Monday, October 01, 2012

Is it Money You Need? Really...?

The publishing world was all atwitter last week at the news that Penguin filed lawsuits with the New York Supreme Court against 12 authors. The publisher charges that the authors in question did not deliver the books they were contracted to write and demands the return of not only the advance for the books, but also a significant chunk of change for "interest" on the monies in question.

Ah, Ben. How I wish we were better acquainted...
In short, Penguin is trying to re-collect over $412,000 of advance money and tacking on an additional $138,500 for interest. Which begs several questions -- not the least of which is where the heck does Penguin invest, and how do I get me some of that action?

This will be interesting to watch play out. On the one hand, I firmly believe that if a writer signs a contract he or she cannot honor, any money advanced for the project in question should be returned. Writers rarely get paid enough for work they have done, let alone get paid for work they haven't. If you want to get paid for NOT doing stuff you said you would do, you should be in another profession. Like politics.

On the other, after extensive searching of my book-writing contracts, I find no mention of any "pay us back with interest" clause which my publisher could invoke if feeling especially pissy.

Oh, sure, there's language that says I'm obligated to turn in Project X that follows certain mutually-agreed-upon parameters and to do so at a mutually-agreed-upon time. Failure on my part would result in my being obligated to return the portion of the advance already paid out. But nowhere does my contract say anything about my responsibility to invest my advance in such a way as to afford my publisher a 20 - 33% return on it.

Every day, I read the blogs and tweets of writers who seem to believe that what they really need is a publisher to throw money at them, which will then make all their dreams come true. (Variations of this theme exist, beginning with "I need an agent" at one end of the spectrum and "When my book makes me rich and famous" at the other, but it is pervasive.)

What these writers don't realize is that book advance money doesn't buy you respectability, talent, or even a career. It merely buys you a little time. Occasionally (Praises be!) it puts food on your table and diapers on your kid's butt. More often, it's earmarked for things like publicity and promotion.

Advance money is a business partnership that makes you contractually obligated to get that book not just done, but done to the publisher's satisfaction. (If ghostwriting, make that "BOTH the expert's AND the publisher's satisfaction.")

It's also -- everyone involved hopes, with fingers crossed and breath bated -- money that will, if put to good use, prime the pump to spur sales so the book earns out its advance, thus (HAPPY DANCE ENSUES) earning both author and publisher more money.

So let me ask you... Right now, as far as your writing career is concerned: Is it money you need?


How would a five-figure advance impact your writing life in a meaningful, positive way? Would it make you take your career more seriously? If so, why? What would a sudden influx of cash allow you to do that you aren't already doing?

Would it make you more productive?

Would it make you more seriously approach growing a solid readership and fan base?

Would it make you write every dang day -- no excuses -- until that manuscript was pitch-perfect?

Would it make you feel validated as a writer? As if you had finally "made it?"

If you're saying Yes! Yes! A thousand times Yes! well butter my behind and call me a biscuit, but that's an awful lot of clout to give to a few pieces paper, innit?

Truth is, lack of money is often a crutch, a widely accepted excuse for not doing what one is perfectly able to do regardless of funding. A five-figure advance -- which includes all of the advances cited in the Penguin lawsuit -- isn't enough for a person to quit his or her day job. It's a nice shot in the arm of liquidity, true. But living advance to advance is still the writer's equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. Is that what you need?

Lest you misunderstand, I'm all in favor of advances. The bigger the better. Especially those that come on checks with my name written on them. They mean that a publisher has ponied up the dough, put a marketing team on alert, and is joining forces with me to get this book done.

But I'm equally in favor of small (or no) advances. They mean that as soon as the book starts selling, I start collecting royalties immediately instead of waiting for the book to earn out its advance.

I can't speak for all writers, but I don't need money to write a book. I'm perfectly happy to do the work first and then get paid. Big advances don't make me a successful writer any more than big diamonds make a successful marriage. Some of the work that I'm proudest of has earned far less than just fair-to-middling stuff I earned top dollar for.

I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't care if I got paid for my work. However, money is not what drives me. I daresay, it's not what drives most writers.

What, pray tell, drives you? What is it you need... really?


Matthew Wright said...

I’d rather have the advance, the bigger the better, because I can invest it (not, albeit at 30-33%) and have it earning money while I write, and also while the book is initially selling. Having a minimal advance with a royalty that dribbles in in six months after the first accounting period (itself usually 6-9 months after the book is published) doesn’t offer that opportunity. I don’t say this because I regard an advance as a validation mechanism, but because the practical reality for those of us who write professionally is that it is an occupation – even a part-time one, for most of us - and it is reasonable to expect that there will be an income attached to it, just as there is an income for any occupation. The problem is that this income is never very much, and I am not myself aware of many writers – certainly not here in New Zealand – who have managed to make a living doing only that.

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for commenting. Advances are great (I rarely turn them down) but if given the choice between a big advance w/ standard royalty and a small -- or no -- advance w/ a higher royalty rate, in many cases I'd seriously consider the second option. In any case, I completely agree w/ you that "this income is never very much." Guess that proves as much as anything that most writers aren't in it for the moola...