The Money Involved
Someone asked in one of the comment threads: If the first printing of Old Man’s War sells out, will I have earned out my advance? So I crunched the numbers and the answer is: Yeah, it looks like it — the first print run was about 3,800 copies, and my math shows my break-even point at 2,700 or 3,400 copies, depending on what royalty rate you use (I could pin down the royalty rate by looking at the contract, but then I’d have to dig it out, and that would take too much effort) Even a worst case scenario (which has me signing a contract that offers a 6% royalty, because I was high on cough syrup or some such) would have me earning out after about 4,500 copies sold, and it seems reasonably likely at this point OMW will hit that target while still in hardback.
This is a good thing, obviously. One, it means paperback royalties go into my pocket, and that’s likely where the majority of money is to be made; two, if I’m breaking even on the hardback that means Tor is almost certainly making money. And as a general rule, you want to make money for your publishers. It encourages them to publish you again, and I’m all for being published again.
Now, the fact that I will have earned out with such a relatively small number of books sold should indicate something to the more observant among you: either I have a truly extravagant royalty rate, or my advance was pretty small. Well, I don’t have an extravagant royalty rate, I in fact have a rather pedestrian one, so that points to a small advance. And indeed, it’s well within the “meh” range by this formulation. However, I should note I’m just fine with this, and I’ll tell you why.
Meet Sam Lipsyte. Mr. Lipsyte is the star of the article I’ve just pointed to, in which we read about the Herculean struggle he had to get his second novel published here in the United States (he ended up having to get it published in the UK, to rave reviews, before someone would bite over here in the states). Why was it so difficult to sell his second novel? Well, it could be because, by all indications, Mr. Lipsyte is a writer whose prose one either loves or hates, which is a strike against him at least 50% of the time, and also his quirky style makes him difficult to quantify, which will drive the marketing people right up a wall. But more likely it was because the publisher of his first novel gave Lipsyte a $60,000 advance for his first novel, and the first novel stiffed. Big time.
Perspective: To earn out a $60,000 advance, Lipsyte would have had to sell 25,104 copies of his book at 10% royalty, or 31,413 copies at 8%. Any amount under that, he’d have to make up in the paperback sales, where the price (and thus the royalty) is lower. More perspective: for mainstream fiction, 25,000 copies is considered bestseller status (if what I read in the New York Times is correct).
While it is entirely possible for a first-time novelist to become a bestseller, the actual odds are pretty grim. It’s even less likely if reviewers keep comparing you to somewhat inaccessible writers (Thomas Pynchon, for example) and warn readers that “the characters here don’t so much converse as exchange obtuse epigrammatic non sequiturs and indulge in linguistic quips.” Basically, Lipsyte probably got hosed because his publishers spent too much money for a book that was deeply unlikely to earn out its advance. And it didn’t: It sold 5,000 copies.
And so his next book, Home Land, sold in the US — when it sold — for a quarter of what he got for the first one: $15,000. As it happens, the book came out the very same day as mine did, and by all indications is selling in numbers not dissimilar to my own: The article notes it’s sold 2,000 copies to date, which is in the same ball park as mine. Here’s the thing: If I sell 5,000 copies, I’m a success, at least as far as the rubric of earning out your advance is concerned. Lipsyte, on the other hand, is still underwater at 5,000 copies; he’s underwater until he gets to 11,500 copies (presuming 10% royalty). If he doesn’t get there, he’s a two-time commercial loser, which would likely make it that much harder to get to book number three.
Bear in mind this has nothing to do with Lipsyte’s talent as a writer. He may indeed be wonderful to read, and it’s quite likely he should be read by a wider audience. What I’m saying is that if he and I — both writers in our mid-thirties, both in relatively the same place in our writing careers — both were to sell, say, 10,000 copies of our latest book, I’d be seen as a happy success to my publisher, and he’d be seen (whatever his talent) as a mild disappointment, and the only real difference between us — commercially speaking, anyway — is a few thousand dollars in advance money.
Which does bring up the question — why did this guy get a $60,000 advance for his first novel, and I one a rather small fraction of that sum? Is he many multiples better than I as a writer? Alternately, is his fiction a multiple more salable than mine? As toward the latter, evidently not, and for the former, it’s certainly possible, but probably irrelevant. I suspect a more likely answer is simply that Lipsyte writes literary fiction whereas I write genre fiction, and anecdotally speaking it appears that publishers are willing to pay more for literary fiction than for genre fiction.
One does of course wonder, if this is true, why that might be — I would love to have someone slap down the sales figures for genre writers and for lit fic writers and show me whether the average and median sales for each justify either the high advances for literary fiction, or the low advances for genre fiction. I rather strongly suspect that what we’d find is that literary fiction is overvalued as to its commercial prospects relative to genre fiction, for no better reason than snobbery toward little green men (I can possibly accept an argument that literary fiction is, on average, more literary than genre fiction, but being “literary” is just one portion of being “readable,” and as we all know there’s a lot of literary fiction that’s well nigh unreadable. Also, I suspect that China Mieville and Neil Gaiman, to name just two, are as resolutely “lit’ry” as anyone, and yet still readable, so there’s nothing to suggest genre work can’t be eminently literary as well).
In any event, I’m not entirely sure I want to take a position that non-genre authors ought to be dragged down to genre authors’ rather meager pay scales; I’m pretty sure that won’t make me a lot of friends. And God knows I’m not criticizing Lipsyte for taking the $60k when it was offered to him, because, you know, I’d not be likely to turn it down, either. I do think, however, that publishers aren’t doing first-time non-genre authors any favors by offering them advances they’re not likely to recoup and then branding the poor bastards as uncommercial when they don’t. That really is blaming the victim. Either literary fiction editors are absolutely clueless about money, or they simply don’t care and are happy to spend stupidly. Either way, I would probably fire these editors and replace them with editors trained in genre fiction; I suspect that after the shock had worn off in the lit fic community, the corporate parents of book publishers would find a modest uptick in their bottom lines.
My advance for Old Man’s War was small, but as it turns out it’s pretty much what it should have been for me, both for the short-term happy accomplishment of earning out my advance and for the longer-term goal of beginning to establish myself as a commercially viable author. Do I want to get a bigger advance next time out? You bet — and, as it happens, for The Ghost Brigades, I got one. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and so far it’s working for me.