This post, from NYT bestselling author John Green, originally appeared on his Sparks Fly Up site on 7/7/09.
Okay, quick background: Last week I wrote a post arguing against outrageously high book advances and in favor of better royalties for authors. I followed this up with a post arguing that the widely held belief that big advances cause big marketing budgets does not really hold up to scrutiny. (Big advances and big marketing budgets are obviously often correlated, but that does not imply any kind of causal relationship.)
Then I promised a mathy post explaining to publishers why this model makes more sense for them, after which I decided that my numbers were perhaps not as lock-solid as I previously believed them to be, so I decided not to publish that post.
For the record:
1. One thing that keeps getting overlooked here is that many big publishers would currently be OUT OF BUSINESS if they were not owned by gigantic media companies that can absorb the losses of their idiotic up-front gambling. It’s not like I’m fretting about some on-the-horizon crisis in publishing; the crisis is here. The model is not working, and it isn’t changing, which historically bodes poorly. (I’m looking at you, record companies.)
2. That said, my radical proposal was wrong enough to be relatively easy to dismiss. But if you lower advances and increase royalty escalations dramatically (at least according to my calculations which might be wrong because I am bad at math), over the last five years EVERY SINGLE PUBLISHER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE EFFING WORLD would either be more profitable or lose less money except maybe Hachette.* So I just want to make it clear that I am not backing away from that fundamental belief.
3. The comments to these posts have been fascinating and wonderful and I am deeply grateful to all of you for them.
4. I wanted to pull one comment out and respond to it in pieces, because it raises a lot of important questions and also brings forth the obvious but as-yet-unstated fact that I am writing from a particular POV. So okay, from commenter writeon:
"If (like most authors) the only money you’d be making from a book is the advance (since most books don’t earn out their advance or stay on shelves long enough to make royalties) why on earth would an author want to turn down money?"
I want to make it clear that I am not arguing against advances. My beef is not with $30,000 advances for books that might only earn $20,000 back. My beef is with $500,000 advances for books that might only earn $20,000 back.
The reason to take less money upfront and get more in royalties is pretty simple, I think: Your publisher is owned by a company that wants to make money. So long as you make money, you make sense. If you don’t make money, you don’t make sense.**
"Authors don’t have a crystal ball where they can see into the future and say, "Well, in three years I’ll come up with this Book X which will make me money, so, for right now I can sell Book Y and Z for pennies."
Again, I’m not proposing you sell any book for pennies; I’m proposing that you sell a book for a reasonable five-figure advance and the kind of escalating royalty that allows you to share fairly in the profits from the book, if there are any.
"Most authors don’t know if they’ll get the chance to publish another book. They can’t count on publishers doing anymore than putting their book in a catalogue as their ‘marketing.’ You want THAT author to turn down money?"
Probably not, because that author probably hasn’t been offered a huge advance. But I think that author is mistaken if s/he thinks that an antagonistic relationship with publisher will help get the book to its audience.
** But to expand on that a bit: You have to begin with the (reasonable) assumption that your publisher wants to make money and would not have acquired your book if they did not feel that it could be profitable. It may be that they think it can only be profitable if they don’t pay to hand out galleys at ALA, which is disappointing and annoying and etc., but it’s irrational to assume from the outset that your publisher wishes to lose money on your book.