What Kind of Advance Should I Expect?

I meet with first-time authors regularly and many of them often eventually work their way around to some version of this question over the course of our conversation:

So … like … what kind of advance should I expect?

If you’re asking it, you’re not alone. But first, let's answer this question, just in case: “What is an advance?”

A publisher pays an author an advance,—a negotiable up-front payment, in contractual language—“against future royalties.” If you’re not sure what “royalties” are, go dig into this article first.

In other words, the publisher is betting that your book will sell a certain number of copies, and therefore earn you X dollars in royalties. The advance is usually a portion of that royalty earning estimate, and then, in heated auctions, the advance becomes a highly-negotiated and competitive amount. Either way, the author won’t see a dollar beyond the advance until the book sales have earned back the advance in its entirety, after which he or she will start to receive royalty payments.

In the past, before the web and the rise of numerous blogs written about publishing, this topic was shrouded in more mystery. Today, however, there are many sources for this information to corroborate or add to the details I’ll share here. I will offer only a couple slight caveats: The notes here are based on my personal experience, which includes advances and royalties I have personally offered to authors when I worked either as an editor or publisher, and advances and royalties I have received for book deals as a literary agent, as well as many discussions with agents, authors, and publishing industry friends over the years. As a result, this article is not meant to act as the definitive word on the subject.

What Is the Going Rate?

I must report that the answers to the above questions are not what most writers hope to hear. This isn’t a big secret, but the large majority of authors don't make a living off of writing and publishing books alone. That said, I’m an eternal optimist, and I firmly believe that a supremely talented writer can build a full-time career as an author with enough dogged determination, hard work, time, marketing savvy, as well as realistic expectations.

Now, let me clarify something: there is no "going rate" for first books, or any books for that matter. It's funny how often this question comes with that phrase.

“So what's the going rate for advances for first books?” Or “So what’s the going rate for book deals these days?”

My answer is, “There are certainly averages in certain categories, but not going rates.” Every single book deal happens within a new and unique context. Like a lot of things today, the publishing industry and the world around it seem to operate in a constant state of change.

Here’s what I do know. I've sat in the publisher’s chair at multiple publishing houses, large and small. I've also reviewed thousands of book proposals and I know that on the publisher’s side of the table, the discussion starts with the author, book concept, writing quality, marketing opportunities, sales potential, and passion of the team around the table at a publishing board meeting. Of course.

However, to whomever is in charge of the finances at the publishing house, when it comes to making an official “offer to publish,” it comes down to measuring risk.

Every book published is a gamble. The publishing team must take in as much usable data as they can about the author, his or her platform, the book in question, the quality of the writing, the category in which the book is published, and then use that very limited data to create a financial projection and plan in order to calculate and ultimately, mitigate, the risk involved in publishing the book.

And every publisher walks through this process in their own unique way.

The publisher's offer for an author’s first book, or fortieth book for that matter, depends primarily on how many books the publisher thinks they can sell. And this is always very difficult (if not impossible) to project. The publishing team will arrive at that sales projection over a certain timeframe after looking at your book proposal, book concept, your platform (which I define elsewhere as “your ability to influence others to buy your book”), your past book sales (if you have any), your marketing ideas, any actual partnerships or affiliations, as well as the actual writing itself.

In nonfiction, author platform and book concept reign (depending on the category), and especially when it comes to first book deals. However, there are so many caveats to this, I must stop myself: Great content and writing is always a curve ball, especially in categories such as memoir, biography, history, journalistic reporting on current events, and others.

In fiction, content and concept reign, especially in the areas of literary or contemporary fiction, though platform in the form of previous bestsellers, awards and recognitions, and academic background still matter. However, if you can tell a fantastic story in a compelling way, and you happen to have a dynamite hook—there are book deals to be had.

Advances for First-Time Authors

With all of that lengthy prelude and context in mind, when a publisher actually makes an offer to an author for his or her book that advance could range anywhere from $0.00 to $1 million (or much more). You may have seen reporting a couple years back that the Obamas, the former first couple of the United States, received $60 million for two books. There are exceptions.

Boiling it down, here’s a more narrow range I can live with sharing: an average advance for a first-time author would likely fall in a range between $5,000 and $50,000, depending on a whole host of factors, including the size of the publisher, passion of the book editor involved, author’s platform, the power of the book concept, current cultural landscape, the competition involved, and so much more.

Most offers for first-time authors operating without an agent, especially those working with smaller, independent, or academic publishing houses, fall on lower side of that range. First-time authors with literary agents and some level of platform or influence, generally end up on the higher side of the range.

A handful of non-traditional publishers are trying low, or no advance, profit sharing deals—in which the author takes a smaller advance up front in exchange for receiving a larger share of the revenue from book sales on the back end. This could be compared to what some indie movie production companies have done over the years, where they draw the interest of actors for very little money up front, in exchange for a larger share of the box office points on the back end of the deal. If the movie performs well, everyone wins.

If an author is offered no advance at all in a traditional book deal with traditional royalties (not a profit sharing hybrid), that publisher is basically saying, "Hey, we're willing to take a small risk and front the cost of printing this book and generally hope for the best." This should not be appealing to most authors. Frankly, with the number of relatively accessible self-publishing options out there these days, I’m not sure if this is worth the author’s time unless significant distribution and marketing or promotional support comes along with any such deal.

I often equate the level of up-front investment (the advance) that a publisher is willing to pay an author to publish his or her book to the level of back end investment that same publisher will make when it comes time to market, promote, publicize, sell, and distribute that book. I'm not saying the dollar amount of the advance and marketing budget will be the same. However, I am saying that a publisher's up-front investment is indicative of the level of their investment in getting the word out about the book once it hits the market.

Did you catch that? It’s the truth. Good publishers, by and large, will spend far more time marketing, publicizing, and promoting those books for which they have a bigger investment to earn back.

Here’s the flip side on big advances: For the author who has dreams of selling his or her book for big money, getting a tiny advance (or no advance) might be a downer, but the good news is that he or she will begin earning royalties much sooner.

From the publisher's point of view, advances have been hotly debated over the years. Every few years, a publisher will come along and argue that no advances should be paid, ever. Then, of course, a big author comes along with a book that everyone desperately wants to publish, and the auction for said book gets crazy. This is the nature of competition.

Either way, my hope is that this article was helpful, and I wish you the best of luck in your future book deals.

Be good and publish well, my friends.