This piece, by Jim C. Hines, originally appeared on his blog on 4/29/09. In it, Mr. Hines looks at what it takes for a mainstream author’s book to "earn out" its advance—and why big advances aren’t necessarily a good thing for authors.
Publishers and authors tend to keep actual numbers under wraps when it comes to print runs and books sold. As a result, new authors are often clueless as to what’s normal.
I know I was completely lost the first time I saw actual numbers for Goblin Quest. Was my book selling well? Was I going to get dumped if I didn’t sell 100,000 books in the first year? How many books did my publisher actually print?
I don’t actually know what my print runs have been. I have some guesses, but nothing from the publisher. But then I got to thinking…
We know the median first novel advance for a SF/F author is probably around $5000 or so. That’s the boilerplate first offer I got from Baen (which then fell through, but that’s another story). Average is a little higher than the median, but I’m going to stick with $5000 for ease of math.
We also know not all novels earn out their advance, especially first novels. $5000 is a best-guess on the part of the publisher as to how much they should invest in your new book.
Sticking purely with mass market paperbacks for the moment, let’s say you get royalties at 8% (fairly standard but not universal for an original mass market, I believe) and a cover price of $7.99 (also standard U.S. cover price for mass markets). So you’re earning $.64 per book.
Juggle the numbers, and a $5000 advance means you’re going to need to sell roughly 8,000 books (7,812.5) in order to earn out. In my case, I’d guess the publisher probably did a print run between 10,000 and 15,000 books, but that’s a total guess, and hopefully more experienced publishing folks can speak to that piece.
(ETA: ramblin_phyl points out that there’s also a break-even point in the cost-efficiency of first print runs, which might mean the numbers on that run were a little higher.)
Hardcovers and e-books add more variables, as the royalties are different, but I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible for this example.