Will Livable Advances Be the First Casualty of the Publishing Revolution?

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to the meat of this week’s blog entry, I wanted to share a bit of very cool news. As every TKZ regular knows, Basil Sands is a frequent and entertaining participant here. A year or so ago, when my fellow Killzoners and I published Fresh Kills: Tales From The Killzone, Basil volunteered to produce audio versions of the book and podcast them. If you’ve listened to his narration, you know that he’s very good at that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, during a routine email exchange with the folks from Audible.com, the people who publish the audio versions of the Jonathan Grave series, I mentioned to them that they might consider adding Basil to their stable of narrators. I’m not sure of the details that transpired between Basil and Audible.com at that point, but I am thrilled to announce that Basil Sands will be the narrator for my next Jonathan Grave novel, Threat Warning, which will be released on July 1.

Having heard the great job he did with Fresh Kills, I can’t wait to hear his take on Threat Warning. For the second week in a row, then, here’s to serendipity! Way to go, Basil!

We now return to our original Blog programming:


New York publishing went Hollywood back in the mid nineties, throwing high six-figure and even seven-figure advances at first time authors. It’s a shame that so many of the authors who received such largesse didn’t know that the big money would ruin their writing careers.

A million dollar advance puts a writer in the position of having to sell something like 300,000 copies in hardcover for the publisher just to break even, and 350,000 for the writer to start earning a royalty check. Those are hard numbers to achieve even for established authors; for an unknown rookie, the odds are one in thousands. Whereas in a normal world, rookie sales of 75,000 or 80,000 copies would be the stuff of cork-popping and the terrific launch of a career, those same sales for the anointed and overpaid were a source of embarrassment for the team that forked over the cash.

But the big advance was only part of the problem. In order to have a chance at recovering their investment, publishers had to throw another couple hundred thousand bucks at marketing and promotion. Back then, when a “big book” failed, it failed big. If the disappointment was public enough, no other publisher would touch the author, who would forever join the ranks of one-hit wonders.

First lesson of New York publishing: The bad stuff is always the author’s fault.

Meanwhile, because all the marketing dollars were going to the big books, the midlist authors who were lucky to be pulling in $30,000 advances got squat in promotion. Their success (or failure) was driven largely by efforts of independent booksellers to hand-sell. Back then, even if a midlist title didn’t earn out, the independents would still order the next title of an author whose work they liked. There was a tacit agreement between publishers and booksellers to “grow” and author over time. That was before computers started running the business.

Now the indies are virtually all gone, and the hundred-year-old publishing business model is in turmoil. Virtually all of the legacy houses are stuck with bazillion-dollar contracts that have virtually no chance of earning out, and to cover their downside (backside?), many are establishing eBook lines that will provide a steady stream of revenue against greatly diminished costs. Among the diminished expenses are the size of authors’ advances.

This is a game-changer for writers who make their living exclusively through writing. A reasonable advance (pick your own number to define reasonable) keeps the lights on and the kids in shoes during the period after a book is bought and before it is published. The advance is what writers use to pay bills while writing the next book. If advances implode, I’m not sure how full-time writers will make ends meet.

Self publishing will become the solution for some, I suppose, but I continue to believe that the only writers who have even a remote chance for success via self publishing are those who have already established their names via traditional means. There’s just too much noise out there for newbies to have a real shot.

While my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy on all things, I’m confident that there’ll be a solution to all of this that will keep publishers in business, and will continue to make mega-selling authors mega-wealthy. But if publishers have a brain in their collective head, they’ll have to find a way to pay less up front in advances, and more in royalties that are distributed more frequently. That would be the everybody-wins solution, I think.

What about you, dear Killzoners? For those of you who dream of canning the day job and writing full time, do you see yourself rolling the dice on self-published sales, or on royalties alone, or is an advance a critical component of your plan?

18 thoughts on “Will Livable Advances Be the First Casualty of the Publishing Revolution?

  1. I’ve always assumed that if and when I get a book published, I’ll need another job to actually live. I’m still hoping for ‘traditional’ publishing though.

  2. First, congratulations to Basil. I see his name on several of my daily visits, and he seems like a good and knowledgeable man.

    I’ve viewed making a living solely as a writer as akin to winning the lottery for some time now. It’s not unlike earning your living as a musician (which I also tried to do) or as a professional athlete. People do it, and people do very well at it. They’re not the norm. The nature of the profession is that only the very top of the pyramid will make living at it. It seems harsh, but if someone starts out with the hope of writing fiction full-time and doesn’t make it, the fault is not with publishing; it lies with unreasonable expectations.

  3. As a budding writer with a day job that pays good money, I don’t plan to rely on fiction for income. (Yet) So with that in mind, I’ll probably try self-publishing the novel I’m currently revising. Don’t know that it’s the path to fame and fortune, but every day I see more evidence that the traditional publishing model has to change pretty radically. Why ask a big publishing house to take a chance on me when I can assume the risks myself?

    Marketing’s going to be tricky, of course – but it’d be tricky even if I had a three-book deal. Publishing houses don’t do real marketing for first time authors.

    So I’m rolling the dice on this one. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

    (Oh, and congrats to Basil! Voice acting’s a fun gig, and doing it for a Jonathan Grave novel’s more fun than usual)

  4. Well, I am a full-time writer, but not a full-time novelist, which maybe is fine and the way I like it, at least when I’m in a sensible mood.

    In terms of the whole “legacy” v. “self-publishing” battle, on June 7th my “legacy” published novel, The Valley of Shadows comes out.

    Sometimes in July probably I’ll e-self-publish a MG/YA novel, The Fortress of Diamonds.

    Yesterday I sent off a fiction proposal to my agent.

    Two days ago I sent off a nonfiction book proposal to my nonfiction agent.

    And today: plan to finish two magazine articles, work on a two columns I regularly write, deal with some issues related to the technical journal I edit, deal with some website content I’m writing and editing for a client, look for some more work…

    I sometimes think that except for a select few, it’s very tough to make a living JUST writing a book a year or JUST fiction, but if you work hard and are willing to be flexible, you can make a living writing.

    Kind of like the professional musicians I know. Most don’t JUST make a living performing, but they also teach. One of my guitar teachers played in about 3 different bands while teaching almost full time.

  5. For starters – Basil Sands is a class act so that’s great news for a very deserving guy. He’s also a very good writer – Recently read his book 65 Below, it was terrific.

    I have “a big boy job” – to steal your term – that pays very well so no reason for me to stress about sales (or check Amazon numbers). I decided in 2008 (before the ebook craze) to self pub. Seemed to me that the traditional route was a stacked deck & since I didn’t intend to pursue writing as a primary source of income – the effort required to traditional held no appeal. So I do what I do without concern over the $$$. Life is good.

  6. Self-publishing is now like the gold rush days for writers. If you have some combination of skill, perseverance and luck, you could strike it rich over the long term. Or you could do quite well. Or pretty good. Any of which is acceptable if you love what you’re doing.

    And let me add my congrats to Mr. Sands.

  7. A huge congratulations to Basil. Well deserved. Regarding advances, the publishing industy is in such flux right now, if someone predicted that advances would be paid in the form of Visa gift cards, I would not be suprised.

  8. Good job, Basil! I hope he won’t be too busy now to leave funny comments.

    As for advances, they were probably more important when there was a long time between acceptance and publication. But for ebooks that gap should be much shorter, so perhaps the advance is not as important?

  9. Six and seven figure advances are dead, or will be very shortly. With as much as the market is changing, I very much doubt boards of directors or stockholders at places like NewsCorp, Pearson, and Lagardere will tolerate another set of numbers like those from FY’10. Whether or not authors have livable wages is irrelevant. Profit margins and earning out are the only things that matter in the new reality. Period.

  10. Hey boys and girls! I’ve been quiet for the past week or so due to a big brain drain Cisco Certification training I’ve been forced to endure for my grow’d up job. One thing I have learned this week…I am not the nerd I thought I was…not nearly.

    Luckily though I finished Threat Warning the day before I left, so I still had all of me available to put into it. On that note, all I can say is that I hope you guys enjoy listening to the audiobook as much as I enjoyed making it. John’s story makes for good times in the studio.

    As far as big advances and rolling in the dough is concerned while parts of me hope for it with my own books, other parts of me heed the warning that John gives regarding the high expectations of such an advance. Scary territory that. Before my skull crunch class this week I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference where I got a moment to chat with a big name agent from a big name agency who seemed to indicate big potential for the book David mentioned as well as my others. Part of me went ‘Yeah!’ but another part went ‘Gulp!’.

    There is no telling what may happen in this ever-morphing future of publishing, but I am still hoping for a way to crawl out of the IT Nerd Kingdom in which my day job has me indentured as a simple Geek Serf.

    Basil Sands
    Author, Narrator, Chubby Dude, and Newly minted CISCO Networks Dweeb.

  11. Congrats to Basil! He is a great writer and his comments are witty and funny as hell.

    I think I’d rather get little to no advance and sell a bunch of books than get a huge advance that I can’t earn out and not be able to publish a book ever again. It does make me sad that the days of huge advances (unless you’re a well-established author or the exception to the rule) are basically over.

    I love my day job and it has awesome health and retirement benefits so unless I am ridiculously successful as a writer, I am keeping my day job. If I achieved some success, I’d cut back on my hours so I could devote more time to writing but I can’t see myself giving it up completely. Of course I have the same fantasy every writer likely does–to be able to afford to write full time but if it doesn’t happen I’m okay with that too.

    All of that said, I’ve been on submissions for six months and being on submissions now while the industry is in such flux is absolutely nervewracking. I do know that if nothing happens for me with traditional publishing, I will definitely consider self-publishing–at least some of my work.

  12. First off, congratulations to Basil and very well deserved! On the advance front I have a friend who writes cozy mysteries and the advances there are so small there is no way anyone would be able to give up their day job – not even if they published 5 a year! I was lucky that my advance helped pay for a nanny so I could write my second book and cover most of my publicity and research costs. I still have a tiny bit left but I am realistic that advances are diminishing. My agent says whatever you are thinking…lower it. That seems good advice. I think many authors will try for a combination of traditional and self-pub ebooks and see how it all pans out.

  13. Congrats, Basil!

    RE: Making a living writing–though that was my ideal, I gave up the notion of being able to write full time a long long time ago.

    Even working part-time is a difficult shot since most of us are prisoners to healthcare insurance and other such torment.


  14. Congratulations Basil!

    I personally don’t think I would ever give up a day job to chase ever shrinking advances.

    Now if a movie production company came knocking at my door, that’s a different story.

  15. Self-publishing is now like the gold rush days for writers. If you have some combination of skill, perseverance and luck, you could strike it rich over the long term. Or you could do quite well. Or pretty good. Any of which is acceptable if you love what you’re doing.

    This is a great analogy. Plus: even if you don’t strike it rich, you’re out on the new frontier where the action is.

  16. Ok, John . . .being relatively new to this industry, I’m putting my eggs in baskets, pockets, tree branches, movie theater chairs, car trunks and underneath dinner salad plates. Which translates to: not only am I selling through an established publisher, I’m self-pubbing, giving away free books, chatting up at conferences and talking even more on the Internet. While I’d welcome a mega-advance at any time, I’m a realist and will expect that windfall when I deserve it! In the meantime, I’m working with the trickle effect until I can “can” the day job. I’ll mark my calendar and let you know this time next year how my egg planting goes . . .

    BTW–great blog.

    PS: Kudos to Basil on the audio news. I joined Podiocasts through Smashwords and cancelled after a month. Got too many female, do-you-wanna-date emails from that crowd. I think that site was a cover for another type of casting!

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