My understanding is that publishers try and keep the details of advances under wraps as much as possible."

Is this actually true? At the house where I acquire and edit fiction, our policy is pretty simple. The news of how much an author is making is the author's business to spread around or not, not ours.

In other words, it's no secret; it's just not our secret. I think this is a pretty reasonable policy, and I suspect it's fairly common.
posted by pnh at 9:42 AM on December 24, 2004


Many many years ago I wrote a fan letter to the novelist Nathaniel Benchley, who had written a terrific biography of his father Robert, whose writing I idolized. In his very nice letter of reply, he wrote at the end: ”I do appreciate your writing, and if you insist on doing it for a living, remember the classmate of Thurber's at Ohio State, who was majoring in agriculture and taking a course in journalism so he'd have something to fall back on in case the crops failed, and about whom Thurber said: ’Little did he know that falling back on journalism is like falling back full-length on a chest of carpenter's tools.’ ”
posted by LeLiLo at 9:55 AM on December 24, 2004


Let us suggest Chris Rice may be an outlier.

Or not. The job of a publisher is to acquire and publish books that make the publisher profit. Most publishers I know would prefer to publish good books as well -- but there are times when publishing shlock makes them a bunch of money.

I'm as certain as I can be that every profitable, long term publishing house has an author who's works they *hate*, but they publish anyway, because those same works consistently brings in large amounts of sales and money to the house.

Publishers without souls, of course, don't care, but the ones with souls (and there are many of them out there) still publish them -- because that cash flow lets them publish a fair number of less profitable works that they want to publish. To them, this is a far better deal than not publishing the tripe that makes them a ton of money, but they hate, and then having to cut their acquisition rate by 75% or more (if not simply going out of business.)

Paying $400K to Chris Rice may have been an incredibly astute move. The question is "Did that book clear production+advance?" If it did, by a large enough margin, then the publisher made the right call. Alas, there are plenty of reasons that authors sell that have nothing to do with their writing ability. Publishers are foolish to ignore that.

If it turns out that nobody is willing to buy the second work, and they don't buy that, then they still made the right call.
posted by eriko at 9:58 AM on December 24, 2004


i've published three techical books each of which sold well but when i divide the number of hours that went into the research and writing into what i received in royalties i would have been far better off financially if i spent that time stocking shelves at walmart.

Ah, sounds familiar. I co-authored a tech book that did OK; I figure I made between $20K and $30K. But It was material I knew quite well, so the writing came easy.

I've authored some individual chapters, where I had to do some research to be sure I wasn't just talking out my ass, and also started off on writing a whole tech book on my own.

There can be so much work involved (assuming you actually care about accuracy and quality) that if you are stepping outside of direct experience you may as well be stocking shelves, unless you are early to market with a decent book on a hot topic.

I've decided that I'm not writing any more tech stuff unless I feel I could almost dictate the book from memory.

I imagine that writing fiction would be a bit different; there's little research (unless you're doing historical fiction), and if you are trying to target a hot topic (perhaps based off current events) then literature likely isn't your goal.
posted by Ayn Marx at 10:22 AM on December 24, 2004


"I imagine that writing fiction would be a bit different; there's little research (unless you're doing historical fiction)"

Ah ha ha ha ha ha!

For the novel of mine that just came out, which is science fiction, I did a ton of research; for example, I was writing about the military, so I needed to research things like boot camp, various military battles, military organization and so on. And then comes the physics for various space maneuvers and so on.

Fiction is like non-fiction in this respect: You have to know things. Research is a critical tool all the way around.
posted by jscalzi at 10:29 AM on December 24, 2004


No experience with writing books here. I've had lots of book reviews published, and a couple encyclopedia entries, so I'm still at the "Woo hoo my name is in print!" stage.

I just wanted to see this is the most interesting post and discussion I've read here in awhile, thanks jscalzi and everyone who commented.
posted by marxchivist at 10:33 AM on December 24, 2004


I'm about to start this whole process in the next couple of months, so this is good to know. (I do have an agent, which is going to help. I don't know shit about this end of things, and I'm not proud anymore.)

Thanks, Scalzi and everyone else.
posted by chicobangs at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2004


interesting thing about the Nanny Diaries authors and their problems after their first.

(maybe it's a blessing in disguise to build up to big money?)
posted by amberglow at 10:46 AM on December 24, 2004


and mazel tov, chico!
posted by amberglow at 10:46 AM on December 24, 2004


I imagine the problem with publishing is roughly the same as the problem with the music industry, except maybe not quite as drastic as there's less overhead.

And there's probably a lot less hanging out with hot groupies in the back of limos drinking Cristall martinis involved.
posted by neckro23 at 10:50 AM on December 24, 2004


Fiction is like non-fiction in this respect: You have to know things. Research is a critical tool all the way around.

ain't that the truth. i don't envy writers of fiction at all. at least with non-fiction you don't have to invent (and develop) characters. you already have a story - sort of - you know who your audience is and what they expect. non-fiction is a lot like sculpture: if you're carving an elephant, you just remove all the bits that aren't elephant. it takes some technical skill, but not too much imagination.

fiction is a blank canvas and paint brush. there's nothing to remove - everything has to be created from scratch.

i spent an evening comparing notes with a playwright a few weeks ago and even thought i thought her play sucked, i thought she was a genius for being able to write it.

we agreed that writing is totally soul destroying. you never knew how bad you sucked until you read today the crap you wrote yesterday.
posted by three blind mice at 11:00 AM on December 24, 2004


it takes some technical skill, but not too much imagination.
I don't know about that...that M book about Caravaggio, or others about figures that there isn't much known about demand enormous imagination and research. Then there's also the fact that good non-fiction makes the story/person/etc come alive.
posted by amberglow at 11:06 AM on December 24, 2004


Let's not over-egg the pudding ...

Yes, first novel advances are frequently small. Outliers like Susannah Clarke are rare, and very lucky; most of us have to put up with between one and two orders of magnitude less than her reputed £250,000.

But.

The advance is just a non-returnable loan against royalties the book is expected to earn. Publishers do not generally give advances that they don't think the book will earn out; so there's a likelihood that the author will get another cheque, by and by.

And then there are other markets and other rights. Book contracts are big and hairy and like unto the bill of sale for a house, and they specify fixtures and fittings and which rights the publisher is buying. A smart agent will hold certain rights back and sell them separately. A smart agent will try not to sell a US publisher non-English language rights, or even British rights, because if the book is a success in the US market other publishers will want to buy the rights for their respective territories. In the case of my first novel (published in 2003) the non-US rights sold so far have brought in advances equal to 80% of the US publisher's advance -- and not all the major markets have been sold into, as yet.

If you get a $10,000 advance for a year of weekends' work, and that's the end of it, you might well want to cry. But if you get a $10K advance and then another $8-10K from foreign rights advances, and then the US edition earns out and pays an additional $3000, and the foreign editions pay another $3000 on top, the picture (after three or four years) looks a whole lot more cash flow positive: and when it's being reprinted every five years and bringing in $3000 a pop, after a decade of putting out a novel a year things are looking very nice indeed.
posted by cstross at 11:22 AM on December 24, 2004


we agreed that writing is totally soul destroying. you never knew how bad you sucked until you read today the crap you wrote yesterday.

My God, I found a kindred spirit on Metafilter. There is nothing worse (to me) than writing something good, and then the next day (especially when sobriety is a factor) realizing that it was very, very, very bad.
posted by TeamBilly at 11:26 AM on December 24, 2004


look at you, cstross! : >

did you make more for second books with the same publisher based on sales of the first, critical acclaim, or just that they liked you, or all of the above?
posted by amberglow at 11:39 AM on December 24, 2004


Great thread, guys.

Here's an article by a midlist author that gives numbers. (You might need to go through one of those Salon Premium daypass screens to get to the content). Does anyone know who this is? I considered asking this as a question on AskMe, and maybe I will if this thread doesn't bear any fruit.
posted by painquale at 11:49 AM on December 24, 2004


"My understanding is that publishers try and keep the details of advances under wraps as much as possible."

This is just the impression I have, I meant the exact details, figures often seem to be bandied around, but often seem to be approximate from what I've seen, maybe I've been reading Publisher's Lunch too much, where all the details of advances are given in a 'band' system ('major deal', 'nice deal' etc).
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 11:53 AM on December 24, 2004


How many people here ever buy a first novel? I mean, assuming you don't know the author personally?

Me, I'm astonished publishers are willing to pay for most of the fiction that comes out at all, much less first fiction.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:54 AM on December 24, 2004


I'm with multiple publishers. (Being one of those lunatics who really wants to do this shit for a living.)

With Ace, I'm on two-book contracts. If the first book contract (SINGULARITY SKY/IRON SUNRISE) gave me $x per book, then the second contract (ACCELERANDO/GLASSHOUSE) gave me $x for book 3 and ($x * 1.33) for book 4.

This low raise is explained by the fact that my agent negotiated the second contract before the sales figures were in (before book 2 was even in print). Thus, there was insufficient leverage to justify a substantial increase.

I'm not going to comment on Tor, who are publishing my fantasy series, or Golden Gryphon (THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES), other than to note that GG have just bought a sequel to TAA for an advance roughly twice the size of that for the first book (which did very well by their standards).

The really interesting question is what my advances will look like after 2005, by which time it'll be possible to see whether my actual book sales are trending up or down.

It's a slow business, isn't it?
posted by cstross at 12:00 PM on December 24, 2004


ahhh. thanks.

I buy first novels all the time, but i go by reviews/wordofmouth/covers/titles/flapcopy...i usually don't know they're first novels until after i'm already interested.
posted by amberglow at 12:11 PM on December 24, 2004


Painquale: Don't get me started on that piece of crap article.

Cstross writes: "If you get a $10,000 advance for a year of weekends' work, and that's the end of it, you might well want to cry. But if you get a $10K advance and then another $8-10K from foreign rights advances, and then the US edition earns out and pays an additional $3000, and the foreign editions pay another $3000 on top, the picture (after three or four years) looks a whole lot more cash flow positive: and when it's being reprinted every five years and bringing in $3000 a pop, after a decade of putting out a novel a year things are looking very nice indeed."

The operative word there being "if."

Cstross is absolutely correct that over the course of a career one can pick up ancilliary sources of income from the same work, including foreign rights, royalties and what not. However, limiting the conversation to first-time work, it's worth noting that first-time noevlists are often without the benefit of agents (particularly in genre markets) and even then often feel like they are in a "take it or leave it" situation. I'm not suggesting every publisher is wholly mercenary about these things (mine wasn't), but on the other hand they naturally going to try to set terms and monies advantageous to the publisher.

Many if not most first-time novelists are also first-time authors, and those without agents are again at a disadvantage when the contract plops in front of them because they haven't the slightest idea what rights they should be negotiating (and even if they should be negotiating at all). I personally negotiated my first fiction contract, but I'll note that I'd sold books before (non-fiction, and I had an agent for that) so I wasn't entirely a babe in the woods (even so, I don't pretend I got as good a deal for myself as an agent would have; I was simply curious about having the experience. Obviously, this approach is not for everyone).

In all, it's best to work under the assumption that realistically speaking, the advance money you get from your first novel is the only money you'll see from it. Especially if you don't already have an agent.
posted by jscalzi at 12:14 PM on December 24, 2004


John: It may be true that a lot of first time novelists are without benefit of agents, but that's a mistake they are making. Once they have an offer for their work, of course, since it can be quite difficult to find an agent until that point. But once you have an offer on the table there is no reason at all not to get yourself an agent.

You may have negotiated OLD MAN'S WAR but surely you could have gotten an agent to do it for you if you had wanted to? It's free money for the agent; they know you have a saleable book.

As an aside, everybody should buy Charlie's books. I particularly recommend THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES, IRON SUNRISE, and THE FAMILY TRADE. Read them while enjoying the cool, refreshing taste of Pepsi Blue!
posted by Justinian at 12:31 PM on December 24, 2004


I can't imagine not having my agent throughout this process. I know plenty of authors who have negotiated solo, but I would have been totally lost without her business guidance. It's very nice to have someone working on my behalf who is really connected, totally knows how to work a deal, and who is thinking about me as a career writer and not just a single book sale.
posted by mothershock at 12:37 PM on December 24, 2004


Also -- there's a ton of research to do when you're writing fiction. I'm doing way, way more research for my fiction writing than I ever did for my nonfiction.
posted by mothershock at 12:40 PM on December 24, 2004


I love buying debut novels. It's the excitement of hearing a new voice first amongst my buddies who read (my other friends rather watch TV). I also collect them in 1st edition 1st printing states, with the idea that they will become very rare and hard to find. Mostly I hunt for 'buzz' books and low print run. I usually buy 2. One to read and one to collect. If I really like the author I will collect all his/her works and ephemera.
posted by alteredcarbon at 12:44 PM on December 24, 2004


My biggest piece of luck was my agent.

However, the point when I got the first book offer and approached her happened to be around the fifteenth anniversary of my first short story sale. I'd been around the block a few times, banging my head on the walls in frustration, and I'd picked up a few clues the hard way. So I had some idea what I was doing.

If you are willing to learn from your mistakes you can manufacture your own luck from them.

(Oh yeah, in case anyone is wondering: I got the book offer, then I approached the agent. If you don't have a sale, you're not very interesting: and if you've signed on the contract, you're interesting as a future business proposition, maybe, if you ever write another book. Whereas if you approach them with the unsigned contract in hand and say "will you fix this for me?" they can pick up a straight 15% commission on the spot -- which tends to get their attention right now. Plus if they're doing their job right they will earn you a damn sight more than the 15% they're charging you.)
posted by cstross at 12:46 PM on December 24, 2004


cstross -- off topic, but I LOVE your books.
posted by ltracey at 12:49 PM on December 24, 2004


My wife's novel is coming out next year with William Morrow/HarperCollins, and her advance was higher than what Larbalestier is quoting but far below Chris Rice (or Paris Hilton) levels. The agent is definitely key--without one, I doubt you're going to sell to a major publisher at all. Chico B., let's chat about this at the next meetup.
posted by muckster at 12:56 PM on December 24, 2004


"You may have negotiated OLD MAN'S WAR but surely you could have gotten an agent to do it for you if you had wanted to? It's free money for the agent; they know you have a saleable book."

You'd think so, wouldn't you. In my case I approached an agency with an two-book contract offer on the table and they still passed, for reasons fairly unfathomable to me. So I said, fine, I'll just do it myself. And I did.

The second agent I approached was more amenable, and now he's busy with the foreign, movie and video game rights, bless his heart, not to mention having negotiated the contract for the sequel. And OMW is getting good reviews and sales and so on. So I hope that first agency is kicking themselves. They're probably not, mind you. But one can hope.

For everyone giving Charlie love: Wait 'til you read Accelerando. Whoo-hoo!
posted by jscalzi at 1:09 PM on December 24, 2004


Writing novels isn't something you'd do for the money; although there is always the chance of winning the "lottery" of the marketplace, the vast majority of authors are just getting by.

When I was doing it part-time, a $10,000 advance seemed great. Now that I'm trying to do it full-time, I'm still looking at $10,000 - $50,000 for the book I'm just finishing, which is a much more commercial property. Which is not a lot for two years' work, in my opinion. But I'm not complaining. It's the best job in the world. And I am doing a little consulting to make ends meet.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:30 PM on December 24, 2004


neckro23: "And there's probably a lot less hanging out with hot groupies in the back of limos drinking Cristall martinis involved."

Note that such hanging out is usually paid for out of your recording advance, which means that you will wind up paying the record company back for it anyway - it all comes out of your pocket. :)

From everything I've read about the book biz, it's very much like the music biz in terms of the mechanics of how the money goes around and is apportioned, but it has nowhere near the level of vile, arrogant, power-drunk idiots in positions of corporate control. Not to say that "people" like this don't exist in the book biz, but the music biz seems to draw true scum - megalomaniacs, sycophants and starfuckers - like no other "legit" business (where "legit" is applied very, very loosely).

Also there's a lot more autonomy for authors, I think (tho I'm sure that depends on the editor), and much better chances of getting paid overall. I never saw a dime from my time in music other than a small development deal; to be fair, that paid me for a year to write songs and put a band together... but just barely. Ah, the days of Top Ramen and hot dogs... needless to say there was no limo-hanging with hot groupies! I couldn't even buy my girlfriend a cheeseburger!

I've been doing comic books on and off for about 7 years now, and as difficult as that business is (especially in terms of making a living from) it's a skip-and-hop through a springtime field compared to the music biz. Happily, I'm still getting royalty checks from a comic I drew 5 years ago - this year's check was the largest one by far, as the work was republished by one of the Big Two in a new format. Very pleasant. :)

As the esteemed Mr. Scalzi recommends, take it slow and steady, do good work, don't quit your day job, and don't let rejection bum you out.

BTW, jscalzi, I just read Agent to the Stars online and really enjoyed it. Looking forward to Old Man's War!
posted by zoogleplex at 1:48 PM on December 24, 2004


Zoogleplex is pretty much right: it's so glaringly obvious (once you get up close and personal) that your chances of making yourself a zillionaire in publishing are vanishingly small that most of the real sharks swim off in search of richer feeding grounds. This is not to say that well-meaning incompetence isn't a hazard, or to say that there are no vampires in publishing, but the incompetents usually signal their status if you keep an eye on their track record, and the vampires are vanishingly rare.

I'm not so sure about autonomy for authors, though. Publishers like consistency, and the amount of pressure you come under to repeat a successful formula can be intimidating. The author who can skip from stand-alone SF novel to stand-alone SF novel without anyone mentioning the dread word "sequel" in their presence is a rare bird these days.
posted by cstross at 2:11 PM on December 24, 2004


Well, cstross, I had an episode with my A&R guy about 3 months into my deal where I went in with a tape of 12 new songs, and he listened to about 4 of them in the presence of myself and my manager, and said (roughly):

"Well, this is really good stuff, but things have changed, and we'll never be able to sell this. So, you need to throw this all out and start writing stuff like this..."

Upon which he started laying out the CDs of Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, Alice In Chains, etc. This stuff had broken way big over the previous 3 months, I'm sure most of us here remember that time.

"... oh, and cut your hair shorter, grow some facial hair, start wearing clothes like these guys, sing differently, and dump that girlfriend, too, she's the wrong style..."

You get the idea. Somehow I don't think that happens quite so much in publishing. :) Not that I disliked all the above music, I thought it was great, but it wasn't where I was at musically.

Can you imagine being told by your editor, "Yeah, this is great, but you need to throw this all out and rewrite it in the style of that guy who wrote The Da Vinci Code."

*shudders* guh!
posted by zoogleplex at 2:28 PM on December 24, 2004


"Can you imagine being told by your editor, 'Yeah, this is great, but you need to throw this all out and rewrite it in the style of that guy who wrote The Da Vinci Code.'"

The editor's slush pile is already toppling over with Dan Brown knock-offs, I can assure you. Except for the ones that are the JK Rowling knock-offs.

Glad you liked "Agent," Zoo.
posted by jscalzi at 2:46 PM on December 24, 2004


Exactly that experience happened to me, in the past.

I ended up telling 'em to take a hike. (It added years to the time it took me to break through, but when I got my break it worked a whole lot better.)

Like I said, the incompetents and vampires are rare in publishing ... but they exist.
posted by cstross at 3:02 PM on December 24, 2004


This is a very enjoyable discussion, and I may have discovered some new reading material--when I'm done another semester of reading 15+ novels, of course ;)
posted by The God Complex at 3:06 PM on December 24, 2004


"Exactly that experience happened to me, in the past."

Then maybe the book biz is more like music than I thought... gah! The whole of the "creation biz" seems to pretty much be the same thing, huh?

Well, it's great to get a look into it, and compare notes. :)
posted by zoogleplex at 3:50 PM on December 24, 2004


I will venture a gaucherie and say that just today I received the first half of an advance, which is $4000 total. The other $2000 will be payable upon delivery of the manuscript in August.

The book came about because an enterprising editor saw my web site and said, "Hey, that will make a pretty decent book." It is, technically, my second book, although the first one was work for hire for my employer, a large university press. That meant for the first book I received no advance and no royalties.

A $4000 advance is a perfectly reasonable number. This particular publisher is conservative and after quizzing my colleagues who have done similar books, I feel it is a good number. It is indeed going to take a lot of weekend and evening work to get the book done, but I am not in the book for the money and do not feel compelled to figure out the per-hour rate. Of course, I will do whatever I can to make the book pay the bills. As most published authors will tell you, once you have a book or two to your name, "ancillary incomes" appear in the form of news or feature articles (I just got one out of the blue for the New York Times, a direct result of having had a great deal of press for my first book over the summer; the should be published next Sunday in the "Week in Review"), speeches and panels and advisory boards, teaching classes, doing reviews of book proposals (usually $100 a pop), writing blurbs, writing reviews of finished books (sometimes these are done for free; when paid, it is dismal), and any number of other small ways one can make a bit of dough.

I do not have an agent. When I ran the numbers, it worked out more in my favor to just hire an entertainment lawyer to look at the contract, which cost me $250 versus a minimum of $400 had I gone to an agent contract in hand: they still would have been entitled to a cut, even if they didn't get me the gig. The lawyer and I were able to exact many changes to the contract, in particular passages that let the publisher hold on to royalties for a long period of time before paying them out, and passages which might have prevented me undertaking other book efforts on behalf of my day job. In general, after our compromises, our changes mean that I will get more money and sooner.

As for paying off an advance over time: A book can make a reasonable profit on fewer than 10,000 sales. This if for the publisher, mind. The author will have to continue with another book deal and more scrabbling for coins in the dust.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:02 PM on December 24, 2004


"From everything I've read about the book biz, it's very much like the music biz in terms of the mechanics of how the money goes around and is apportioned."

I dunno. For starters, we don't make authors pay their own production costs.
posted by pnh at 5:06 PM on December 24, 2004


Also: Listen to cstross. Not all recently registered Metafilter members should be judged by their high user number.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:08 PM on December 24, 2004


first-time novelists or other aspiring authors, should consider publishing with cafepress.com

a few weeks ago i put together over 200 pages of blogposts and have already sold over 100 copies with a profit of a little over five bucks a book. and ive gotta say, the damn thing really looks like a real book.

(warning: self-link)

all you do is convert your word doc into a pdf, create jpgs for the cover, back, and spine, upload it and set a price. if you dont order any yourself you never have to pay a dime.

i would imagine that it would be easier for new writers to land a good agent with a book for everyone to see and some sort of decent sales numbers.

thats my hope, at least, as i will try to find an agent next month. this thread is helpful in that since my mom's name isnt anne rice i wont have very high expectations if i do get published.
posted by tsarfan at 5:47 PM on December 24, 2004


This is good, from jscalzi's enjoyable rant against wrongheaded sense of entitlement:

Yes, I would love for my book writing to support me and my family. I invite any of my publishers to make that happen. I assume it never will.

Paradoxically, this does not chain me down; I think it frees me to write what I want and not worry about anything other than the writing itself.


There's a nugget of wisdom in that last sentence that applies to other areas of life. I would try to tease it out, but it's time for breakfast so I'll let it go.

I did one book on work-for-hire and got paid in cash, no name credit on the book. I did another job, a translation, and got paid in books. (The publisher ran a bookstore; I could choose whatever books I wanted up to $x in retail value.)

I no longer have the cash. I still have the books.
posted by mono blanco at 5:59 PM on December 24, 2004


Congrats, Mo Nickels!

I just got the contract in the mail today for my next two books. I agree with Sidhedevil -- really the best job in the world!
posted by mothershock at 6:12 PM on December 24, 2004


posted by pnh | posted by cstross

Benvenuto, Patrick and Charlie! Now get back to work, dammit, my to-read pile is growing distressingly small.

How many people here ever buy a first novel? I mean, assuming you don't know the author personally?

Recommendations from other readers count for a lot.
I've talked to Charlie on the net before he published his first book, but we don't really know each other from Adam's housecat.

I've bought first novels at or around their publication from, let's see, Chris Morgan, Chris Moriarty, Mary Doria Russell, Charlie Stross, Alastair Reynolds... I'm away from my liberry or I'd be able to give you a few more. I tried to buy Ken MacLeod's first book after he'd had a few out, but the third got there first so I read it instead.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:39 PM on December 24, 2004


cstross, another one who loves your stuff. I've read mostly the short stories though- newish SF books are almost nonexistent in Indian bookstores.
posted by dhruva at 7:57 PM on December 24, 2004


"The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug's game. Enter at your own peril."
posted by spazzm at 12:34 AM on December 25, 2004


Re advances, a consensus.
posted by mono blanco at 4:55 AM on December 25, 2004


I wrote a chapter for a Solaris 8 Certification book and earned enough to almost make a full car/insurance payment.

Hey, I bought that book! You owe me!
posted by Critical_Beatdown at 5:50 AM on December 25, 2004


Mono blanco, at least Robert Silverberg showed some class!
posted by billsaysthis at 9:53 AM on December 25, 2004


Oh yeah, the computer book I co-wrote ten years ago, the incredibly exciting yet overlooked in Pulitzer balloting CA-Visual Objects Developer's Guide, brought an advance of $6,000 total, split three ways, and by the time it went out of print a few years later missed earning back the advance by approximately $17. I kid you not. So I made $10/page on that, compared to an average of $100 per page for the computer magazine articles I was writing in the same period (not to mention all the free software I received in order to write them).
posted by billsaysthis at 9:56 AM on December 25, 2004


Hey, I bought that book! You owe me!

I only wrote the chapter on using VI. 8-)
posted by mrbill at 12:11 PM on December 25, 2004


Marcy tells me that bookangst is the blog to watch for insider publishing info.
posted by muckster at 4:26 PM on December 25, 2004


Great thread -- thanks for the info, everyone!
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on December 26, 2004


Off topic, but ...
cstross: We meet again.
Mwa ha ha ha Mwa ha ha
posted by seanyboy at 3:28 PM on December 28, 2004


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