What’s the Average Advance?
A large number of people wind up on this blog by doing a Google search for “average advance.” Although I’ve talked a bit about advances in previous entries (royalty calculations, advances and royalties: risk/reward and returns reserves), I thought I should address the idea of an “average advance” in a post all by itself.
As with the rest of my posts on this blog, it’s important to keep in mind that my perspective comes from the computer book publishing market. If you’re searching for information on the typical advance in the science fiction area, for example, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s also important to realize that although it’s possible to calculate a true average advance, there are all sorts of exceptions and variables to consider. More on that in a moment…
In our business today, a typical author advance is around $10,000. Some are lower and some are higher. In fact, some authors completely opt out of the advance and choose to delay their earnings till the first royalty payment.
What are some factors that tend to drive up the advance? An urgent demand for the topic (which might include a shorter writing schedule) and an author's unique platform are two good examples. If a publisher is anxious to get a particular book/topic on the shelves they might be inclined to pay more for the author advance. As I note, however, this often results in the publisher asking the author for a shorter writing schedule. Be sure to read the earlier post on What Makes a Bestseller? to see where author platform fits into the equation.
What sort of factors might cause the advance to be on the lower end of the scale? One example is if the book covers a riskier topic with limited upside. Sometimes it’s hard to justify even an “average” advance on an emerging topic. It’s virtually impossible to gauge a sales forecast on a topic for which no books are currently available. Ironically, this is exactly the type of publishing that can create a breakout title that far exceeds the publisher’s wildest expectations. It all comes down to how much faith your editor and publisher have in the title.
If the lack of existing titles on the topic might cause the advance to be lower, shouldn’t the opposite be true? The more books out on a topic would therefore cause the advance on the next book to be higher. Nope. It doesn’t take long for the “next” book to be considered a commodity, once again driving down the advance the publisher is willing to pay. If there are already a dozen books out there on the topic don’t expect the publisher to treat yours (the 13th one) as something special that deserves a high advance…unless you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other compelling reason.
Many new authors often think page count plays a role in the advance. Truth is, there’s really no correlation between page count and advance dollars. An 800-page book won’t necessarily pay out two times the advance of a 400-page one – the smaller book might even get a higher advance than the bigger book. Finally, keep in mind that first-year earn-out of the advance is often an important consideration.
Many seasoned authors have been reading this blog. How does the information in this post compare to your experience with advances and an overall average?
Joe, I have been with you (Wiley and all the other incarnations before that) all this time and your explanation of average advance matches my experience with advances. The first-year earn-out of royalty seems to be a key consideration. By the way, I think this information would be very helpful to new authors.
Posted by: Naba Barkakati | April 18, 2005 at 08:42 PM
Don't forget the author's reputation and experience as a factor. You're willing to pay a higher advance to an author that you know can deliver the goods on time, in a highly readable and accurate form, right? After more than ten years in the business, I hope I can command higher advances than a rookie would, because your risk is lower.
Posted by: Ed Bott | April 18, 2005 at 08:57 PM
I knew I'd find a way to get some of you long-time authors to comment on this... Ed, you're absolutely right. In your case, I think the author platform factor also comes into play. That was a big plus when we first met during your PC Computing days and it remains a nice asset that you bring to the table today.
Upon further review, I realize I probably should have stated more of an average range rather than a firm number. A large percentage of books probably fall within the $8K to $12K range, hence the $10K average. Also, existing brands play a role. Advances are likely to be lower for a book in an already-existing brand, especially if it's a strong brand. Although publishers certainly respect what the author brings to the table, the brand/series itself helps push some books along. With that in mind, the author generally has a harder time justifying a larger advance, especially if the existing series/brand is very formulaic, meaning the author is following pretty strict guidelines.
Posted by: Joe Wikert | April 18, 2005 at 09:30 PM
I'm not a "seasoned" author, but I'm about halfway done my first book. I know that my first offers, and the first offers for all my author friends on their first books were all in the 7-9K range.
I'm glad you clarified that though. I'd agree that 8-12K is fairly close to what I hear for a first book.
Posted by: Jeremy C. Wright | April 18, 2005 at 10:01 PM
Joe, you're spot in with computer and technical books. It's all a basic risk/reward equation and the idea is that authors should share the risk (which is why you typically get paid less than your hourly value for the writing process) and the reward (royalties that take your per-hour writing time and blow it through the stratosphere. Or at least hover a few feet above the floor :-) )
If you start with a $10k advance as a working figure and adjust it up if the author has a strong track record, has the ability to effectively market the book, if there's a growing interest in the subject, if there's an unusually aggressive writing schedule, etc. Then adjust it down if the author has a reputation for turning in poor prose, missing schedules, doesn't have a track record, or is writing about a subject that might be a bust. As you know, it's a *team* working on a book, and the author and publisher are just two of the players.
Oh, then roll a dice and multiply by the number of spots shown, toss a few darts at a board for a multiplier, and count the tea leaves in your teacup to get a final figure.
Oh! One more factor: is it a new book or a revision to a previous title? Revisions typically have lower payscales, in my experience, but they also require less work. Also, needless to say, some publishers are much more stingy about advances too, though I'm not going to name names here.
Remember also that savvy authors push to get the best possible advance, then push to get the best possible royalty terms: everything being equal, I'd take a flat 20% royalty against zero advance over a $15k advance and 7% royalty (yeah, like I'm ever going to see a flat 20%). Y'know what I mean? The other half of this discussion is definitely to talk about reasonable expectations of royalties.
A splendid, informative post, as always, Joe.
Posted by: Dave Taylor | April 19, 2005 at 12:16 AM
I would counsel new authors on a couple of larger issues.
First, Joe's accurate peg of the typical advance range represents a snapshot of the current computer-book publishing economy and overall economy. A track record is not as powerful (in my experience, anyway) as the economic tides. I received higher advances 5-8 years ago when I was a newer author. This means that in order to keep my overall income decent (though definitely not as high as during the booming 90s), I've had to deemphasize short-term royalties in my revenue mix, making up the difference elsewhere.
That brings up life-of-book issues. Or perhaps they should be called life-of-topic issues. A book's advance can be evaluated not only with speculation on the contract's back end (whether the advance will pay out; if and when you'll get more money; now much you'll get), but also by the possibility of future editions. That's more speculation, of course, but the point is to claim a *topic* within your series brand, not just a single book. Then try to own that topic in as many media and formats as possible to support not only the first-edition sales, but, ideally, keep the momentum going into subsequent editions. More than once I have made my most gratifying royalty checks on the surprising success of second editions. And advances on subsequent editions are almost always richer per hour of work than in first editions.
Think long! Try to regard the advance as a down payment on your long-term commitment to the topic. Broaden receptivity to opportunities that aren't directly tied to THE BOOK--doing so helps book sales. Publishing is ever-shifting; advances rise and fall; Ed Boards move in and out of buying moods; topics fade and come around again. In this wide-angle context, the advance can be a small, if important, piece of a big picture.
Oh -- and try to get the highest damn advance you can [smile].
Posted by: Brad Hill | April 19, 2005 at 09:09 AM
I'm glad I can link over to Joe's blog so I don't have to put any "real numbers" in my own!
Kidding aside, this entry pretty much sums up the editors' side in the Dummies world as well. The only comment I'd echo is one that Joe made in his follow-up: that average advances in strong series like Dummies probably come in a bit lower, but still within the ranges he gives.
Posted by: Steve Hayes | April 19, 2005 at 03:42 PM
This is really great. I'm considering authoring some books, so this is helpful. I have some questions though:
1) Are we talking advances for technical books or non-fiction in general?
2) Is it standard practice to take no advance in return for higher royalities? If so, what kinds of % are we talking about?
3) So if the average advance is $10k, what would be the average royalty in, say, a 2 year period?
Posted by: Todd Main | June 01, 2005 at 10:10 AM
Hi Todd. All my examples are for tech books, computer books specifically. I can't speak for other non-fiction titles. As far as it being a "standard practice" to take no advance for higher royalties, I'd say the answer is probably "no". I'm just tossing it out there as something an author should consider. There's probably no "average royalty" over a 2-year period. These fluctuate wildly depending on the topic, the royalty rate, the cover price, etc. One thing you could probably extrapolate from this though is that if the average advance for a book is $10K, and the publisher wants to earn that out in the first year, the total royalties for year #1 would be at least that much and even higher for year #2.
Posted by: Joe Wikert | June 01, 2005 at 05:02 PM
Thank you Joe!
Posted by: Todd Main | June 02, 2005 at 05:18 AM