A question from the gallery:
You seem to take a hard line about advances. Have you ever published with no advance?
Yup. But I’ve never published with a publisher whose default position is to offer no advance — or, for that matter, any publisher whose default advance is less than the SFWA minimum for a publisher to be a qualifying market. And it’s never happened where I have not been the one to suggest the “no advance” option.
I think it’s very important to note both that the publishers I work with offer acceptable advances as a matter of course and that I, as the author and provider of the work, asked instead for an alternative compensation model.
One: In the case of the publisher, it’s important for me as an author to know that the publisher is invested in my work — and has the resources to commit to getting my work into the marketplace in a more than trivial way. The best and most concrete way to do that is to have them give money to me up front. Or, in other words: You’re worth what you’re paid for.
Yes, I know. You know a publisher who doesn’t offer advances but they’ve very nice people and they work very hard for you. That’s great. But why are they not offering you that advance? If they’re not offering that advance because they have to make the choice between paying you up front and turning the publishing wheel in the back, then that tells you something very relevant about their ability to promote and market your work in an effective manner.
If they’re not offering it because it’s just not how they built their business plan, then why aren’t you questioning the business plan? Is your erstwhile publisher also paying every other vendor they work with on the backend with a percentage of the net? If they’re not, you should be asking why they’re not paying the author — i.e., the person who gives the publisher the commercial product it exists to distribute — first above all others, and, indeed why, in the grand scheme of things, they’re almost certainly paying the author last, or close enough to last as to make no difference.
If they’re not offering it because they are telling you “oh, publishing is changing,” or “we’re experimenting with new compensation models,” or “this is a partnership between publisher and author,” then what they’re really saying is “we’re checking to see how dumb you are.” And if you are dumb (or just ignorant, or excitable to the point that you’re willing to overlook that everyone else is being paid before you are), then they win.
Here’s a good general question to ask any publisher: Where is the author in the line of people who get paid? The further back the author is in the payment line, the more you should be suspicious of that publisher ever paying you. You should especially not trust the word of someone who is going to get paid no matter how your book does; say, as an example, someone who pulls a monthly salary whether or not you ever see a penny from the publisher.
This is why advances are a good thing: They put the author at the front of the line to get paid. Which, given that the publishing industry is all about selling what the author provides, is where the author should be. If a publisher doesn’t have paying the author first as its default, then it tells me something very significant about what they think about authors — and what priority authors are in their publishing scheme.
Two: In the case of me, if I make the determination that I want to try something different in terms of the way I’m compensated, it’s because I — not anyone else — have determined that the risk I have in not being paid at all is acceptable. How have I come to that determination? Typically through a combination of factors, including my own personal financial situation, my experience with the publisher in question based on previous business association, my knowledge of how I’m currently selling in the market at large, knowledge of the current state of publishing and book sales, and how much I potentially stand to gain by foregoing the front end advance for this differing compensation model, and (this is very important) how long it will take before I start to get paid out of the back end.
Which is to say, there’s a lot that goes into it.
And, very importantly, all of this determination goes on with something concrete to compare it to — namely, the advance that I’ve been offered as a customary part of the negotiation process. This is the difference between “Definitely something, versus possibly nothing but maybe more” and “nothing at all versus possibly nothing and possibly something.” When you start with an advance you’re thinking about the first scenario. When the publisher offers you nothing as an advance, you’re looking at the second. The first of these scenarios is almost always better than the second — and offers a much better chance to be paid.
So, yes, there have been times where I’ve chosen to get paid on the back end, rather than the front. Sometimes it’s done very well for me; other times less so. But every time, it was my choice, not a choice that was made for me and rationalized away by an appeal to a “changing publishing world” or an “exciting new compensation model” or even just the hope I don’t know better. I do know better. And I know that default is, and always should be, that when an author works with a publisher, the author gets paid an advance.