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On Bucks and Book Publishing

This week I have a guest post by Sin and Syntax author Constance Hale. Constance is the author of two popular books on language and is currently working on a third, to be published by W. W. Norton. She also writes for national magazines and edits books for Harvard Business Press and private clients. She is a member of The Prose Doctors and works at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. A version of this essay also appears in the Sin and Syntax Salon, at

A Writer/Editor on the Reality of Royalties

If you’re thinking about writing books, it’s helpful to know some of the basics about how much money to expect, how advances work, and when—if ever—you’ll collect royalties. There’s much confusion out there, especially since all we generally read in the press is that Sarah Palin got $5 million for her book, Barack Obama $500,000 for his. Or that “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua received an advance “in the high six figures” for her controversial memoir on child-rearing.

I did some quick research, added to it what I know from my own experiences as an author and editor, then ran this summary by a few agents and editors to make sure it’s sound.

For starters, forget that $5 million advance. Most first-time book authors are lucky to get $50,000. (And at a small house or academic press, $5,000.) Any advance that is six figures is considered strong, tiger mother or no. In these tentative times, you have to be a pretty big celebrity—or an author who’s already got a track record of producing bestsellers—to earn in the sevens.

What’s more, that advance doesn’t all come at the front-end, and it’s shared with an agent. Read on….

An advance is actually an “advance against royalties”: A publisher gives you money when you sign a contract to produce a book, but you have to earn that money back through book sales before you start earning additional money from royalties.

Suppose your book will be published in hardcover and will sell for $20. If your royalty is 10 percent you will get $2 per copy sold. If you get a $10,000 advance, you will need to sell 5,000 copies before the book “earns out” and you start to receive additional royalties.

The amount of the advance is based on how many books a publisher thinks it can sell. Classically, an advance reflected a book’s earning potential in the first year, less costs to the publisher (for designing the cover, paying for paper, printing, binding, shipping—not to mention marketing and publicity). This isn’t always true any more.

Advances are almost never paid out all at once. Traditionally, half of the agreed upon amount was paid on signing the contract, with the other half due once the revised manuscript was delivered and accepted by the editor. In recent years, publishers have often been dividing payments into thirds, payable one-third on signature of the contract, one-third on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and one-third on publication. (On my latest book, my agent negotiated one-half upfront, then one-quarter on acceptance and one-quarter on publication.) More and more payments are being divided into even smaller chunks, perhaps with a another portion of the advance payable when, for instance, a paperback edition gets published.

Authors agree to accept as payment for writing and delivering a book either a percentage (royalties) of the profits from the book’s eventual sales, or else a straight flat fee (work for hire).

Under a standard book-publishing contract, authors earn a royalty on each book sold. Hardback royalties on the published price (list price) of trade books usually range from 10 to 15 percent. On trade paperbacks it is usually 7.5.

An “escalator” means that the royalty rate rises after an agreed sales threshold has been reached; for example, the royalty might be 10 percent for the first 5,000 copies, 12.5 percent up for the next 5,000 copies, and 15 percent thereafter. Royalties for special sales—books sold at special prices—may be lower, e-book royalties higher.

Some publishers may offer lower royalties by basing them on the “published price” rather than the “price received”—i.e., a percentage of the publisher’s receipts from booksellers, which is usually much lower.

Work for hire
In certain cases, a publisher may approach you to write a particular book or part of a text on a payment-only basis or as a work for hire. In these cases you will not receive royalties and you may not even hold the copyright.

Different publishing houses, different books, different advances
Most of the books we see in bookstores and on bestseller lists come from what we call ‘trade’, or general, publishing. But there is also academic publishing, professional publishing, and educational publishing.
Manuscripts may be printed in hardcover, trade paper, or mass-market editions. And then there are e-books. Whether a book is published as one or the other is determined by other books on the market, review potential, the concept and intended audience, and the quality of the writing. Sometimes paperback rights are sold separately–even to another publisher.

In academic, educational, and professional publishing, advances are small to paltry, and royalty rates tend to be lower than those for general trade titles; the payoff may be in robust sales for a built-in audience. In trade publishing, advances to authors are standard, but not the huge advances that attract headlines, especially for first-time authors.

Titles with color illustrations integrated throughout may have lower royalties because of the higher production costs.

The fine print
Almost all traditional publishers issue royalty statements every six months. This means that almost all authors are paid only twice a year and then only if their advances have earned out and there are royalties owed to them. Further, even if their advances have earned out, authors still never know how much money, if any, they will receive during any given pay period. This is because, usually, until receipt of the royalty statements, they never know how many books they have actually sold, or what reserve against returns is being held by the publisher for that pay period.

Reserves against returns: Unlike most merchandise, creative works like books and CDs are sold on a returnable basis. That means that if a retail bookstore orders 100 copies of an author’s book and doesn’t sell any of them, then the bookstore can return all 100 copies to the publisher, for credit—which the publisher charges back against the author’s royalties, as well. (Mass-market paperback books have only their covers stripped and returned, while the books themselves are required to be destroyed. Sales of these stripped books are illegal.)

In order to avoid overpaying the author, the publisher will withhold a percentage of the author’s royalties against returns. These returns tend to be higher at the outset, as reserves usually taper off during a book’s life. If, for instance, unsold books are being returned to the publisher at a rate of 50 percent—meaning that out of 100,000 books shipped to retail bookstores and wholesalers (who also stock outlets such as supermarkets), 50,000 books have already been returned unsold—then the publisher may withhold 50 percent of the author’s royalties, as a reserve against returns. (The amount of the reserve is determined by the publisher.)

Subsidiary rights: The licensing a book for foreign markets, magazines, movies, etc.) will increase an author’s income for it. However, there is no guarantee that a book will ever produce any sub-rights income.

Royalties are paid only on the sales of new books. Under current copyright law, authors earn no royalties whatsoever from the sales of used books, no matter how many times the used books are resold.

12 comments to On Bucks and Book Publishing

  • A very thorough explanation! Excellent. My thoughts: I'd rather not get an advance. What's the point? I wouldn't dare spend the money anyway until the books actually sold. At least, this is the way I see it. I think it was Orson Scott Card or it might have been Stephen King who said: If you want to earn money, there are easier and better ways to do it than writing books! But we writers like to write, so we write and hope that one day we'll have a published book and an audience.

  • Oh, haha, I definitely want an advance. But I have heard arguments for why authors shouldn't necessarily push for super-high advances, and instead be happy with low/average ones and then wait for royalties. I think those details would be things I would discuss with an agent, though, and could probably even change from contract to contract.

    Thanks for the great overview!

  • Kittie Howard

    Thanks for some great info, Megan. I think I'd pass on an advance as it's too much like a squiggly loan. I've met authors at confabs who've cautioned never to take an advance.

  • I don't know how to produce great books without some advance to live on while writing and researching, and publishers rarely expect writers to return an advance if we make a good faith effort to give them what they acquired. So I'm not advocating that writers forgo advances.

    But: It can be better to get a modest advance and earn out (ie, to surprise the publisher with "a sleeper" that earns everyone money) than to get a large advance and end up with a "midl-list" title one that sells a respectable number but not enough to pay the publishing house back its investment.

  • This is fantastic information. Thanks, Constance and Meghan, for addressing this. The other comments about not wanting an advance are interesting indeed.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Meghan Ward, Meghan Ward. Meghan Ward said: Today on Writerland: Sin and Syntax author Constance Hale on the reality of royalties: […]

  • Ann and Kittie – Thanks for your comments. I agree with Kristan – I want an advance! And I'm so glad Connie chimed in on this one to say that a moderate advance is probably better than a huge advance. THAT SAID, I asked a group of published authors if they would TURN DOWN a large advance if offered one and not one of them said yes. (My favorite response was, "That's a problem I'd like to have.") I mean, realistically, if you were offered $200,000, would you say NO? Not I. But those who get $25,000-$50,000 or less may sleep better knowing that they are more likely to earn out.

  • Of course you should take the big advance! (Although I've known authors to take a slightly smaller advance for a better editor and/or publishing house that really will promote the heck out of their books.) And put some of the money toward hiring a publicist. Whatever your advance, though, you can and should do whatever you can to influence *sales*, which are more important to your future than one advance amount. But the MOST important thing to your future is to write a great book that merits attention.

  • Wow! What an informative post! Regarding the advance questions, I can really see the benefits of a modest advance.

    Thanks, Constance and Meghan!

  • Thank you, Dawn, for stopping by!

  • Abigail Baird

    thank you for this blog– SUPER informative and helpful!!