Publishing Advances aren't Real Money...
I realize this is a hard concept for non-industry insiders to grasp. Some publishing outfit like Delacorte gives you $235K for two books. You get the check, after the agent takes his 15%, and you put it in the bank, and you proceed to spend the crap out of it. You do this because you automatically assume there will be more checks like that one coming.
And why not?
You're the toast of NYC, everyone is buying you drinks and steaks, you're partying like a rock star at the Gramercy Park Hotel with other hot authors and agents, you're messing around with your publicist because you're going through your first divorce so why the hell not. You even find yourself chatting it up with Monica Lewinsky on the Amtrak. Clooney and Dreamworks are calling for the movie rights and so are foreign rights cats, and you just put a significant down payment on a new house in the burbs. Life's pretty freakin' good.
You've made it baby!
But in all reality, you've screwed yourself.
Why? Because a year down the road you'll learn the sad truth. You didn't earn out your advance, meaning book sales weren't enough to cover those big fat checks they've been sending you. It means, technically speaking, you owe them that money. Since they're not going to ask for it back, they do this instead: "Hit the road Jack, and don't let the door slap you on the ass on the way out." Other publishers won't touch you either because they have the numbers in front of them to prove what a loser you are. Numbers, by the way, that you somehow aren't privy to.
I'm writing about this today, as is Chuck Wendig, thanks to a really good piece published in Medium by Heather Demetrios: “How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Even Trying.” Both articles were brought to my attention by author and pal, Belinda Frisch. Chuck's article in particular really lays out the F'd up math associated with advances and sales of eBook, paper, and audio.
In a nut shell, Heather's story is so much like my own, it's scary. Even the part where she admits to coming close to a total mental breakdown after making the big time, baby! Authors work so hard, become so emotionally invested in their work, that we don't crave validation for our efforts, we lust validation. We're willing to sacrifice anything to get it. So when a publisher offers us huge advances, we jump at them like a starving dog will leap off the floor for just a taste of raw meat. We lose sight of the big picture and the more than likely scenario of not earning out our advances. What happens is, future advances get smaller and smaller, and we find ourselves writing more and more, in desperate attempt the jump at whatever paltry advance we can get our hands on, just to keep up with the Internet bills.
So much for the big time.
What Heather doesn't write about however, is making a shift from traditional publishing to indie publishing whereby suddenly the author is in control of the product, the marketing, and inevitably the sales. One of the best decisions I made as an author was to go indie with some of my series and titles, and it has guaranteed me a steady income that's only increasing annually. Some books have sold so well that I've been offered new traditional book deals with decent advances (not even close to $235K however).
But there's a major difference between my inking a new deal today as opposed to years past: I no longer depend on the advances for my fiduciary well being. I no longer depend on stellar sales with these publishers. I no longer depend on anything that's out of my freaking control. The indie publishing half of me has freed me up so much, that I rarely email my agent, other than the occasional, "Hey what's up?" In year's past, I would pester him with daily emails. "Hey man, any word from the publisher? I desperately need money. The new wife has packed her bags and she's walking out the door..."
I wrote about my experiences in a nifty little book, The Hybrid Author Mindset: The totally honest, myth-busting, realistic, non-politically correct guide to succeeding at publishing traditionally and independently
It's only 2.99 on Amazon if you wanna check it out. Unlike other how-to books, I reveal my personal story about my publishing journey, warts, divorces, red bank accounts, and all. But it also contains the good stuff, like when I sold over 100K copies of The Innocent (formerly As Catch Can) in a little more than a month and how that one pivotal event led to a new cycle of brand new book deals.
Heather is committed to teaching newbie authors about the perils of modern publishing, and there are many of them. For writers, publishing books is an art. For publishers, publishing is a business and it's a cut throat one at that. Sorry to be the bearer of this little reality bite, but talent doesn't mean shit. You're just a number to them, an invoice, a spreadsheet, an email that can easily be ghosted when you're not selling up to expectations or they're just pain sick of you as a person.
In short. Write your books and put your heart and soul into them. Make them the best they can be. But be warned, if you're going for the traditional deal, the journey will be met with great peril, even if you nail the big time advance. Take the money, but at the same time, take matters into your own hands and free yourself from the gate keeper's and the money lender's chains. Invest in yourself and your own list of titles. Publish both traditionally and independently. Go Hybrid. It's the only path forward in the 21st century.