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advances - what they are really made of

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Inspired by Scalzi, I'm going to talk about money.... Specifically, what the general standards are regarding advances.

In this scenario, a debut author has sold a completed manuscript for $10,000 (an average opening advance in adult fiction tends to be between $5-15K). Now, the dictionary defintion of advance is: "to supply beforehand; furnish on credit or before goods are delivered or work is done." In olden days, the advance was the money the author lived on while they wrote the book. Of course, in the case of a debut author, the book is written on speculation, but even for previously published authors, only a small portion of the money is now paid when the contract is signed. In the contract, the author and publisher will agree to a payout AKA when the author gets paid different portions of the advance.

Until recently, it was mostly typical to have an advance due half on signing the contract and half on delivery and acceptance. Now many publishers have added a payment due on publication (in really big advances, this can even include advances on hardcover and mass market publication separately). And in a multiple book contract, there can also be advances due on delivery of partial manuscripts. The reason I emphasized "on acceptance" above is that the editor has to read your book and approve any editorial requirements before it's considered delivered. Given the workload of most editors of my acquaintance, this can be a highly variable period. So, let's look at an example, cobbled together from a few debut novels that I sold in the last couple years, and I'll add a timeline so a person can see why planning a budget for writing income and not spending it before it arrives (you'd be surprised how often I hear this one) are essential:

7/17/2007 Offer recd - Advance: $10,000
8/13/2007 Contract recd by agent (usually at least 30 days have elapsed)
8/17/2007 Vetted contract (with points negotiated) sent to author for signature
9/5/2007 Contract recd from author and returned to publisher
10/4/2007 Countersigned contract and payment recd by agent
10/10/2007 Signing payment of $4000 (minus commission) sent to author
11/19/2007 Revised manuscript (which author and editor have been working on since the offer was recd) is approved
1/8/2008 Delivery payment of $4000 recd by agent
1/11/2008 Delivery payment (less commission) sent to author
10/7/2008 Book published
10/21/2008 Publication payment of $2000 recd by agent
10/24/2008 Publication payment (less commission) sent to author

From the time the offer was received to the time the author was paid the full advance, you can see that 15 months have elapsed, and that was with very prompt editorial revisions on the part of both the editor and the author, and really nice turnarounds on the agent's part for payments. Here are some other factors to consider:

Commission - typically 15%, so the payments the author received are $3400, $3400, $1700 (total: $8500)
Taxes - writers are considered self-employed and have to pay quarterly taxes, so that $8500 net earning gets even smaller (but I am not a tax accountant so I'll leave that to someone else).
Costs of Writing - supplies, conventions, time, etc. - some of which is deductible but all of which requires investment

So, what's your net income per month for this grand endeavor? Probably not enough to pay your rent. See Justine Larbalestier's post on First Novel Advances or Tobias Buckell's Author Advance Survey. Do I mean to be discouraging? Heck, no. I pay my rent from this too (and it can take a lot of sales at 15% minus taxes to make the rent). But I believe a writer should have a realistic expectation instead of dreaming of those 6-figure deals (which happen, but not so very often). So often I hear writers (and other creative types) putting forth the idea that dealing with money somehow detracts from their artistic and creative persona. But a girl's gotta eat buy books.

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Jennifer Jackson
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