From Rick:

With this article I think we’ve pretty much exhausted the topic of traditional vs. self-publishing, at least for a while, until something new develops. Over the next months, I want to move back to theme of this blog, Write Well, Write to sell, and focus on writing and editing techniques, along with aspects of getting your book ready to sell, regardless of which publishing route you choose.

I’ve previously talked some about advances on royalty payments. For those not totally familiar with what an advance is in publishing terms, it’s just what it says: an advance from the publisher on the anticipated royalties due an author from book sales.

Advances are generally done only by the big publishing houses because they’re the only one that can afford them. You hear of five-, six-, and even seven-figure) advances for books, but let me assure you that these are RARE and far from the norm, especially today. More typically advances are four or low five figures.

One difference in publishing advances over other types of advances is that publishers don’t expect unearned advances to be paid back unless the contract is, for some reason, canceled after unearned money has been paid out.

It’s common knowledge that publishers usually try to compute the advance so that they won’t have to pay any other royalties on the book. This is why few authors receive huge advances, and when they do, you can be pretty sure that the publisher expects the advance amount to be small potatoes compared to what the book will earn. This is where they sometimes go crazy and get into trouble. If a book they think will be big tanks, they lose money. This is one reason they keep advances low for us little folks. They’re hoping that our book’s earnings will help pay for the overly large advance they gave to some celebrity.

Let’s look at where the whole advance thing started in the first place. Back in the days when writers tried to make a living solely from writing, advances were supposed to keep the writer afloat while the book was being published so the writer could work full time on the next book. However, if writing is not your sole source of income, an advance, while nice, is not necessary to your financial well-being. In most cases, advances are paltry compared to salaries earned from even modest-paying jobs.

But here’s the catch in today’s publishing world. Advances are not paid in one lump sum. Look at these three articles for the real story:

HOW AUTHORS ARE PAID

AN EXPLANATION OF ADVANCES

BOOK ROYALTY Q & A

Advances may seem like the way to go, but when the publisher breaks up that nice figure into several parts paid out over two or three years, it’s not so nice. Even if you got a $100,000 advance, you’ll likely only see $30,000 a year over the next three years, and that’s not enough for an author to live on.

Add in that you won’t see additional money from the book until the advance earns out, and you can see how that advance may have to carry you for several years unless you manage to write more books and get similar advances—assuming your first book sells well enough that a publisher will make you additional offers.

Sadly, many new writers look at the advance as the tip of the iceberg. They expect that this small sum will be multiplied many times over as their book sells. Don’t count on it. Remember that the publisher is only giving you a fraction of the money they’re making on total sales. And if you go get an advance of $100,000, figure out how many books you’ll have to sell at 10% royalties on an $8 paperback before the advance is paid back. Did you come up with 125,000 books sold?

Now read this article for a real eye-opener:

WHAT ARE AVERAGE BOOK SALES?

Then read this one:

WHAT COUNTS AS SUCCESSFUL BOOK SALES?

Why do publishers bother with advances at all these days? If they buy a book, they expect it to sell. And if most writers don’t need the advance to live on (and most don’t or couldn’t live on the advance), then why not pay as the book sells? One would think that not paying advances, especially large ones, would help their bottom line. If they eliminated the advance, they could afford to increase the royalty percentage and pay the authors only as the money came in. If small publishers rarely pay advances because it makes more sense for their business not to, why don’t large publishers do the same—and make up the difference with a higher royalty (what many small publishers also do)?

This is why we advocate self-publishing. If the book isn’t good enough to do well if self-published, then no publisher, large or small, will be interested in it anyway. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to make at least a little money from it.

And if the book is good enough to earn significantly, then why give the majority of the book’s earnings to a publisher? Oh, I know: A publisher will market the book and get it into bookstores. That myth was dispelled in the previous blog post.

–Rick