Lesson 9: Why you don’t want a huge advance
We all dream about the million dollar advance but if you’re unknown you’re probably better off with a moderate one. Huge advances create huge expectations and as an unknown author there’s a good chance your sales won’t meet the stratospheric expectations that go with the advance, in which case you’re probably doomed. Booksellers unwittingly destroy writers’ careers every day. Once booksellers get a whiff of declining sales, they’ll start returning your books, and if they’re not in the bookshops no one will be able to buy them. Then, because your first book flopped the bookshops won’t order many of the second (if there is one), guaranteeing that it’ll sell far less than the first.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say the publisher gives you a $50,000 advance for your first book, thus expecting it to sell at least 40,000 copies. But for some unknown reason it doesn’t catch on and, despite lots of expensive marketing, only sells 10,000 copies. Your publisher has lost money big time, and so have the booksellers – they’ve had all that shelf space occupied by books that didn’t earn anything, and now they have to pay to ship them back to the publisher for a credit.
Both the publisher and the booksellers now see you as a loser, and it will be extremely difficult for your agent to sell your second book to that publisher – or to another publisher, for that matter. Through Nielsen Bookscan, the whole industry has access to your sales figures. If another publisher should pick up your second book, you’ll be lucky to get a $10,000 advance and orders will be much lower.
How much lower? Suppose you have a 3-book deal and your first book bombed as described above, only selling 10,000 copies. Well, you say to yourself, the bookshops know they can sell that many, and maybe the second book will do better.
Fatally wrong. Because the booksellers did so much dough on the first book, they won’t order anything like 10,000 of the second. They won’t even order half that number. If orders total 4,000 copies you’ll be lucky. And they’ll be shelved spine out, where they’re almost invisible. Sales will be 2,000, at the most – a horrifying plunge from the 40,000 everyone was expecting just one book ago.
And for the third book? The same, only less so. Booksellers don’t mean to destroy writers’ careers, but that’s the effect of their collective buying decisions, and this is how it happens.
Looking at the alternative, suppose your publisher advances you $10,000 for your first book. If it sells 6,000 copies they’re in the money. If it reprints a few times and sells 15,000 copies they’ll love you and offer a much bigger advance for your second book. The bookshops will increase their orders and display your books prominently; there’ll be a small buzz about you in the industry and readers will remember your name and look out for your next book. Exceed booksellers’ expectations two or three times and you’re a rising star.
Postscript: Here are some of the most notable bombs of recent times. http://nymag.com/news/media/50279/index7.html
Charles Frazier, whose first book Cold Mountain was a monster hit, was paid $8 million for his next book. It only sold a few hundred thousand and the publisher lost $5.5 million on the advance.