So, how much money do you make, dear?

As an wanna-be writer just about to start sending out her first manuscript, I'm getting a lot of weird looks from my family when I tell them that selling a book does not equal finding a suitcase full of money. If it's not too rude to ask, what's a common advance for a first novel? I'd like to have some realistic figures to give them over turkey when the questions start flying at Thanksgiving.

I about fell off my chair at BEA when Gillian Blake said the "average advance" she paid was $40K. Fortunately I was held in place by six other slack jawed agents in the row of chairs. We all wished that was the case.

Gillian Blake is the chief bigwig at Bloomsbury. They publish really great fiction very selectively. They probably DO pay an average of $40K but unless the only place I'm selling is Bloomsbury and their ilk (Holt, FSG, Random, Viking, SimonandSchuster, Warner) my average is going to drop like a rock when you factor in the small presses I sell to.

And make no mistake about it: I sell a lot to small presses. I love those guys. They are willing to take risks, to publish books that only need to sell 10,000 copies to be a raging success, and generally they don't have to answer to HerrGottzRocs from the mother company overseas.

So, if I can sell your novel to Bloomsbury, drag out the Louis Vuitton and let's rub the relatives nose in your new found suitcase of fun.

If I sell it to Ig Publishing in Brooklyn, you'll make money on the back end we hope but up front isn't going to break any records.

Now, I know this is delicate territory but if someone asks you what a writer earns you can just smile very enigmatically and say "my agent handles the money end of things. I just write GREAT prose." This works for everyone but your dad if you still have an account at the First Bank of Father.


Kat said...

I don't know much about mainstream, but Tobias Buckell did an informal survey of fantasy and sf writers and found that the average advance for a first novel was between five and seven thousand dollars. Full results are here.


That doesn't count royalties after the advance is earned out, but then, many first novels never earn out their advance.

I don't know how this compares to mainstream or other genres. For myself, if I earn 10K from my first published novel I will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

(Incidentially, Toby's study found that first novelists with agents averaged significantly higher on the advance than those without....)

Anonymous said...

Ah, the ever delicate money question. Thank you for answering it in snark style! I get really really uncomfortable when my fiancĂ©’s mother starts talking about Grisham and my future "career" in the same breath. I will use your wonderful tactic on Thursday, or I would... if I had an agent. Maybe I'll just tell her I threw it all over and went back to mud wrestling. She’d probably say “how lovely.”

Bill Peschel said...

Brenda Hiatt has collected information on what romance publishers pay. At her site, click on the 'Show Me the Money' link.

Also, Here's another discussion of royalties Note that she corrected some of her figures.

Finally, romance writer Alison Kent reveals the details in her last royalty statement. Bottom line, each of her Harliquin books averaged about $2K a year in royalties.

David Isaak said...

Numbers on these things are spotty and usually dated, though some academics did a book on the subject ("The Wages of Writing") back in the 80s.

A survey several years ago (by the National Writer's Union, I believe)found that that the average income from writing of published authors who classified themselves as professional writers was on the order of $4,000 per year.

Another survey found that the "average" advance for hardcover fiction was $19-20,000, but when you remember that this average includes all of those six figure advances you hear about in the press, that means that advances down in the $5,000 range have to be in the majority just to make the math work.

James Michener put it best: "In America, a writer can make a fortune...but not a living." Miss Snark is right: don't even discuss moeny with the unwashed masses.

mysterygirl said...

Hmmm. Is it such a bad idea to educate the masses (or maybe just the relatives) that most writers aren't rolling in the gin-soaked dough? Of course, one doesn't need to provide a specific number regarding one's own advance, but a general figure might be enough to demonstrate the realities of publishing. And the importance of supporting beloved authors by visiting the library and the bookstore (not the USED bookstore).

On the other hand, if I'm lucky enough to get published, I may default to, "My agent handles the money and I handle the words."