I was delighted to gatecrash Ian W Sainsbury’s Friday night chat last week. We discussed Alpha/Beta Readers, book covers, Facebook Groups, the joy of editors, the wonders of notebooks, Ursula Le Guin and why whenever Ian hears my voice he thinks of dog poo…
There’s been all kinds of scuttlebutt online regarding a blog piece by the author Heather Demetrious on how she burned through book advances of several hundred thousand dollars and ended up back working in a day job. I’m simplifying her story massively here, so do give it a read.
It’s a fascinating and honest piece, for which she has received all kinds of sneering abuse online, most surprisingly from other authors. At the root of this is an assumption that she should have known what an advance was, how royalties work, and have an understanding of publishing practices that, frankly, are a bit weird and arcane.
Publishing is an industry that has been slow to progress in many ways. It’s still very white and middle/upper class, and the people you work with will assume you’ve been to the same private schools and universities and that we all read the trade magazines and publishing news feeds.
And, like me and Heather, if you come from a working class background you can throw in a feeling of imposter syndrome when you mix with publishing types. And that can mean you’re afraid to ask even the most basic questions. Here’s the thing…
NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK A STUPID QUESTION
DON’T STOP ASKING STUPID QUESTIONS UNTIL YOU GET ANSWERS THAT MAKES SENSE
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”Einstein
Here for you, dear reader, is a quick rundown of some of the terminology associated with publishing advances…
This is a sum of money paid to an author in advance of the publication of the book. It is usually paid in three stages: on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication.
It is NOT a salary.
Payment will come through your agent (if you have one) and they will deduct their commission, which can be from 10-20%.
Then, like all income, you will have to pay tax on what remains. If, like me, you’re baffled by taxes I would advise getting financial advice to help with your tax return.
Here’s the big thing to bear in mind… You will not receive any further money from the publisher until your advance has been “earned out”. So what the hell does that mean?
Think of your advance as a debt to the publisher. If they’ve given you ten thousand pounds in advance, you need to pay that ten grand back before they give you any more in royalties (we’ll come to those in a minute).
How do you do that? Simple. Sell enough books to cover the advance. Ideally, you should do that in the first twelve months after publication.
This is harder than you might think. If books are going to sell they need to be marketed and promoted and that will mean heavy discounting. If your eBook is selling for 99p in Kindle promotions it will take longer to earn out that advance. If your eBook is on sale for £9.99 and not being promoted then the chances are it’s not selling that many copies at all.
You see the problem here.
Very few books earn out in the first twelve months after publication.
But let’s say you do – woohoo! – now it’s time to earn some…
These are the payments you earn from book sales once you have earned out your advance. They are usually paid twice a year.
Twice a year.
Not monthly, like a salary.
Twice a bloody year.
And the payment will be accompanied by the most baffling document in written history: The Royalty Statement.
Ask your agent (or, if you don’t have an agent, contact the Society of Authors) to explain what it all means, and make sure they check it because it will almost certainly be wrong. My agent discovered an error in my last statement with VAT payments on eBooks and got me an additional £300.
Twice a year.
THE CURSE OF THE BIG ADVANCE
Advances are changing. It used to be a spectrum based on predicted sales, now it’s all or nothing: huge advances or piddly little ones. Publishers used to be a bit rubbish at predicting sales, because it was usually done solely by the editor based on little more than their enthusiasm for the book. While this was all very admirable, it wasn’t terribly scientific and led to huge advances for authors who had no bloody chance of earning out. For example…
Case Study 1: Debut author of a literary fiction masterpiece gets half a million quid for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. The book gets some buzz, but ultimately fails to sell more than a few thousand copies. That author now has a ton of red ink in their profit and loss statement. The author still has the advance (yay!), but the publisher now sees them as an expensive loss and writes them off. The next book is either rejected, or the advance is tiny in comparison to book one. The author’s career never recovers.
These days the advances are calculated by an unholy cabal of sales, editorial, rights, production and marketing and they’ve become a lot better at using data to predict sales. And their predictions err on the cautious.
But… this does mean that if they’re willing to give you a big advance that they’re far more more confident that it will earn out. For example…
Case Study 2: Debut author of a commercial thriller gets half a million quid for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. Because the sales, rights and marketing departments were involved in calculating the advance they are more engaged when they sell it in. The buzz is great, and the rights are sold all over the world, including the movie rights. A miracle! This means the book has earned out its advance before it’s even published! Every book sold will earn the author a royalty and for the next deal they will be able to to negotiate a higher advance. Hurrah!
The above is an unusual outcome, but it does happen. Publishers need a handful of these every year, otherwise they would go out of business.
However, here’s what most deals are like these days…
Case Study 3: Debut author of a genre book gets a few grand for world rights in advance for a book that the editor is head-over-heels in love with. Because the sales, rights and marketing departments were involved in calculating the advance they are more engaged when they sell it in, but… they also have that commercial thriller with the big advance at the top of their priority list, so they give less attention to the genre book with the small advance. The author has to work harder to get publicity and marketing, they pay out of their own pocket to go to festivals, and have to write the second book while holding down a day job and bringing up a family. The rights are sold to France and Germany for a small amount. No one buys the film rights. But… after twelve months the book earns out and over five to ten years the author slowly builds a profitable and credible career.
No one said this would be easy, and you should not give up on your dream of becoming a full-time author, but the odds are it will be a long journey with all kinds of ups and downs. My advice is to keep writing and never, ever be afraid to ask for advice. Speaking of which…
I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty-five years and I offer all kinds of bespoke services for writers, from reader reports to full edits. Drop me a line here for a free consultation.
I’m now fully rested after a week or so off from the usual routine of commute/write/day job/commute/write/fall asleep in front of the TV. The family and I explored Kent, the county we moved to a little over a year ago. We found castles, wind farms, sea forts, crypts, a submarine, a shell grotto, and an ossuary with skulls lining the walls:
For more photos pop over to my Instagram here.
The podcast continues, however, and we’ve had some cracking episodes. I talk about determination with Cally Taylor, we had a very lively Youtube Live Show with my agent Ed Wilson where we talked very frankly about authors’ earnings and where all the money really goes, and last week we had Sam Missingham on a show entitled A Massive Boot Up The Arse For Publishing, which got an amazing reaction online.
The Deep Dive episodes for Patreon supporters continue with Federica Leonardis and I talking about romcoms, and Julian Barr joining me on an epic three parter to look at The Hero’s Journey.
I was back on BBC Radio Kent with Dominic King, where we talked about authors’ income (it’s the hot topic, dontcha know!), crowdfunding, and the RNA Conference. Click here to listen and skip forward to the 2 hour 12 min point.
And if you’re feeling stuck, here’s an excellent video from award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick on writers’ block. I think we can all find something useful here:
Until next time!
We had the fantastic thriller writer Isabel Ashdownon the Bestseller Experiment podcast this week. Isabel is the author of bestselling thrillers Little Sister and Beautiful Liars, and she walked away from a successful career to focus on her writing and it all stepped up a gear when she entered a competition in a newspaper. I was also joined by stand-in co-host Sam Eades who is always good fun and does a mean jigsaw… You can listen to the podcast here.
Like many science fiction and fantasy authors out there, I found myself sighing in despair at this comment from Liz Thomson in the Bookseller. I am beyond proud to have been published by Gollancz, and I realise that this kind snobbery exists, but you expect better from Liz (who’s always been very chatty and friendly whenever I’ve met her) and the Bookseller, a publication that should celebrate all publishing regarding of genre. Sigh…
And a quick update on my fantasy novel The End of Magic– it’s now 80% funded over at Unbound, so it’s not too late to pledge to join the adventure and get your name in the book along with some other cool extras. Click here for more info.
Till next time, happy writing!
On this week’s Bestseller Experiment podcast I spoke to Ghostwriter Roz Morris, who gives a very thorough breakdown of how a ghostwriter works, and also describes a fun way of developing story ideas that involves scraps of paper and a box.
Mark Desvaux has had to bow out of the podcast for a few episodes due to a family illness, so I was ably assisted by Jenn McMenemy who, as well being on the podcast as a guest previously, has also launched her own podcast Ancient History Fangirl, which is huge fun and proves once again that history is a great resource for writers.
This week’s Deep Dive podcast is a cracker, looking into audiobooks, the fastest growing sector of publishing. We talk to Orion Audio’s Paul Stark about mainstream audiobook publishing, and we also get contributions from indie authors Jo Ho and Michael R Miller. It’s choc full of ready detailed info, so if you’re not a Patreon supporter pop over to our Patreon page and get on board!
And finally, at the time of writing I’m 59% funded on my book The End of Magic. A thousand thanks to everyone who’s pledged so far, and if you haven’t joined the adventure yet, why not be the hero who nudges me over to 60%? Click here and hit the blue pledge button.
Till next time, happy writing!
We had the amazing Cass Green on the podcast this week and one of the things we touched on was the “Therefore, but…” rule for writers as explained by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone in this vid.
We also discussed a recent blog by Mark Chadbourn on how writers should be looking for not one, but multiple streams of income to pay the rent. It’s a fascinating piece, and could well change your life!
And we were delighted to see the podcast featured on Buzzfeed as one of the podcast you NEED to start listening to in 2018. Buzzfeed! My kids were actually impressed for about 30 seconds…
And stay tuned for some big news on an exciting new project!
Oh, and my first book Robot Overlords is in the UK Kindle half-term sale. Thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy so far. If you haven’t you can grab a copy for only 99p now!
I’m often stopped in the street and asked, “Hey, Mark. How do those Youtube live show thingies work on the podcast? They look so much fun. How can I get involved, man?”
And I say, “Dude, it’s an exclusive for our Patreon thingy supporters. They get first dibs on all sorts of cool stuff, like the Youtube live shows where they can ask me and Mr. D questions about writing and publishing and stuff, and interact with us via the miracle medium of the Youtubes. We talked about how long your project should be, how to find other writers who will give you feedback, the kinds of deals a debut author can expect from a publishers and tips on building your mailing list, and there’s a whole long debate about swearing. It’s a fuckin’ gas, baby.”
“But can’t I just download the edited highlights a week later on the podcast?”
“Yeah, and that’s a stone groove, but nothing beats actually being there, and you get live pictures on the Youtube and sometimes people get naked.”
PS. We wrote a book. You might like it. Others do…
We had the brilliant and all round lovely author Lara Dearman on the podcast this week. Lara is a debut novelist who has gone from community college courses to a major publishing deal with her book The Devil’s Claw. It’s an inspirational listen and I know Lara will go on to great things. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW
Also have a listen to this week’s Deep Dive, where Mr. D and I discuss the topics brought up by our chat with Lara, and I reveal my true feelings about Enid Blyton. CLICK HERE for a wee snippet.
If you liked that episode and want some more, we’ve started having post-podcast deep dive discussions for our Patreon supporters. You can support us and get the extra content here.
And if you’re looking for something new to read in 2018, then grab a copy of our novel Back to Reality on Kindle now!
I had not one but two agents at this very early stage of my writing career (that word still makes me look over my shoulder to check that no one’s sniggering at me). I met my first literary agent at a networking event at Waterstone’s Piccadilly called ‘The Film World Meets The Book World’ (I think). I can’t remember how I heard about it, but I knew that I had to go as there would be agents and film producers and people who would surely see my colossal writing genius for what it was and insist on flying me out to Hollywood to introduce me to Mr. Spielberg that very weekend… I’m nothing if not optimistic.
Like many British people I can find it difficult just introducing myself to strangers for no reason other than personal gain (or “networking” as it’s known) and like many aspiring writers I found it borderline fraudulent to introduce myself as a writer at a time when I’d only written and staged a handful of plays. But one of the most important lessons I had learned from my failed career as an actor is that no one will knock on your front door and ask if you fancy a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company… You have to go to them and let them know that you’re good and what you do could be of value to them.
And so I walked into a crowded room where everyone seemed to know each other and I knew no one.
Eventually, and I have no real recollection how, I found myself talking to a very nice lady who ran a well-established literary agency, primarily for children’s books. I had no real desire to be a children’s author (at the time), but happily chatted with her and pitched my first play to her, which had a teen protagonist. She thought it would make an excellent children’s book and asked to read it. She was also intrigued that I worked in publishing and we discovered that we had a few mutual friends. I made it very clear that I wanted to be a screenwriter first and foremost and she said that was fine and that she would hook me up with a film agent, too.
Which is how I ended up with two agents. This all came together in the autumn of 2003, so I had been with them both for a couple of years at this point and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pursue the children’s author career. I had written a couple of books that got some very nice rejections from publishers, and the pleasant lady who ran the agency had since passed me on to one of her junior associates. To be honest, the junior associate and I did not get on. She pulled strange faces when talking about my work, and seemed to treat me like a nuisance if I ever got in touch.
The film agent, however, was terrific. She was very encouraging and wanted to get me work and I was kicking myself for faffing about with the books for so long, and so in 2006 I made sure I would have a spec script for her to show around town. Few spec scripts sell, so I was determined not to worry about budget or anything that might seem small or too kitchen-sink-British. I wanted to write a commercial Hollywood movie that would get me noticed by commercial Hollywood people, and I came up with an idea called The Last Time Machine, which was epic stuff with time travel, dinosaurs, Roman Legions, the Luftwaffe and the end of the known universe (I write more about this project and how it was doomed here).
By May 2006 I had finished a polished draft (written in Microsoft Word, hence my note that it needed formatting!), my script agent had read it, and we were set to meet for lunch on the Monday, and here are my diary entries for that time:
Sunday 14th May, 2006
Had a quick read-through of The Last Time Machine script in prep for tomorrow’s meeting. Made a few minor notations. I’m proud of it, just a shame it’ll never get made.
Monday 15th May, 2006
Had lunch with my agent today. She loved ‘The Last Time Machine’ and has a whole list of people she’s going to send it to. I just need to format it finally and she’ll send it off. She said a very nice thing: she’d wondered if she’d been having too good a day when she read LTM because she had so few notes. She really couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I explained that this was my first truly original script without the baggage of having previously been a play. We talked about other movies I could write – she’d love to see me write a horror movie – and my career. I asked about the teams that write for the likes of Spooks and Hustle. She’d rather establish me as a feature film writer first (her words – there’s something a little bit unreal about all this… at least until I earn some money from it or see my name on the big screen).
I wasn’t so aware of it back then, but she was doing the things that a good agent should aways do: she was encouraging, she was critical, but in a positive way, and she was talking about my future and the direction of my career. The horror movie thing is interesting, as horror features are often the best way for a commercial writer to get a film made: they can be produced for a low budget and can be very profitable, thus giving your career a great start. The very next thing I wrote was a horror film and it very nearly got made, introduced me to some very influential folk, and definitely took me up a notch.
The junior associate literary agent also had some ideas about my career, but they didn’t tally with the direction I wanted to go in and so it was an uncomfortable relationship. Like dating someone you know isn’t right for you, but you’re so desperate to cling on to a girlfriend/boyfriend that you’ll put up with the unhappiness, but we all know that can never end well. If you’re dreading an email or a phone call from your agent then something is seriously wrong.
I stayed with the literary agent until they eventually dropped me in 2010, but it became an increasingly distant relationship. I wanted to make films, and 2006 would be the year where this once-fantastic dream very nearly became a reality…
I started keeping a diary ten years ago this month! It was partly to help me sleep at nights (I had a theory that putting the day’s events on paper would help… which it does… a bit) and partly to keep track of writing projects I’d submitted.
I mention two projects. A play called BAN THIS FILTH! which I had staged at my local theatre and thought I could adapt for radio, and a children’s book called MORRIS MINOR AND THE ABOMINABLE CHALET OF DOOM.
This was at an exciting but uncertain time for me. I had two agents – one for books, one for scripts – but was still struggling to figure out what kind of writer I was (something I’m still trying to work out, to be honest), hence the identity crisis.
There’s some light editing here, and some names have been changed or redacted to protect the innocent.
SATURDAY 15th APRIL, 2006
Two – count ’em – two! rejection letters in the post this morning. The first was for a pitch I sent to BBC radio for ‘Ban This Filth’. Fair enough. I only have the fuzziest memory of sending the pitch, so I’m not too fussed about that one (although… the shite they have on the radio sometimes…).
The second one was the real gutter. <A MAJOR PUBLISHER> said no to ‘Morris’. It was a pleasant enough rejection (‘We liked it… however…’ – I’m going to put those words on my bloody gravestone) but my agent is comparing me to Jeremy Strong (too young!) so anyone reading it is prepped for a completely different kind of book. Mind you, the rejecting editor did use words like ‘crazy’ and ‘zanier’ (is that even a word?), so I reckon I’ve had a lucky escape.
I’m not entirely sure my agent likes me, either… the rejection letter was forwarded with a blank compliment slip… No ‘Chin up… there’s plenty more fish in the sea!’ Nothing. It’s almost like an ‘I told you so’ from them. Someone needs to work on their people skills.
Ah, rejection. I like to think I cope with it a little better these days. For me, there are four stages to rejection: furious anger, blind denial, dismal depression, then a calm acceptance. I try to skip straight to the final stage if possible.
Needless to say, I’m no longer with that agent (stay tuned for the diary entry when they drop me!). And, despite my bitter accusatory tone, it’s not a fault of theirs that it wasn’t working. We were just wrong for each other. They had a fixed idea of what kind of writer I was, and I didn’t have the first clue. No wonder there was a clash. Finding your voice is one of the most important things for a writer. I clearly had some way to go…