Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: publishing (page 1 of 1)


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. 

This has some useful reflections on the (often unfortunate) powers of literary executors — a subject about which I have written — but it doesn’t make a sufficiently clear distinction between the impediments imposed by executors and those erected by publishers. You can have the most compliant executor imaginable, but publishers will insist on their rights (which to them are best expressed through the medium of currency).  

the publishing monoculture

Why We Need Independent Publishers:

The process of creating art and then asking others to assign it a somewhat made-up market value is admittedly one of the most bizarre aspects of a writer’s job, for all that it is necessary for those of us trying to make a living. It seems likely that the math could prove even less favorable to authors — especially debut authors, especially those from marginalized backgrounds — if smaller publishers cannot thrive and maintain their independence. Indies routinely bet on daring literature and play a crucial role in launching, building, and sustaining the careers of writers whose work we need. The work being published by these presses — places such as Tin House, Graywolf, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House, Akashic Books, New Directions, Melville House, and The Feminist Press — is one thing that gives me hope for the future of publishing. Whether or not one industry giant is ultimately able to acquire another, whether we end up with a Big Five, a Big Four, or a Big One and Everyone Else, the publishing ecosystem needs strong, flourishing independent presses — and authors and readers do too. 

Nicole Chung is right. And (as a Penguin/Random House author) I really hope the proposed merger with Simon & Schuster is quashed. Indeed, I’d love to see a devolution in the publishing industry. Back in the 1970s, when I worked as a receiving clerk in a bookstore, shipments came from everywhere; it seemed that we got books from a thousand presses — though maybe it was just a hundred — all of which had their own niche, their own style, their own mission. The homogenization of the publishing world is sad, and, like the dominance of a handful of social media companies, bad for our intellectual and moral environment. Down with monocultures

So, cue Ted Gioia

When I was publishing my first three books … my editor had my trust and vice versa. We worked together closely as individuals on every issue, from writing to marketing, even down to the tiniest details. I knew publishing was a business, even back then, but it didn’t feel like one. That started to change in the new millennium, and every aspect of that downstream process became more acutely corporatized.

Fortunately, the rest of the world has changed too, especially technology. And authors have options that didn’t exist years ago. Or, in some instances, they have options that didn’t even exist just a few months ago.

Substack is one of those options.

So I’ve decided to publish my next book on Substack. 

This is interesting to me, because Ted and I have similar writing trajectories: We’re about the same age, we’ve published roughly the same number of books over the same number of years, and we’re both “midlist” writers (though he has more consistently been at the upper end of the midlist than I have). I’ve also experienced the “corporatizing” that he speaks of, but perhaps in slightly different ways: the chief factor making my life unpleasant has been the outsourcing of much of the editorial business to freelance copyeditors and production companies, which has led to extreme problems with quality control. (One reason I enjoy working with Princeton University Press is that they still keep most elements of the process in-house — though the freelance copy-editor for my Book of Common Prayer biography helped me allow some embarrassing errors to slip through.) I have several books that I want to write but I find myself thinking, mournfully: Do I really want to go through all that yet again

I tell you, Ted’s post makes me fret — and not for the first time — about all the money I might be leaving on the table by not moving to Substack. But I love being on the open web; and in any case I would only have a fraction of the subscribers that Ted has. (I just don’t know how small a fraction: 1/10? 1/100? 1/1000?) I think I’m better off where I am. Probably. Maybe. 

The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked. These are all spot-on. I would only add that even when you get a larger advance, it’s typically divided into either three or four installments. So, for instance, I’ve had some divided this way:

  • First part on signing the contract
  • Second part on delivering a complete manuscript
  • Third part on publication of the hardcover
  • Fourth part on publication of the paperback

You can’t “live off your big advance” when you only have a quarter of that advance — or maybe a third (the divisions aren’t always equal) — during the period of writing.