Advances And Royalties: The Business End Of Writing

This post, from mainstream-published author Susan Beth Pfeffer, originally appeared on her blog on 6/23/09.

I was wandering around the Yahoo listings for the dead and the gone, when I found its official Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback publication information. Publication is indeed Jan. 18, 2010, but what I didn’t know was that its price is anticipated to be $7.99. That’s a dollar more than the paperback of Life As We Knew It, which means that every paperback d&g sells will earn me 6 cents more than a LAWKI paperback.

I figured I’d be safe sharing this information with you, since you’d be unlikely to hit me up for a 6 cent loan.

It occurred to me after I decided to make the 6 cent announcement that there are people who read this blog who may not know how writers get paid (not enough and certainly not often enough, but that’s a whole other entry). So for those of you who are interested, here are the basics of how it works, using LAWKI as the example.

When I wrote LAWKI, I gave my agent the manuscript to sell. That’s called writing a book on spec (short for speculation). Neither my agent nor I knew if any publisher would be interested in buying it (when I wrote the dead and the gone, and This World We Live In, I got a contract before writing the books). My agent gets 15% of every penny I earn from these books, so it’s in her best interest to sell them.

Harcourt agreed to buy LAWKI, and offered me a $20,000 advance. For that money, they were given the right to publish the book in hardcover and paperback, and to make some additional money by selling some of the subsidiary rights, which they did, selling to both the Junior Library Guild and Scholastic some reprint rights (HMH gets half that money; I get the other half, after my agent gets her 15%).

An advance is called an advance because it’s an advance on future royalties. Once the publisher gives you the advance, they can’t get the money back, no matter how hard they beg. So I got the $20,000 minus 15% (that’s $17,000; I can multiply anything by 15%), gave Internal Revenue its share, and kept the rest to pay rent and gas and electricity and groceries, etc. Since the book was already written, Harcourt pretty much paid me the whole amount at once; with d&g and TW, I got half on signing the contract and the other half after Harcourt decided the manuscript was ready for publication (I’m currently waiting for the second half of the advance for TW).

I get a 10% royalty on the LAWKI hardcover. That means I get 10% of what the list price ($17) of the book is: $1.70 for every book sold, after I earned back the original $20,000. Because of the sale to the Junior Library Guild, I knew that meant as soon as the hardcover sold 10,000 copies, I would start earning royalties. That happened almost immediately, so I’ve been earning royalties on LAWKI since shortly after its publication. I have no idea why they’re called royalties, since most writers earn less than the average medieval peasant.

Royalties get paid twice a year. The publisher keeps track of how many copies of the book are sold, multiplies the total by the percentage the writer gets (10% for hardcovers, 6% for paperbacks), sends the total amount to the agent, who takes her 15% and sends the rest to the writer, who’s been going crazy waiting for the check to arrive. It used to be I never knew how much money (if any) to expect, but nowadays I can ask what the sales numbers are, so I have a far better sense of how big (or small) the check will be. This definitely cuts down on the stress.

Read the rest of the post on Susan Beth Pfeffer’s blog.