My fellow authors laughed when I said I was publishing my fourth book with Numina Press. Then they learned my cut of each sale.
How big is the difference? Try three times as much money each sale.
Numina is an exclusive commercial publisher that uses print-on-demand technology to radically alter the cost ratios in favor of the author. They started working with dead writers like Jack London, who was quite cooperative. Now they have their sights set on living published authors, who are not.
Your choice, living authors. Take home:
$1.50 from a $23 book, or
$4.50 from a $16 book.
Wait. You have to give up a lot of perks for this tripling of your pay, and my living author friends are quick to list their objections:
Big New York publishers will give me an advance!
Big New York publishers will get me publicity!
Big New York publishers will pay for a book tour!
Big New York publishers will get me book store placement!
But if I accept triple money with a print-on-demand publisher, Big New York publishers will punish me! My agent will be mad!
Okay, stop flapping your wrists like a pack of sissies. Let's walk through each of the standard fear-driven objections one by one.
But major publishers will pay me an advance!
An advance is a chance to ruin your career. A big advance for a first or second book is a chance to almost guarantee your career will end six months after your book comes out, and nobody will tell you until you write and try to sell your second book. A gigunda advance? That spells an almost certain death.
The bigger the advance, the worse it is for the author.
Seventy percent of published books don't earn back their advance. Add to the balance sheet the costs of printing, shipping, and promotion, and that means even more than 70% of books lose money for the publisher. That means the majority of published authors get a permanent Big Red Mark next to their name.
Publishers don't know why most books don't sell, nor do they understand why most of their riches are made off less than 5% of the new authors they publish, and they don't know what to do about their ignorance, but they do know how to do one thing: blame the author.
If your first book lost them money, they will not publish your second book, no matter how many copies it sold.
So move on to another publisher? Not so fast. Publishers share sales information with their competitors. That's right, competing New York publishers close ranks in solidarity against the authors who might have sold well but lost money. Most major publishers, before they read your new book, run straight to the stats and see how well your last book sold, how much money was spent on it, how much was earned back, and their eyes go straight to the bottom line: Did it lose money? If the answer is yes, they don't waste their time reading your new book.
Remember: Second book finished? Publishers read the bottom line on their balance sheet before they read the first line of your manuscript.
Which is better? A $2,000 advance, or a $200,000 advance?
If Modest Mary gets a $2,000 advance and a humble 5000 book print-run which sells out, causing a second print run that sells out at 10,000, Mary's publisher just might buy her second book and push the publicity a little more. This slow ramping up of a loyal readership over the years is how book authors make a living.
If Brainwashed Bob is lavished with a $200,000 advance, a guest spot on Jon Stewart, and a 100,000 print run, but he sells only 20,000 copies, Bob gets the Big Red Mark, and he can say goodbye to his career, which Bob won't even realize is kaput until he invests a few years of his life writing an even better sequel to his first hit.
Huh? But Modest Mary only sold 10,000 books! Why is Brainwashed Bob punished for selling twice as many?
Because the industry-- the publicists and publishers who say they love you and your work-- pushes the blame for their crap-ass expensive publicity decisions onto the author, who had nothing to do with it.
The author doesn't control the expenses. The publisher does. Yet the only thing that works in the trickle-down theory is the trickle-down theory of blame.
Half the sales rewarded? Twice the sales punished? Could big New York publishing really be that wacky?
It ain't free money, ladies. It's a loan. It's an advance against royalties. What happens to your "credit rating" when you don't pay it back?
The bad boys come to break your legs. You've heard of "legs" in the entertainment industry? My first book had legs. The damn thing is still jogging after more than a decade, but I don't get any money for it, and neither does my publisher. It's making money for all those used-books pirates selling it through the platform that amazon provides for them.
That's another thing that will turn around and bite you in the ass: print runs of a quarter million. The first 50,000 books sold will turn cheap, invade amazon, and compete with their newborn clones that you are trying to sell-- just like in that movie Gremlins when all the cute fuzzy animals you've nurtured turn evil.
It doesn't matter if your book has earned cult status, won awards, or climbed bestseller lists. How much money did you make the publisher? If the money your book earned doesn't pay back the money the publisher spent, you're a pariah in the industry, no matter how much fan mail you get each week.
It's far more economically astute to borrow your advance from a credit card and pay back at 8% interest than to accept an advance from a big New York publisher with your career as author as collateral. The first, biggest, most ruthless killer of author careers is the Big Fat Advance for a first or second or third book.
The only thing harder that being an unpublished unknown trying to convince an agent to glance at your manuscript is being a bestselling author who didn't pay back his advance. Better the "slush pile" than the Red Name on the balance sheet. The "slush pile" is purgatory, and most writers reside their forever. The Red Name on the balance sheet is hell, and it's eternal.
You know what the "slush pile" is, right? It's your publisher's name for your manuscript. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Isn't that funny? You don't make art! You make slush!
When you get giddy because these folks bestow an advance upon your slush, you're admitting that you don't have faith your book will sell. When your agent sticks that carrot in front of your nose, and your eyes well up with joyful tears, your heart is saying:
"Now I get paid even if I don't sell books! How nice of my major NY publisher to take all the financial risk! No wonder they're called Saint Martins!"
Some of you poets and authors spend so much time thinking deep thoughts you can't figure out a basic business arrangement. The publisher is giving you a loan against money you haven't earned yet, and if you don't pay it back, the publisher will not forget this. The publisher is taking a short-term financial risk while making sure the author takes a longer-term risk of career catastrophe.
Your advance ain't charity. It's a hedge against other publishers.
I've received advances everywhere from $255,000 (from Saintly Martins) to $1,000 (from Skorpion, my Croatian publisher, who at least chooses an honest name. If I founded a publishing house based on the NY business model, I'd call it Rat Snake Press).
255K to 1K? What's going on? Am I a big shot or a shlump?
What drives an advance? Fear by the publisher that their competitor will get the book. Period. Publishers pay large advances to outbid other publishers from getting their claws on what might be the Next Big Thing. It has to do with pre-publication panic. It's got nothing to do with being nice to you. If publishers wanted to be nice to you, they wouldn't start your career placing you in debt to them.
Next time your publisher offers you an advance, turn it down. Earn your money by selling books. Why should you get money up front? Stop paying back huge loans from your big NY publisher with small espressos. See if your book is good enough to get accepted at a commercial print-on-demand publisher, and set up a relationship with your readers. They pay enough for a music CD; you get a sandwich. No bets, no debts.
You want money? Write a book that pleases readers and makes them want to recommend it to their friends. That's called earning it. If you accept charity from your publisher, you don't believe in your book.
The best thing that can happen to an author? Get no advance at all, then sell a modest amount of copies to make a tidy profit.
Repeat after me: Advances will destroy my writing career.
Sales are good for my writing career.
Next time we confront the next bugaboo: the Publicity Myth.