Greatest Hits: In Defense of a Less Than Huge Advance
Michelle Wolfson formed Wolfson Literary Agency in 2007 and is actively seeking authors of commercial fiction in the following categories: young adult, mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, and thrillers. She is drawn to well written material with strong interesting characters.
Michelle holds a BA from Dartmouth College and an MBA from New York University. Prior to forming her own agency, Michelle spent four years working at other literary agencies. Before that, she spent several years working outside of publishing, in non-profit and then finance, and she brings the skills she learned there plus a lifetime love of reading to the table as an agent.
So there’s an expression I’ve become familiar with since I’ve rejoined the nursery school set (this time as a mom although I have to say the kid part looks like more fun), and it goes like this: You get what you get and you don’t get upset. When I was asked to do this post in defense of the Less Than Huge (LTH) advance, that expression popped into my head for what may or may not be obvious reasons.
There are posts that will walk you through fancy math calculations but this isn’t that post. And the truth is, everyone has their own definition of what constitutes a Huge or an LTH advance. What may seem like a lot of money to one person may be peanuts to another, and what may be a lot of money to that second person, may still be nothing to a large publishing company. So for the purposes of this post, I am not using numbers and will just say huge or LTH advance, and will talk about what that means for you, regardless of the actual dollar amounts.
So what does it mean for you, this LTH advance as a debut author? Well, the common school of thought is that it means that the publisher isn’t going to spend enough on marketing or publicity in order to support your book. Well I’m going to let you in on a secret here. The publisher is nevergoing to spend enough on marketing or publicity to support your book. That’s right, I’m saying that no matter how much a publisher spends, it is never enough, it could always be more, and someone else will always be getting something that you are not.
So should we all just meet at a bar and curse our bad luck? Well, we could, but that’s not going to do anything to change your luck and you are in charge of that. You can make a difference in your sales whether your advance was $1 or $1 million. Readers don’t care. They just want to find good books. So you can start by delivering a good book. And then by helping readers find it. And that means readers have to know you.
I can’t possibly be the first person to tell you that much more than ever before, readers want to know their authors, so it is important to build your audience now. Blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc. These are things you can and should do whether you received a huge advance or an LTH advance because this will help you increase sales. You can moan about this burden that has been placed on you or you can jump up and down at this opportunity that you have. And I know there are other posts and workshops on these topics at this conference and around the web — building a brand, etc. — so I’m not going to talk about how to do it, just that it is essential that you do it no matter what the size of your advance. We will call all you followers of the Brand Bandwagon, Smart Authors.
What I want to talk about now, are the advantages to an LTH advance. Because there really are some.
Is that a royalty check I see?
So Smart Author with an LTH advance, guess what? You probably earned out your advance! Congratulations! That makes you much beloved in the eyes of your editor, publisher, agent, and everyone else who comes into contact with you throughout the process. You have officially made money for everyone involved. Was it huge advance money? Maybe not. But it may get there soon at the royalty end of things. Which is a much happier place to be than the red ink side of the accounting books.
Once upon a time publishers invested in author careers. But they did it with small advances. They gave those authors time to build an audience and become a success, even if it took more than one book. I believe that some publishers, particularly ones that consistently pay low advances for genre titles, are still interested in building authors’ careers. And by that, I mean building a career with a Smart Author who does more self-promotion than they had to 30 years ago, maybe more than they should have to, but sucks it up and does it with a smile all the same. There is a place in publishing for authors who wade into the pool and when they get to the middle they jump around and make a big splash, versus only those who run and do a cannonball off the side. At least this way you don’t find out mid-cannonball that they drained the pool last week.
Oh, the pressure!
Let’s face it, a big advance comes with big pressure. Fine, maybe you have some extra cash to pay for a massage once in a while, but that’s still a lot of extra stress. When expectations are low, you have a great opportunity to wow people. Companies have made fortunes out of the under-promise, over-deliver motto, and that’s the opportunity you have before you. How many times have you seen a movie or read a book that was hyped to death and you’ve thought well, I might have enjoyed this if I’d read it before all the hype? Hype can be great, but hype can kill. Embrace your status as the dark horse and then stun everyone with your victory.
Take 2 or 3
So what about the expectations from your publisher? With a huge advance, there are two options: earn out or disappear. I suppose option 3 is undergo extensive plastic surgery to alter your appearance and change your name before you even think about writing another book. But basically, if you receive a huge advance for your first book and then it tanks, no one will want to come near you. If you have an LTH advance, the bar is set much lower. Yes, there are still expectations, but even if you don’t meet them, your career might not be over. First of all, not meeting them might still mean you came close to earning out. Or might mean you earned out but just didn’t sell as many copies as they would have liked. My point is, you aren’t quite the publishing pariah that you might otherwise be. You may still have a chance to write and publish another book. To build your career as an author.
Monkey in the middle or on my back?
So I actually think there’s a middle level which is in some ways the most difficult advance to overcome. This is the advance where the dollar amount is significant to an individual (the author), yet still not really significant to a corporation (the publisher). You could call this the Faux Big advance. A book still has to sell reasonably well to earn out an advance at this level, yet authors are often under the illusion that they will receive more publisher support than they actually do. They are lulled into this false sense of importance that is not shared by the publisher, and it might lead them to do less self-promotion than they would have if they’d received a true LTH advance. On the other hand, a true Smart Author, as defined above, won’t fall into this trap since you will recall that Smart Authors always take on the responsibility for building their own brand. But this is another trap of a bigger than small advance.
So should you call your agent and ask her to negotiate the smallest advance possible? Is there a perfect size advance?? No and no. It is only natural to want the biggest advance you can get. And nothing I say here is going to change that, nor should it. There are definite advantages to a huge advance, but as stated above, there are some advantages to an LTH advance as well. So…
You get what you get and you don’t get upset.
Oh, and also, you put your head down and market the heck out of yourself and your book because no one wants this as much as you do.
Editor’s note: Much of the old conferences’ material has sadly faded from the internet, so we’re bringing back the greatest hits! This post (originally from AUGUST 10, 2010) is one in a series of best events from previous years. Enjoy!