Is bigger better when it comes to advances?

I’m fascinated by the Salon.com article that suggests that getting a big advance for your first book deal could ruin your career as a writer. If you’re a writer, you probably know someone, or have heard of someone, who got a huge advance, didn’t make the advance and then was blackballed by the publishing industry. And yet, I’ve never met a writer who turned down a big advance for fear that he/she may not make the advance. Befuddled by this incongruence, I asked some writer colleagues (all of whom have been published and have received advances of various sizes) what they thought, and here are their (anonymous) responses.

1. I asked my agent about the rumor that if you don’t make back your advance, you’ll never sell another book–and he said it isn’t true. If you don’t make back your advance, you just might not get such a big one the next time around. My agent never publicizes his authors’ advances, ’cause he figures it’s private information.

2. Can I have this problem please?

3. Nell Freudenberger took a 100,000 offer over a 500,000 offer because she wanted to work with a specific editor. The news of her turning down the larger offer was good PR for her, made her seem humble and probably made people resent her less. But really so much of this is luck that the best thing to do is ignore this crap and write your ass off.

Look at Andrew Sean Greer – headed for mid-list hell, but wrote a breakout book on his third try and now he’s the subject of a second full length feature by John Updike in the NYer.

So, get lots of money if you can and never blame a large advance for your failings.
How dull! That writer deserves whatever hell she’s stuck in.

4. fyi, a coupla things I think this article misses in its anger at the publishing industry:

– library budgets.
right up until about 1990, if any publisher came out with a first novel that got even one decent review from PW or Kirkus or Library Journal, they would sell a minimum of 3,000 copies through Baker & Taylor to libraries. For second novels, 4,000. In the early days of Consortium, we counted on this revenue stream as a minimum, and it covered a lot. For big houses, the numbers were even larger. In some cases, these books wouldnt sell at all in stores, but stores would take 5 copies and put them out. Returns might be high, but for a moment the books shipped number would get up there, look decent, around 10K or 15K. Throughout the late 80s and then early 90s, libraries couldn’t afford this any more, partly because there began to be so many books published, they couldn’t afford all of them.

– the oversupply of writers
there are a ton more books published, more writing programs, etc. We have changed the industry by multiplying. One of the reasons publishers can now walk away from an author after his first few books didn’t sell, in favor of someone new, is that there are so many new writers to choose from. In the old days, don’t believe that houses “stood by their authors” proudly. They hung on to their authors because at least they could write decently – and most of the slush pile writers weren’t tolerable. Today, the slush pile at any house or agency is full of really accomplished writing (as well as crap).
everything else is yeah, well, entirely accurate in its portrayal of our life. But to your question – would she have done better if her first book’s advance was a lot lower? I don’t see how. She still managed to publish four books. Many authors never get to do a second.

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