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#MayIAskew | What’s a fair deal for your first advance?

The Golden Hare Books Agony Aunt answers YOUR reading and writing questions…

‘Lady Write-a-Lot’ asks:

“I’ve just found a publisher for my first novel and they’ve offered me a two book deal!!! Wahoo!!! But when it comes to the cold hard cash: what’s a fair amount to earn? And how do I know if I’m being paid fairly?”

Okay, Lady W, I’m going to try and answer this question without just being completely maddening… because the short answer is, there really is no yardstick for book advances.  They’re not like payment for services rendered, where the person paying you ought to recognise industry standard rates of pay and ensure you’re compensated fairly.  Advances are payments against a product (your book, and what a publisher is able to spend on it) rather than your time, so it’s hard to talk about whether they’re “fair” or not.

But there’s also a long answer, you’ll be happy to hear.

First up, you should think about getting someone who knows what they’re doing to look at the deal you’ve been offered.  This person, for many writers, is their agent.  I could – and most likely will – do a whole column on what agents are for and why they’re a good thing to have, but for now let’s just move forward with the idea that some writers have agents, and others don’t.  If you do, then it’s likely that your agent negotiated your deal for you.  That means you’re probably getting the best deal you can, because agents are there to ensure that this happens.  Book deals are complex things: the publisher might not just be buying the right to publish your book in the format that you wrote it.  They might also be buying foreign language rights, audio rights, rights to previous works of yours, all sorts of things.  Your agent will ensure that the price looks right for each of the things your publisher is buying in the deal.

If you’re not agented, don’t worry: there are still ways to make sure a publishing industry person casts an eye over the deal you’ve been offered.  If you’re in the UK, you can become a member of the Society of Authors, and receive (as well as many other benefits) an in-depth contract check-over by a dedicated industry-savvy person.  If you’re elsewhere in the world, you can look around to see if your country has a Society of Authors equivalent, or you can look around for a tame industry freelancer who provides a contract-checking service.  Some authors, agents, editors and even lawyers will provide this same service for you, though you’ll need to be prepared to pay them a fee.  (If you’re not sure what fees are fair, get quotes from a few freelancers and compare what they offer before you commit.)  A good advisor will break down your contract into layman’s terms and make sure you understand what the publisher is asking of you, so you can make a judgement call on whether the deal being presented to you is fair.  You can then act accordingly – either by signing on the dotted line, or going back to the publisher and asking for clarification or amendments.  Don’t be frightened to do this: contracts are often subject to modification before they’re signed.  Just stay polite and patient.  Remember, it’s a negotiating table, not you holding your book for ransom until the publisher pays up!

I also have some general money-related tips for you that should help:

  • If an agent or agency says they’re going to charge you an up-front ‘reading fee’ – or any other sort of fee, for that matter – run away as fast as you possibly can.  Agents shouldn’t get paid until you get paid, and they’ll take an industry standard cut of 15% from the advance your publisher gives you.  Some newer agents will take 12.5%, but 15% is the standard.  Any agent asking for a bigger share than that should be avoided.
  • Similarly, if a publisher asks you to pay for the costs or part of the costs of publishing your book, run away.  This is what’s called vanity publishing, and you don’t want any part of it.  A publisher should want to publish your book enough that they foot the bill for all the costs – and hopefully pay you an advance into the bargain! 
  • Keep a wary eye out for agents or publishers who tell you that they’ll take a cut of any prize-money your writing earns, any appearance fees you receive, and so on.  If you’re unsure if what you’re being asked for is okay, find someone who’s familiar with the industry and ask, ‘does this sound legit to you?’

A final word on advances.  We’ve all read stories about that author who came out of nowhere, got a six-figure advance for their first ever book, sold the film rights in a huge auction and then retired to float forever in a heart-shaped swimming pool.  I hope I don’t need to tell you that those stories are the exception to the rule… we just hear a lot more about it when an author gets that sort of hype, because the media likes to make the rest of us miserable, or something.  Advances can be as high as six figures, but they can also be as low as three.  Most writers don’t get to stop their day job when they get an advance, let alone put in a swimming pool.  I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, here – I just want to make sure you’re not mega-disappointed when you look at your deal (or left making finance payments on a Ferrari for the rest of your life).  My advice – and I know this is hard to hear, but bear with me – is: don’t just look for the book deal that will land you the biggest advance or make you the most money.  Go with the deal that will produce the very best version of your book that there can be.  Rather than looking for a rich publishing house to approach, look for an editor you think will get you, get your vision for the book, and work with you to make it amazing.  Look for people who’ll really care about the story you’re telling, and who’ll work hard to present it in the best possible way, so it finds the audience it was written for and deserves.

I really hope your two book deal brings you all of that, and more, Lady W.  Good luck! 

Claire Askew is on Twitter; click here for more industry insight and her trademark rapier wit!