CRAFT: Can I Live Off A Book Advance? by Abby Norman

You’ve got your agent. You’ve found a publisher. Now, you’re entering a strange period of apparent uselessness while your agent and publisher talk in hushed tones about The Deal.

Prior to acquiring literary representation, I was just another perfectly capable freelancer who invoiced, followed up, followed up more, and advocated for payment from clientele. I stumbled through my taxes (1099, 1040, Schedule C — if you’re self-employed, these numbers might make you perspire) and tried to figure out what constituted a write-off on my taxes. Travel for work? Yeah, that’s straightforward enough. But what about that particular meal with that particular person who may-or-may-not be a source? Can I write off their steak? Can I write off that second Scotch they ordered?

In other words, I was relatively comfortable talking about money where writing was concerned. After freelancing for about five years, I had set rates for various types of content. I had established relationships with clients, some of whom I’d been with for years, and was able to negotiate rates accordingly. I understood what my writing was worth to them and I was able to advocate for those rates.

I reached a point about a year ago where I realized that I was having conversations about writing assuming that I would be compensated. I no longer had that nervous-throat-clearing hesitation when it came to asking about money. Most places I’d been writing for brought it up immediately, saving me the trouble. So, in situations where it was unclear, I was prepared to bring it up. And I no longer felt obligated to write for free; or for “exposure” — I didn’t need exposure. I needed lunch.

That all being said, when negotiations about the sale of my book began, I was a little weirded out that I wasn’t involved. Of course I’d discussed it with my agent, but when it came down to the actual bidding, it was just between agent and publisher. She was, of course, representing me, representing my interests — but it seemed strange to be out of the equation when I’d spent the better part of the last five years gearing up for precisely this type of negotiation!

Of course, that’s one of the most valuable services a literary agent offers you: while they work out the nuts and bolts of these (vast, vast, vast) agreements, you can focus on producing the product. That is, writing the book. And promoting it. And promoting yourself.

Your responsibilities as an author (particularly, I think, a debut author) are not small, and having a literary agent divvies up the workload for you and allows you to focus on the creative aspects of book publishing, rather than the “office work” you’ve likely been avoiding your entire life as you’ve worked toward becoming a published author.

In other words: having a literary agent really takes a lot of the administrative burden off you and allows you to become completely immersed in the stress of actually writing a book. (This is a good thing.)

So that’s that. The negotiations have happened — over the course of several weeks, perhaps even months — and now you’ve offers to consider. At this point, you’ll have a decent sense of the editorial procedures at the publishers you’re considering. You’ve likely spoken several times to the team there: editors, the publisher, the publicity team.

The amount of an advance offered (if one is offered) may well be the final piece of the offer for you to consider. At this point, your agent has lobbied for the highest possible advance they could get from each publisher, so by the time you see that offer, it’s usually the highest one you’ll get. For a debut author with no platform (that is, you aren’t a YouTube sensation or run a blog with a million followers) any advance is a decent offer.

Even the larger publishers, which have more money to hand out, are going to hold on to that money for their established authors and “safe bets” — that is, books that are nearly guaranteed to be blockbuster hits. From an economic standpoint, it makes sense that publishers want to play it safe — but for authors trying to break into the industry, it can be frustrating to hear about six-figure advances when you’ve been offered less than $10,000 for your first book.

What you have to keep in mind about advances, no matter the amount, is that it’s not all money that you will actually see and be able to use while you’re penning your book.

First of all, your agent gets a cut — as much as 15%.

Then, you have to set aside a percentage towards taxes — and if you’re self-employed as a writer, you have to not only consider the amount taxed on the lump sum, but also what you owe in self-employment tax in the state where you live.

Then you have to consider what’s required of you to actually write the book: do you need to travel to interview sources? To get photographs or check out some archives?

Do you have professional memberships to upkeep? Like the National Writer’s Union or the Guild? Have you paid your dues yet this year?

Have you been asked to speak at conferences? Will you have to pay for your travel (probably) your hotel (more than likely) and other expenses if you participate?

Then there are just expenses that, perhaps, were once covered by a salaried job: your electric bill (necessary if you work from home!), your Internet service provider (essential, again, if you work from home), your health insurance premiums if you are self-employed and need to purchase health insurance, your expenses like food, rent, car and one thing I know I always forget: the yearly fee to maintain a post office box!

These things add up and before you know it, that advance money is all spoken for. Even if you got a respectable advance — of say, $50,000 — you won’t see it all at once. Most likely you’ll get half up front when you sign and the other half when you deliver the manuscript — and as you can see, depending on where you live and what expenses you have, it won’t last long.

Many, many, many working writers, even established authors, have day jobs. And you can understand why. Royalties for a published book don’t kick in until your book has earned back the amount of your advance (in which case having a smaller advance isn’t so bad!) and even then, you’re looking at maybe seven percent of the sale of each book. That’s not exactly a lot to live on, even if your book does well in the first few years.

Having a “day job” can also be beneficial because your insurance is often built into your benefits package, as well as retirement and health savings accounts. Then, of course, there’s the regular paycheck, which is pretty nice.

The thing is, there’s not really a “right way” to do all this. Every writer’s situation will be different, and truthfully, each writer’s needs will differ for each book. Your first book, published maybe in your mid-twenties before you marry and start raising a family, may allow you to get by quite nicely for a few years. But add in dependents, a mortgage, educational and health expenses — and by book #2 you may find yourself in an entirely different place.

But can you live off an advance?

Some writers can, at least for the duration of the contract. Can you live on an advance any longer than that? No, probably not. Not unless you’ve saved that money and you’re getting wages from another source that cover your living expenses.

But that’s what an advance is for, really: just enough to help you write the book you’re working on presently. Once the book is published, the work’s not over.  

You’ll probably already be thinking about the next one.

[boxer set=”norman”]

Share a Comment