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?
By John Gilstrap