The advance for a book should be at least as much as the cost of the lunch at which it was discussed.
The estimable Jeremy James posted the following in the Comments trail, and I thought it was worth bringing up front:
Hi David. Another great post...Hi, Jeremy, thanks for dropping in. You raise some interesting points—interesting enough that I’m afraid it’ll take me more than one post to reply. (In fact, I’m thinking three—and I’d like to also thank you for giving me an excuse to tackle a topic so large, and thereby put off doing honest work.)
After following the links you referenced about MNW's controversial business model, & reading up on why it's controversial in the first place (no advances, non-negotiable contracts, granting of all rights to publisher, etcetera), I'm curious to see if you'd expand a bit more on your reasons for signing with them.
I've read a little of your writing, and it's pretty clear to me at least,you've talent to spare, and if not SMITE, another book of yours would probably find a home with some U.S. publisher of note.
I guess I'm stuck on the "no advance" concept of their contracts. Others have argued that an author shows more confidence in their work if they're willing to take a low (or no) advance, hoping they'll make it up in royalties. But I remain skeptical of this logic. To me, that's really a show of faith in your publisher's ability to market and promote your book--something which you have very little control over, no matter how much you believe in your work.
I think I'd rather go the opposite way: agree to no royalties, but demand a much higher advance. That just makes more sense to me, because then I'm getting paid for the value-added work I put in (writing and delivering an entertaining story)--not for work I won't be performing (marketing and selling the book after it's printed). Plus it turns an "advance" into an investment by the publisher--one they'll need to get their butts in gear to realize a return on.
Let me start by noting that most of your points would garner widespread agreement. Some people (particularly agents) think it nearly immoral to publish without advances, and the argument that only a large advance will force publishers to market your book is not uncommon.
Prgamatically speaking, you’re right that the main issue with the MNW contract is advances. Except in the case where an agent has somehow caused mass hysteria to descend upon a whole crowd of editors who busily outbid each other for a first novel, I don't think an unpublished novelist typically has much room to negotiate their contract with or without an agent, whether it's in principle negotiable or not. Nor are subsidiary rights typically of much value in the hands of an unpublished novelist. The Indonesian e-book rights probably aren't going to create much of a stir, and as to Hollywood options, I think a well-connected publisher is more likely to sell them than I am (even with the assistance of an agent), leaving me with 50% of something rather than 100% of nothing.
It may help a little to consider the history of the ‘advance’, which, of course, is short for ‘advance against royalties.’ Impecunious writers (and, if I recall, ‘impecunious’ literally means ‘owning no cattle’, which I should think would include most writers) often borrowed money from their agents or publishers to make ends meet. This ‘advance’ was the same idea as an advance on one’s wages—that is, a no-interest loan against future earnings.
With reliable, published writers, books were often ‘sold’ for an advance prior to being written, often based on a synopsis or outline, with perhaps half of the advance up-front, and the rest on delivery or publication. Novelist Lawrence Block writes:
“Some years ago, when I was more prolific than I am now and landed virtually all of my contracts on the basis of an outline or a brief proposal, I could hardly avoid the realization that I was writing a couple hundred words for half the money and then had to write an entire book just to get the other half. It seemed economically sensible to stick to outlines—I could write dozens of them in the course of a year far more easily than I could produce half a dozen actual books. But sooner or later, I found, you have to deliver the actual book…”
The main purpose of the advance was to make sure the writer wouldn’t starve until he or she had finished the book. Advances weren’t generally paid to first-timers: who knew if they’d ever finish a book?
(Macmillan New Writing only publishes writers whose novels have not been previously published, and they only look at manuscripts that are complete. In such cases, the original rationale for the advance is obviously not relevant.)
In time, and with the increasing role of agents in the process, the advance became a standard item in contracts, even for first novels. Advances became the major item of negotiation, and advances swelled to the point where they became news. In fact, today they are a major tool of publicity. The most exciting thing about a book nowadays—to People magazine, at any rate—is apparently the size of the advance paid for it.
Many debut authors receiving large advances (and there are only a tiny number, though they get a lot of print) don't earn out, so they never receive royalties anyway. Big advance + Big losses = Small chance you’ll ever publish again.
In the case of mega-advances, yes, the publisher needs to push the book harder—often to the detriment of other books on their list. That’s great, I guess—unless you’re the guy who got the $10,000 advance, and you’re with the same imprint that gave another author $500,000.
The size of the advances received by debut novelists seems to have little to do with their ultimate success in the business. We'll return to this topic in the next post, but I think it's useful to play agent Simon Trewin's Whatever happened to... game: gather together your friends, get a list of the debut novelists who were given giant advances and massive hype a few years ago, and now see who in the room can remember what the authors published next.