Why A Shitty Deal is a Shitty Deal
A small press publisher named Jeremy Lassen, who is clearly not getting enough hugs, took exception to the Real World Book Deals definition of a $3,000 book advance as “shitty,” and responded with a comment which I’ll elevate here for you to admire as much for the spirited use of profanity as the content itself. In it, Lassen also tries to suggest that authors really don’t want a $20K advance, or above. Follow the logic, such as it is:
$3000 advance = the expectation of selling at least 1,200 copies of a $27 hardcover at 10% royalty.
That’s 2,400 copies of a trade paperback at $13.50
For a small publisher with a first time author’s fiction book, those are pretty respectable numbers. Shitty deal my ass. Particularly if you still have a piece of paperback or foreign language, or British rights.
A $20,000 advance = “not bad?” Fuck that. A $20,000 advance could mean the end of your fucking career. If you don’t sell 7,500 copies of your book in hardcover, or 15,000 of your book in trade paperback, you didn’t earn out. If you don’t earn out, chances are your publisher just lost money on your ass, and your editor is getting heat from above. Chances are that editor is telling everybody in town what a bad investment you were…
Now if that had been a $5000 advance, and you sold half that — 3,200 copies, you book would have earned out and made a bit of money, and would have been a good investment, and would probably get another contract.
If you actually sold 7,500 copies after a $5,000 advance, you would have been a long shot that paid off big. Your editor would look like a genius, and you might get a 2 book deal, and… AND YOU WOULD HAVE STILL ENDED UP EARNING $2OK on the first book, after royalties were paid.
Lets be realistic people. If your book sells, you get paid. If your book doesn’t sell, and you still got a big fat advance up front, chances are you won’t ever get a contract with that publisher again. If you think you can sell more copies then your publisher thinks they can, don’t sell it to them, or self publish it, if there’s so much demand.
Fucking unrealistic expectations are part of the problem in this industry. Arbitrary lists like this perpetuate this shit. Its more important to understand the economics of your trade (advances, royalties, trade discounts, distributor discounts, returns, Pay-for-placement in chains, etc etc), rather then memorizing some arbitrary range of “advances” and weather it was a good deal or not.
The problem is most writers don’t know shit about the business they are in. and assfucks like Publishers Lunch don’t seem to be interested in helping them learn anything about it.
Aside from the clear contempt Lassen has for writers, whom he apparently assumes are too stupid/ignorant to follow basic publishing economics, Lassen misses two critical points about the Real World Publishing Deal list:
1. It’s primarily supposed to be funny and satirical (although as with most funny and/or satirical things, there’s a small bit of truth to it). For the purposes of my little essay here, however, let’s go ahead and treat it seriously.
2. It’s a list from the perspective of the writer, not the perspective of the publisher — as befits its creation by a bunch of writers hanging around at a bar. And here’s a fact, for writers and publishers both: When the cost of your bar tab from a night of carousing with other writers is an integral percentage of your book advance, that’s a pretty shitty advance, no matter how you slice it.
Likewise, if Lassen doesn’t think $3,000 is a shitty deal for writing a book, he’s welcome to try to live off it. I doubt he’ll get a good Internet connection from an underpass.
To be clear, the “shitty” aspect of tiny advances as described in or little list relates to one thing: The raw amount of money involved. The small press publisher who offers you $3,000 or less for your book may sincerely be offering the most amount of money he or she can offer; likewise, a writer may be eminently pleased to take that dinky sum for a number of reasons. Money is not the only thing involved in a book deal.
Be that as it may, here and now, in the year 2004, $3K is a shitty amount of money. It’s shitty in exchange for the amount of labor involved in writing a book, and it’s shitty in the real world of paying rent, buying groceries and keeping the lights on. $3K is a nickel a word (or less, if you write more than 60,000 words). If you live in New York City or San Francisco and don’t have rent control, $3K is a writer’s monthly “nut” — i.e., your cost of living (note to writers: Get the hell out of NYC and SF).
Lassen’s exhortations of paltry book economics aside, no author wants to make $3,000 or less from their work. It’s “I won’t bring up what I was paid to the parents who wanted me to be an accountant” money. It’s “I’ll never be able to give up my day job” money. It’s “I’m glad I’ve got a tolerant partner” money. An author may take $3K (or less) for an advance, and may even be happy with the deal — but dollars to donuts they’re not actually happy with the raw money. And why should they be? To repeat: it’s a shitty amount of money.
(Let’s not also fall for Lassen’s intimation that authors will make more money on the backend through royalties; most books don’t earn out, even the ones with the small advances. And unless the book in question is a wild success, the royalty money will be hella slow in coming — it can be years before authors see a royalty statement. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to an author is to think of your advance as all the money you will ever get for your book. It keeps you from the credit card mentality of “I’ll do ‘X’ when ‘Y’ money comes in.” And it makes the royalty money you do get even more pleasant.)
Lassen’s frantic handwaving about how a $20K advance could torpedo your career, incidentally, is a load of crap. He’s doing what he accuses us writers of doing, which is plucking a more or less arbitrary number out of the air and declaring it good or bad. As it happens, I got a $20,000 advance for my very first book (The Rough Guide to Money Online). I’ve gotten contracts for six books since then — some whose advances are more, some that are less. In my case, $20,000 was a perfectly reasonable amount for an advance. For some people $20K will be too much; for others, not near enough.
And in fact, the story of Money Online is a fine example of how both publishers and authors view advances. At the time I was contracted to write Money Online, Rough Guide’s Internet guide had sold hugely — more than a million copies — and from what I was told, the company was expecting pretty large sales of Money Online as well. Because of that, the $20K advance the company extended was viewed as a safe — nay, cheap! — bet. But as it happened, the book came out in November of 2000, i.e., just in time for the popping of the Internet bubble. The book’s sales were in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands, and I didn’t earn out my advance. It was bad timing.
Yet my second book sale was to Rough Guides as well — The Rough Guide to the Universe. Why did RG go with me again, even though my first book was a clear financial disappointment? Well, for a number of reasons, I imagine. First and not insignificantly, the number of books an author needs to sell to earn out an advance and the number of books a publisher needs to sell to turn a profit (or at least avoid a loss) are not the same number, which is a point of fact Lassen doesn’t bother to point out (but then, why would he). It’s my understanding that RG didn’t actually lose any money on the book. So that’s good. Second, despite the first book’s failure to thrive in the marketplace, the folks at RG liked the book’s content and liked me as a writer; they were not shy about working with me again. Third, the Universe book filled a hole in their offerings. So there it was.
As it happens, the advance RG offered for Universe was less than for Money Online. I didn’t squawk — the step down was not huge, and in light of the Money Online sales, not at all unreasonable. Also, I really wanted to write a book on astronomy. Everyone was happy with the deal. Universe sold well and was reviewed well; now I’m writing another book for Rough Guides, and the money involved has gone up.
Point here, to borrow from William Goldman: Nobody knows anything. Great books can fail, bad books can thrive; your advance money may seem like a bargain to your publisher today but arterial flow tomorrow, or vice versa; the small press publisher who offer you $1,500 for your book and then takes a bath on it may never work with you again; the large publisher who offers up $150,000 for another book may chuckle quietly into his bourbon about how he got the book for silly cheap. The idea that a writer should be content with a paltry advance, however, is a load of crap; the advance a writer should be content with is the one that is the happy medium between what the writer thinks he or she is worth and what the publisher think it can sell. Any other advance is someone screwing someone else.
This much is true: The economics of publishing from the point of view of the writer and the point of view of the publisher are related but they are not the same. The publisher looks at the economics of publishing from the point of view of needing to create and market product; the writer looks from the point of view of eating. To some extent the publisher’s costs are fungible — how many books to print, where to advertise, whether to fund a book tour and so on. The writer’s costs, on the other hand, are fungible across a much smaller range (a gallon of milk costs about the same wherever you go). A publisher’s view of economics is institutional; the writer’s, personal.
Lassen suggests, in a rather obnoxious fashion, that writers need a dose of reality when it comes to publishing economics. The subtext message in his bloviation is clear: The only legitimate point of view for the economics of publishing is that of the publisher. This is of course entirely wrong. We writers are not ignorant of the economics of publishing; we are, if anything, only too well acquainted with them. Our point of view matters and is indeed singularly relevant, since without writers, publishing has a real supply problem.
This is why a gaggle of writers, only slightly in their cups, unanimously declared certain deals “Shitty,” “Contemptible.” “Meh,” and so on. From our point of view, that’s a fair referent for the money involved and what it can do for us. I can buy shit for $1,000, so a $1,000 deal is pretty shitty. I can pay my mortgage for a year on $20,000. That’s not bad. And the day I get a deal worth $100,000 or more, I’m definitely buying the next round. Really, I don’t know how much clearer this can be.
It’s probably that Lassen doesn’t like the amount of money he can (or is willing to) offer as an advance referred to as “shitty.” Well, I can sympathize, but only up to a point. If the economics of publishing are such that shitty or contemptible pay is what writers can hope to expect, then there’s no point pretending otherwise. At the very least, everyone who wants to be a writer will know what they’re getting themselves into.