Monday, September 20, 2010

Advances and Royalties De-Mushified

The publishing world is changing, but author payment schemes so far have stayed relatively the same. If you get a traditional book publishing deal you are looking at an Advance/Royalty pay structure.

I’m not going to get all technical and cover the minutiae and vagaries of how publishers account and/or abuse royalty payments. This is a De-Mushify, not de-mystify.

An author earns $0 for writing a book. He’s spent the last 5 years agonizing over scenes, characters and whether the papyrus font is cool.

He then spends countless hours trying to find an agent. If he’s lucky enough to get one, she offers to represent the manuscript for $0. (and tells the author to stick with Times New Roman font under pain of death.)

The agent then beats down the doors of publishers, pitching the book, schmoozing, calling, emailing, kibitzing, and generally working her tail off to sell this book.

No money has changed hands yet. The author and agent have done all this work for $0.

Then they find a publisher crazy enough to pick up a book about the stormy passions of two taxonomists who have discovered a new gastropod in an endangered estuary.

My cat also edits my work. (The cone is to deflect alien thought-rays)

The publisher offers the author an advance. (ooh, money!) The advance isn’t really a loan. The author doesn’t have to pay it back if the book tanks. It is the author’s to keep forever. (Or until he spends it on a plasma TV)

However, it is a loan in the sense that the author won’t see royalties until the sales of the book have recouped the advance. (There are various accounting methods that may disguise this fact, but it is a fact: the publisher recoups the advance from the author’s royalties.)

The agent takes his commission from the advance, usually 15% or so. This is how she gets paid. That’s it. 15% of the advance. If she’s a good agent, she ekes out a big advance. (Or she might negotiate a % point with the author. This is a small % of the royalties. Rare, but not unheard of.)

Now both the author and the agent have received a little bit of money for their trouble.

Then there are royalties. Every quarter, or year, or bicentennial of the Hindenburg Disaster (however the publisher computes it) the author receives a royalty check.

The amount, naturally, depends on the number of units sold during that period. But, naturally, the publisher has various obfuscating accounting methods to shake down royalties. Such things as returns, breakage, vaccinations, vacations, monkey training, cabbage farming supplies, etc.

Suffice to say, authors who get a traditional book deal usually get an advance and then royalties.

But always remember that you write for free. There is no guaranteed pay. It certainly isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. Heck, it isn’t even a get-rich-slow scheme. My dad’s written something upward of 40 books, but I’ve seen his quarterly royalty statements to the tune of $5.

There is no guarantee. You have to be in it because you love it, not to win it.

*But what about cover art? Allow me to digress.

The publisher usually scoffs at an author who suggests an artist. In most cases the author is left to bite their nails as the publisher commissions an artist to make them a cover. The artist gets paid a flat fee for the art. No royalties, no kickbacks.

If they did the art for $500, and the book becomes a mega-seller, they still get only $500.

Bummer. So if you are an artist, try negotiating a smaller commission fee for a percentage point of sales (royalties). Or, you might have to forego the commission fee for a % point. It’s a risk, but royalties are nice.

If the publisher will go for it.

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