Thinking More on #PublishingPaidMe

Over on Twitter right now, there’s an active hashtag called #PublishingPaidMe, in which writers are divulging their book advances, in part to see if there are systematic biases against writers of color and other marginalized groups. Well, my last major book deal is literally public knowledge, and I didn’t see that there was much downside in discussing what I got paid for my other novels prior to that, so I participated:

I also noted that these are just the advances for the print/ebook novels, and don’t include things like advances on audiobook or foreign language versions, or cover what I get for film/TV options and other ancillary rights. The figures above are roughly chronological, in terms of what I got when I sold my books, but I’ll note that I contracted for some books I did not write, and then later attached other books to those contracts.

In the service of hopefully being of further use to the discussion about advances, I will now add some more thoughts here.

1. First off, generally speaking, and for those who don’t know: an advance is usually a sum the publisher estimates an author would make from the book in the first year or so of publication, based off their own experience, the previous sales of an author (if any), and sales of similar books/authors in the market, and wild guessing. So, for example, when Tor offered me an advance of $6,500 for Old Man’s War, they were factoring in a) that I was a debut author with no track record in science fiction, b) the current sales of military science fiction at the time, c) that I had already published it on my Web site so that might have an impact on sales, d) etc.

It’s also worth noting that book advances are generally low across the board. I’ve noted before the average advance for a science fiction novel is something like $12,500. That’s for all novels, not debuts.

2. It’s not (necessarily) a bad thing to have a small advance, nor is an advance (necessarily) all you will make from a book. To be sure, for most books, the advance is all you’ll see out of it — because publishers generally do a decent job of knowing their market, and almost all sales of books come in their first year of publication.

But some books earn out their advances through sales, and generate other income via options, foreign publication and so on. Old Man’s War earned out and has been a steady seller for 15 years, is published in more than two dozen languages, has been optioned for film and TV and so on. All told I’ve probably earned in the seven figures from it (so far), beyond that original $6.5k advance. To be clear, this is not the usual path for a novel — again, the advance is often all a writer sees for their work — but sometimes one gets lucky, either from a breakout hit, or from solid, steady sales of backlist titles over years and years.

(For another perspective on this, please see this Twitter thread from NK Jemisin; it’s useful and edifying.)

3. Looking above at my novel advances, I see four distinct eras in them:

Debut: The $6.5k and $2k advances, signed when I was brand new and no one knew what would happen;

Developing: The $13.5k, $25k, and $35k contracts, after Old Man’s War hit commercially and critically and Tor realized there was possible headroom to my career, but I was still building an audience;

Established: The $100k and $115k contracts, when I had hit the bestseller lists, won awards, and had a series (Old Man’s War) that was spinning off serious money;

Franchise: The $3.4M deal, when Tor decided to go all in and lock me up long-term, both to continue momentum in new releases and to extract value out of my profitable backlist.

The thing is, in each of these eras, I can’t really argue with what I was paid in terms of advances. Bear in mind that by the time I sold Old Man’s War, I was already a published author and had been writing professionally for more than a decade, so I knew the business and had some inkling why I was getting paid what I was, and whether what I was getting paid was reasonable considering market factors. Would I have liked to have gotten more for OMW in advance? Sure, who wouldn’t? But I didn’t think the sum I was offered was unfair (and to his credit, when my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden was sounding me out about acquiring the novel, he informed me that the advance he would offer would be a “not life-changing amount of money.” He was right, at least at first).

On the flip side of this, that $3.4M deal is not unreasonable either, because at the point the deal was done, I was hitting bestseller lists, winning awards, and, most importantly, backlisting like a monster; in other words, making my publisher lots and lots of money. The deal was commensurate to that track record and structured to support the shape of my career at that time and how we expected (hoped) for it to go from there. So far, so good, on that score.

In all cases, the advances, whatever the sum, were more or less rationally based on the market and where I was in it. Hold that thought, I’m gonna come back to the issue of “the market,” but before that:

4. Caveats! First, I do think it’s important, when looking to compare advances, and especially in the case of my advances, to make sure you’re taking those “eras” above into consideration. If you’re a debut author, don’t be looking at the $3.4 million deal, be looking at the $6,500 one I got for my first published novel (for the purposes of clarification, that deal would be worth about $9,250 in 2020 dollars).

Second, I am fortunate — and unusual — in that my novel-writing career has been, to date, almost all upswing. I haven’t had a novel flop and I haven’t had setbacks happen that have notably stalled my career momentum, things like a publisher going under or personal issue keeping me from writing and selling. It does mean, however, that the progression of my advances is unrepresentative to a significant degree.

Third, I am also unusual in that I started my novel-writing career when I was already making six figures annually, writing other things. Which meant that early low advances weren’t an imposition to me; I wasn’t starving. Also it meant that I could say no to things I didn’t want to do or that I thought were bad deals for me. I got to pick and choose in a way other newer writers often couldn’t — and I would pick and choose, which was something the people I was doing business with understood. It cut down on the amount of bullshit I had to tolerate, in terms of contracts (and consequently, advances).

5. Also, with respect to science fiction genre publishing, and “the market” (see, I told you I’d come back to this), let’s not elide certain things here. It’s easy to say “the market” as if it’s some objective thing the publishing industry stands outside of, rather than a thing it significantly helps to make, through its choices in terms of what to publish and also what it decides to promote. When I was published into the science fiction field in 2005, I was benefiting from the fact that the genre had catered to the tastes and worldview of people like me (white, straight, male, nerdy) for decades. Also I had consciously and with specific intent written my debut novel to aim at the very center of that white, straight, male, nerdy demographic: I wrote a military science fiction novel. When it hit, it was easy to continue in that mode (and I have), and easy to sell and market me in the genre (which Tor has).

Did I and Tor take advantage of the structural biases of the science fiction genre to sell books and make money? Oh, my, yes, we did. And have done a pretty good job of it, too. As with so many things, I can’t pretend that being what I am (a straight white dude) didn’t offer me systematic advantages, which I was then happy to take and use. I was not guaranteed to succeed — trust me — but once that ball was rolling, the path was easier for me than some others who have similar talents, both as writers and as people who can market their writing. Yes, I work my ass off, and write stuff that people want to read and buy. Also the genre was designed across decades for someone like me, and the novels I write, to thrive in it. All of this — my talent, my work, and the biases of the genre — are reflected in my advances.

6. I don’t feel guilty about any of the above (guilt is rarely one of my pressable buttons, psychologically speaking), but I’m not going to pretend these structural biases aren’t there, either. As a moral human being and working writer, I have an obligation to help expand opportunity, both in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and in publishing in general, and to promote other voices — and to support equitable advances for everyone. This is not, shall we say, an onerous task. Philosophically it aligns to my personal interests, and as a reader I like having more things to read which are not just things I’ve read before, which necessarily means paying writers well enough to write those stories. So, not onerous. But it is a thing.

7. I think it’s important to see the limitations of a self-selecting Twitter hashtag in terms of being an accurate representation of author advances across genres and author demographics. I also think it’s important that writers talk about what they’re paid and how and by whom. One thing that’s popped up in these discussions is an acknowledgement that some authors are now contractually bound not to discuss their advances; I think that’s both ridiculous and dangerous, and something writers should push back on, hard. Silence is not our friend here. To that end, #PublishingPaidMe has been significant, and useful.