Elle Griffin seems to have carved out a niche for herself telling hard truths to would-be writers – which is an unpleasant but useful service, I think. But there’s one troublesome point I think she actually understresses — though it will take me a few minutes to get to that point.

Griffin cites this chart from Penguin USA:

Category 1: Lead titles with a sales goal of 75,000 units and up
Advance: $500,000 and up

Category 2: Titles with a sales goal of 25,000–75,000 units
Advance: $150,000-$500,000

Category 3: Titles with a sales goal of 10,000–25,000 units
Advance: $50,000- $150,000

Category 4: Titles with a sales goal of 5,000 to 10,000 units
Advance: $50,000 or less

Four times in my career I have received Category 3 advances; in two of those cases (The Narnian and How To Think) I ended up with Category 1 sales, thus significantly overperforming my advance. In one case (Breaking Bread with the Dead) I have achieved sales to match the “sales goal,” though not (yet?) enough to earn back my advance; in the fourth case (Original Sin) I underperformed the sales goal.

All this assuming that the above information is correct, which, I dunno.

Anyway, this track record should make it possible for me to get another Category 3 advance, should I want one, and if I can come up with the right proposal. I’m not a sure-fire winner, but I’m a decent bet when I do get a big-house contract. (My academic books don’t figure into this discussion, because while they sell well for academic books, even taken together they don’t make enough money annually to pay my property taxes.)

And if the numbers Griffin cites are correct, the sales of my more successful books put them, to my surprise and puzzlement and discomfort, in the top 5% of published books. It’s true that How to Think has sold more copies than books from the same period by Billie Eilish and Justin Timberlake, which should tell you something – mainly that fans of Billie Eilish and Justin Timberlake don’t read books. I should also add that How to Think really took off for a little while because Fareed Zakaria loved it and hyped it on CNN. Funny old world, ain’t it. But still … the “top 5%” thing just feels wrong

Anyway, let’s imagine that I receive a $100,000 advance for a future book. Not impossible by any means. The thing is, and this is the point I think Griffin should lean on more heavily: “advance” is a misleading term. Advances don’t come all at once, they come in stages, either three or four of them, for instance:

  • $25,000 at contract signing;
  • $25,000 at submission of an acceptable (but still to be edited) manuscript;
  • $25,000 at publication of the hardcover;
  • $25,000 at publication of the paperback, or, if the publisher chooses not to make a paperback, one year after the publication of the hardcover.

(Sometimes the unit payments vary: for instance, for Breaking Bread with the Dead my agent negotiated bigger payouts for the first and third stages, smaller ones for the other two.) In a typical situation, after you sign the contract you might need two years to write the book. Supposing that your manuscript is pretty good and just needs editing, that process can take several months, and then getting the book ready for publication can take several more months. And the final payout will come a year after that initial publication. So while a $100,000 advance sounds like a lot of money, it often ends up being $25,000 a year; not nearly enough to live on. 

The moral: Writing books can be a nice supplement to your day job, but it is virtually impossible for it to replace your day job, even if you’re in the top 5% percent of sales. That I, several of whose books appear to be in that category, couldn’t make a decent living if I sold three times as many of those books as I do, should suggest … not, as Griffin keeps saying, that no one buys books, but that the whole industry is smaller than most people think and a money machine for only a handful of writers. You probably have to get into the top 1% of published-by-publishers writers to make a living solely by writing. Probably only a few hundred, or at most a few thousand, people in the entire world manage that. (Griffin seems to think Substack offers a better chance for success, but I bet the percentages there are roughly the same.) 


P.S. I’m probably not going to get another significant advance, because I doubt I will ask for one. I can’t at the moment imagine wanting to write a book that a Big Five publisher would want to pay for. That could change, of course, but I don’t expect it will. I decided to write my Sayers biography for a university press rather than a trade house primarily to write the book I wanted to write — not the book I needed to write to earn back an advance.  

P.P.S. I see Freddie has weighed in also. Some good thoughts there, but I’m not sure about the title: “Publishing is Designed to Make Most Authors Feel Like Losers Even While the Industry Makes Money.” Maybe that’s right. It’s certainly that advances used to be smaller for the biggest sellers and larger for the mid-list writers, which made it possible for mid-list writers to make a modest but firmly middle-class living — especially when they could supplement their book income with writing for periodicals that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, paid much more than they do now. (Why could so many magazines back in the day pay so much more? Because they got much higher ad revenue in periods when ad money didn’t have nearly as many places to go.) The publishing industry has clearly borrowed the Silicon Valley venture capitalists’ practice of hoping for one or two hits in a thousand investments, but I don’t understand how that affects their decisions about how to distribute the money they have available for advances. I wish I did.