Many indie authors dream of landing a traditional book deal with a seven-figure advance to match. Big book deals make publishing news every month, but rarely have we witnessed the blowback and ire that have followed the recent release of American Dirt, which has plenty of people questioning the inequities at play when it comes to what kind of authors get such advances. Americans are culturally conditioned to celebrate anyone who makes bucketloads of money for anything, never mind whether it’s merited. Like beauty, merit is in the eye of the beholder—especially when it comes to fiction, a genre that’s subjective by its very nature. Indie authors are uniquely positioned to recognize this truth, and when it comes to their careers, they would be well served to keep in mind that big money doesn’t necessarily equate to meaningful success.
So far in 2020, Publishers Marketplace has reported 14 “major deals,” meaning advances of $500,000 and up. Publishers Weekly has run stories about the known seven-figure deals among those, including The Other Black Girl, the debut novel by former Knopf assistant editor Zakiya Dalila Harris, and a memoir by Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
How publishing houses dole out advances is complicated, insofar as editors insist that they’ll only pay for books they believe can earn out. But P&Ls exist to be manipulated, and there are countless factors at play when it comes to earn-out potential, including foreign, derivative, and serial rights, all of which are difficult—sometimes impossible—to estimate at the point of acquisition. Then there’s the fact that taking a huge gamble on a debut or unproven author puts the author’s entire career at risk since a “successful” book is one that earns out its advance. This means that a book that sells 10,000 copies and earns out its $10,000 advance is successful, whereas a book that sells 25,000 copies and fails to earn out its $100,000 advance is not. The publisher either drops authors who fail to earn out their advances or offers far less money for their follow-up efforts.
In the 1990s, there were few seven-figure advances, and they were certainly not for debut novelists. The first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week may well have created a new formula for success that involved the seven-figure advance. In 2005, Little, Brown published The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s Dracula story, for which it had paid $2 million. The publisher spent $500,000 promoting the book, sent out thousands of ARCs, and sent Kostova on extensive author tours leading up to publication. In the 15 years since, we’ve seen publishers attempt to create success stories borrowing from this playbook with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, and Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, to name a few of the better known.
During my nine-year tenure as an acquiring editor at Seal Press, which at the time was an independent press that seldom offered advances greater than $10,000, I heard lots of stories from former six-figure-deal authors who’d been cast aside by their publishers for failing to earn out.
The author Marion Winik came to Seal Press in 2005 after a three-book run with Random House. Seal was able to acquire her fourth book specifically because Random House had cut her loose.
Winik was complimentary of Random House when I called her up to confirm my memory of the events surrounding her move to Seal. She told me it had done everything it could, and her take was that the success of any book is as much about luck as it is about how much the publisher gets behind it.
Maybe this is so. But publishers have many titles on a given list, with unbalanced amounts of resources and attention going to certain books over others. These days, publishers’ attempts to break out particular books are inextricable from enormous advances, accompanied by the frenzy of auctions and bidding wars that result in seven-figure advances. I’ve only participated in two auctions, but, from the perspective of the underdog in the bidding, it was clear that my competitors’ willingness and capacity to come to the table with giant offers was the way they threw their weight around. It’s also how top editors maintain their relationships with top agents, and how the industry itself maintains the status quo.
In 1997, Stephen King made news when his reported asking price for Bag of Bones was a jaw-dropping $17 million. He ultimately sold the book to Simon & Schuster as part of a three-book deal for $2 million that included 50% profit sharing. This was King’s entrepreneurial solution to an issue that already-famous authors sometimes face, which is the flip side of the imbalance of publishing: when a book does really well, the publisher’s gains are disproportionate to the author’s. That the advance is meant to offset this issue is a flaw in the system.
Authors have no choice but to say yes to huge advances even if they understand the inherent gamble the publisher is making with their careers. I asked Winik if, knowing what she knows now, she would have accepted the six-figure advance that she got back in the early 1990s. “Absolutely,” she said. “You have to take every chance you have in this industry.”
That authors’ careers have been ruined or cut short because publishers offered too much money for projects is a travesty. Setting some authors up for failure is the natural outcome of a system in which some bets win and others lose. For that reason alone, authors looking for a book deal would do well to remember that a modest advance can be a blessing and an opportunity.
While I can’t imagine a world in which every aspiring author has an equal shot, I do dream of a future where the measure of a book’s worth lies in readers’ experience of it rather than the money that’s thrown at it.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and author of Write On, Sisters! and Green-Light Your Book.