I know a few literary agents but I had never heard what one told me recently: that an advance can ruin an author and make it hard for them to keep getting published. The irony is that agents need to go for an advance and a good financial deal because their income is a percentage drawn from the author’s earnings. The way to have your novel considered by a major publisher is by getting an agent to take you on, so there’s no way to avoid the problems an advance can cause.
There are a few major publishers who will consider novels without an agent (Macmillan New Writers and Canongate are two, and Snowbooks is another though not so well known). It’s worth looking at the Macmillan New Writers and Snowbooks websites for advice on how to submit. But the usual route to a major publisher is by finding an agent, and novelists often dream of that high advance as their first step into success as an author.
So how could an advance ruin an author? The literary agent explained that an advance is exactly what its name implies – an advance on your earnings. You don’t get paid any more until your book sales earn more than the figure of your advance – and for many authors this doesn’t happen. If your book sales bring in less than you’ve been paid as an advance, not only is the publisher unlikely to offer future contracts, but also other major publishers will judge you by this track record.
Advances of around £25,000 still represent a reasonable amount to expect, but how easy is it for a debut novelist to surpass that in actual sales? Some novels take off and do earn far more than the advance but, from what I hear, even with major publishers sales of under 1,000 copies for a debut novel would be typical.
Major publishers don’t usually offer royalties based on 10% of cover price, but even if they did you can see how many books would have to sell to pay back the £25,000 advance. If you keep it simple and think of £10 as the price of a novel it would be £1 per book in royalties so at least 25,000 books.
That’s a difficult sales figure to achieve with your debut novel – it might be hard with your follow-up novels in a 2, 3 or 4-book deal. The pressure you feel while writing these novels isn’t the best inspiration to an author.
If you take into account the way major publishers calculate your royalty payment it becomes even more difficult. It’s not 10% of cover price, it really is 10% of the actual profit after expenses have been taken off. Seeing as they discount books dramatically to get them into special deals in the bookshops, the earnings per book for the author can be minimal.
For a book to sell more than 25,000 copies it needs to take off and have people going into bookshops or looking online for it rather than the many others on offer. The author’s name needs to have become well known somehow, and no matter how hard we try as authors to give events and get media coverage, it really needs national newspaper, radio and TV to get a name that well established in the minds of readers. People need to be wanting it rather than the latest novels from all the famous names who are being named regularly in the national media.
Major publishers do have publicity departments, but if you speak to them they will tell you they work on a newly launched book but are then asked to focus on the ones that really show signs of taking off. At that point it’s up to the author and you’ll find yourself trying to get into bookshops, trying to arrange events, and trying to build a following so that your contract will be renewed.
The good news is that publishers don’t ask for the advance back if book sales don’t arrive at the same figure. I wonder if they will one day? So it’s still worth going for it, getting the agent, aiming for a major publisher, taking the advance and seeing what happens. You will still need to work hard to help the book take off and it may be down to you more than you realise.
A good few midlist authors from major publishers move to independent publishers if they can’t achieve the huge sales figures the major publishers want, and this is becoming more frequent. Take a look at the author with Sandstone who made it on to the Booker list – she moved down from a well known publisher.
When I spoke to Jim Powell, whose novel The Breaking of Eggs earned him a £150,000 advance, he said he was amazed how little the publisher did in terms of arranging events for him (he said he offered to give events but they didn’t arrange any – authors don’t realise how much they are expected to do on their own) and also to promote and get the book into newspapers (a friend sent it to the Times Literary Supplement reviewer and that was the only review it got before it suddenly took off).
This is typical, but the publisher did send the book off for prizes and Powell was named on TV as one of the most promising novelists of the year. Publishers do generally try for prizes, although they can’t send all their novels and usually don’t tell the authors if they’ve been submitted unless they get on to the longlist.
Another author with a major publisher has told me a similar story – that she was responsible for trying to get her books into bookshops and for building a following and sales. But I’ll write more on these subjects in future blogs.
The literary agent told me another thing about advances. She said publishers were aiming to poach established and successful authors from other major publishers by offering large advances rather than taking a risk on debut authors. They also poach from independent presses where authors have learnt about the phenomenal effort they need to make to work with their publisher in order to build a following, to achieve sales and to get into bookshops.
It may all sound off-putting to writers as we all want to sit calmly at home and write. But this is the state of publishing and bookselling in a culture where fewer and fewer people are buying books, and where so much reading is enjoyed online. People like a good event with readings to entertain them but they don’t want to buy any more reading material.
So much is on offer for free and authors are under increasing pressure to help publishing outlets and bookshops stay open. if we don’t we really will just be writing at home alone and in peace with publishing outlets and bookshops closing. The authors who do make this effort and succeed at it are the ones who will be poached with tempting advances once they establish themselves.