The Economics of Book Deals

moneyWhen I wrote about my own experience going freelance in my Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Writing Business, I mentioned the specific development that allowed me to quit my day job: a six-figure book advance. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of book advances/the state of the publishing industry in that post, which was long and involved enough. That said, a freelancer friend wisely pointed out that I might want to explain that further, in case anyone’s reading that and thinking, “Oh, okay! I’ll just get a six-figure book advance then.” There are a number of reasons that I could think this was a reasonable expectation for me at that time (and these reasons, not coincidentally, double as a list of ways I was lucky):

1. We are talking about the lowest end of “six figures.” (I feel like I’m supposed to be coy about this, but you get my drift.)

2. I had made this much for my first book, Why? Because We Still Like You. This was pure luck. I got this book as an “assignment”; Grand Central Publishing was looking for someone to write a book about the original Mickey Mouse Club. I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars while working at Entertainment Weekly. An agent I was working with then heard they needed someone and put me forward for it. I got the gig. Their budget was pre-set at something like $80K and my agent talked them up a bit.

3. The book that allowed me to quit my job was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was sold on auction, which means that publishers were competing for it, which drives the price up. Many, though not all, of the other offers were very low. I would not have been able to quit my job on those offers. I actually didn’t know what I was going to do if that was as high as we went, because I really did not want to write this book while holding a full-time job. Working at EW was incredibly demanding at this point because we’d laid lots of people off and were trying to feed the web beast. And I wanted to do a great job on the book. So this was a total gamble. We ended up with a few big publishers wanting it in hardcover in the end, though, which is crucial for an advance this large. Luckily, I really liked the two highest bidders, and the absolute highest was Jon Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster, who turns out to be a huge Mary Tyler Moore Show fan. This was a no-brainer. (In further lucky news, he ended up editing my book himself, which was an invaluable experience for me.)

4. In conclusion, this was a Cinderella story and not a sure thing.

I think there are a few specific lessons that you, as a person who is not me, and who is possibly considering a similar career path, can take from my experience:

1. Non-fiction tends to sell better than fiction. There’s more of it, and more demand for it, no matter what your pre-conceived picture of an “author” is. It’s also less dependent on you as a name and more dependent on subject matter. Which brings us to …

2. My solo books have all been about TV shows. This makes them more dependent on the show as a brand name and less dependent on me.

3. That said, I have a pretty strong “platform” for writing about this stuff, thanks to having spent ten years at a national magazine covering television. Not only do they trust that I can pull it off, but they also know I have connections who can help spread the word about the book in the right places.

4. In contrast to all of the above, for instance, the book I co-authored with Heather Wood Rudúlph, Sexy Feminism, sold for much, much less. It was meant for a young, female audience, so it made sense to go paperback-only. Furthermore, it had no built-in hook like a very popular television show. I loved doing this book, but it was not the reason I could quit my job. I’m told this is a much more normal experience; I’ve often heard $10K-$20K for a book is the best most people can expect, especially for a first book.

I hope this helps anyone pondering books as a “money-making” option. Also keep in mind that for non-fiction, advances are doled out in halves, thirds, or fourths, usually over a couple of years between signing the deal and publishing the book. So even what sounds like a lot at first isn’t that much. Keep all of this in mind as you ponder quitting your day job.

If anyone has questions (that I can answer) about any of this, let me know!

Advertisements

97 comments

  1. I think in the end you write because you can’t help it. If the money follows that a bonus but you still write. But I’m been lucky when it comes to money and love. Thanks for a great post. It really puts into perspective the business side of writing.

  2. I can’t imagine quitting my job before actually getting a deal! Although I can see how it’s a catch 22: How can I write a book worth a six-figure advance if I’m working full-time?

  3. Great post and a peek in the trenches of book publishing. Interesting note on the non-fiction, that makes up well over 80% of my current collection.

  4. All good points. Most of us don’t write to become rich–we write because it’s in our blood. Writing to get rich is a pipe dream that happens for only a select few.

  5. Writing non-fiction seems to be as much business as an art. It is easier to successfully approach a publisher if you have a good idea, and you can point to a market that is not already saturated. The non-fiction proposals I have seen are quite detailed as to who the audience is and who the competing books in the field are.
    The unknown right now is how the business will be affected by digital books and indie publishers. Like the music industry, the indies are becoming a force. How does this affect book advances in the future? Who knows?

  6. This was extremely helpful! I made a temporary switch to writing essays (I am so burnt out from writing short stories), and it’s very encouraging to hear that non-fiction not only sells better, but is in higher demand. Thank you.

  7. This is such a fine, concise, instructive and honest post, it should be a chapter in a wanna-be-professional writer’s guide.
    Or screw that: just follow this blog!
    Refreshing.

  8. I’m in the submissions phase as my agent is about to send my baby off, so reading this was very helpful. Thank you!

  9. Thanks for writing so openly and honestly about the money and business of books! I appreciate this advice more than any other kind because it’s something I just don’t have experience in. It’s always important to tether yourself to reality and remind yourself that, if you want to be a writer, you have to learn the marketing and economics of it. I hope one day I can pass along my wisdom and experience as you have. But I guess I have to start making a business of writing first haha!

  10. I’m trying a different angle….I wrote a true(ish) account of my adventures in healthcare…. (controversial subject)http://www.amazon.com/Slow-Code-K-D-Burnham-RN-ebook/dp/B00V2TSG9U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1427411145&sr=8-1&keywords=slow+code

  11. I’m in the middle of writing a non fiction book that is currently happening, that has a sequel planned wa well because it is a 2 part story. I have 8 years of research. I am very knowledgeable on the subject matter. I started a blog 15 months ago as a way to categorize the material. I spend part of every day working on the education and business part of having a successful blog to draw in readers for when it’s done. The rest of the day I write. I know absolutely nothing about what is the best way to go from here – look for a publisher – go indie? I definitely don’t want to publish just e-book. I’m writing on a subject that is currently very often talked about in the media. It causes a lot of heated discussion.

    This book needs to be written. It is about our prison system, but it’s being written in a very personal and heartfelt way (and can even draw out the emotions of men who read and feel the pain of imposed inhumanity and the effects of racism in the prison system. His life hangs in the balance of this being successful because when he is paroled he needs a way to create a life. When you’ve been pushed through the school to prison pipeline, with epilepsy, how does one start a life from scratch when you’re in your thirties if you haven’t experienced life on the outside since you were a kid, shipped too far away for your mother to visit. ( book two) The blog is at http://mynameisjamie.net and links to 3 of the chapters of the book ‘InsideOut’ are posted on the first page during time in solitary confinement?. I try to talk as much as possible to other authors and keep writing and searching for guidance. Help? Can and should you shop a book before it’s done? I’m out of my league not knowing what is the right way to go.

    1. Hi there (again)! You’re doing lots of great work. I can’t really tell you what the best way to go is, exactly: Every approach has its advantages and disadvantages. (In short: Indie means less money upfront, more control and possible reward if something hits. Mainstream means more money upfront and possible, but not probable, promotional support.) Most nonfiction, however, is sold on proposal, so that can be a good place to start: putting together a book proposal. You can also then try to use that to get an agent; if that doesn’t work, you can reassess and possibly go indie. (You will likely not get a major publishing deal without an agent.)

      1. Thank you for responding. So even with a publishing deal you might still have to handle all your own promotion? And the financial part of that, too? I was told that if you get a book deal they can rip your book apart, change title and change things because they basically own it? It seems I have a lot of research to do yet. And I don’t even know what a book proposal would look like and then I would have to shop for an agent with that? And then I have to fit that in with time to eat and sleep lol. It’s a good thing I don’t work. Not that I don’t need to. I’m on disability and that barely pays for toilet paper! Oh well, I’ll start with confidence, patience and continue with perseverance. I have lots of that.

  12. Pingback: Impulse || Home
  13. Interesting perspective.
    I have been reading and researching a LOT about the business end of book writing. There are so many things that can readily sink a writer’s hopes, the platform being one. I read a recent blog entry where an agent was about to pass on a writer, even though the writing was very good. Why? No platform. Not a particularly uplifting thing to read.Makes one wonder how many of the greats would have made it in today’s writing world. But it has to be dealt with, and better to go into the business knowing what you need rather than not having the information.

      1. I went and researched it after i wrote that. Because I’m writing a book. You can find inks to it at http://mynameisjamie.net. So I’m trying to learn everything I can. I started the blog last January to categorize the subject matter because it is non fiction on the prison system. Thanks for the link!! Have you published anything?

      2. I hope you continue, because what you wrote is very good. I doubt, though, this is your first attempt at writing. I will give you a little push.

  14. Really useful perspective for young writers. It’s been 15 years since I left the publishing industry, but for certain it’s my 6 years in the industry (the experience, plus the employers on my CV) that allow me to operate as a freelance writer.

  15. Thank you for this post. As someone teetering on the brink of making similar (albeit smaller scale) leaps, it was a valuable, reassuring dose of realism.

  16. Great insight, thanks for the post. I agree that non-fiction is so much more engaging. I would love to turn my posts into a book someday as this peek behind the curtain is greatly appreciated. Best of luck to you.

  17. Thanks so much for sharing this. As a young writer just making a start, this sort of honest and direct information is so helpful. I’m just starting to look through your ‘Ultimate Guide’ linked above too.

  18. Thanks for the post. I write fiction and had the dream of the six figure contract. But in the end the competition was too fierce and I ended up going with a small publisher. At least I’m published. That’s something I’m proud of no matter how small the payoff is.

  19. Very interesting. Seems like the book-publishing industry is a gamble in the end. Really makes you think about how an author’s career can really change depending on the quality of their first book.

    1. That is a VERY important point that I didn’t get into here. I’ve known writers whose careers basically tanked because their first book didn’t sell well. (Getting a huge advance and then flopping is actually worse than a small-advance flop, in the industry’s eyes.) I got very, very lucky: My first book didn’t sell well, but my second publisher didn’t hold it against me because he liked my idea. As you say, it’s all a huge gamble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s