Much has been written in the last few days on the dust-up between SFWA/Scalzi and Random House over its new no-advance-paying imprint Hydra. But I’d like to speak more broadly in this post, about the advance system and what role it might play in the future of publishing.
Scalzi makes the categorical claim that authors must demand advances. Always. 100% of the time. Publishers who haven’t budgeted for author advances have planned their business “stupidly,” while those who have ready cash but won’t cough it up (a la Hydra) have planned theirs “maliciously.” Authors wishing to succeed should therefore, according to Scalzi, buckle down, write a book with mass commercial appeal, and negotiate an awesome contract for it with one of the remaining five big publishers.
Once (in the days before I qualified for SWFA membership) I would have thought this solid advice.
Now? Been there, done that, and still have a few of the promotional t-shirts.
I wholeheartedly believe that we authors should negotiate for the best terms we can, every time. But I no longer think our battle-cry should always be, “Where’s my advance?”
From a creative perspective: not every worthy book is best-suited for traditional publishing. Trying to shoehorn such projects into blockbuster format would kill them. On the other hand, the current glut of self-published ebooks makes passive discovery a challenge for indie authors. If a publisher can produce your book (so you don’t go into debt to do so yourself), brand it, and get it in front of its ideal audience where it will garner sales and reviews, there is value in that.
From a pure business perspective: I’m not convinced that the practice of advance-paying is in all cases the most sound and sustainable one. Most novels don’t earn out their advances and end up losing money for their publishers. Since this is true across all the majors, we can conclude that either advance-paying publishers don’t know how to predict success OR they are not in the game purely for business reasons.
In my view, it’s a bit of both. Editors buy what they love, and sometimes the rest of the book-buying world agrees with them. Often it doesn’t. Sometimes that author’s third or fifth book catches on with readers and publishers can recoup the money they lost before. But for all the talk about “growing authors” many authors never do break out.
Yet, while publishers can’t predict which debut novel will be a winner from a business perspective, they could easily be making far more conservative choices to reduce risk. Frankly, if they were bent on sucking up every last dollar, they’d publish nothing but ghost-teamed thrillers, romantica, diet books, and celeb memoirs. The fact that they’re not doing that suggests they actually care about something other than maximizing profits. They care about supporting the arts. Advances are a necessary piece of that patronage. But does that mean it must be a necessary part of all (legit) book publishing in the 21st century?
No one likes to talk about the real reason profit-sharing is seen as a bad idea. I’ll just come out and say it. It’s because, as it stands, there often are no profits. An awkward problem that authors can’t ignore now that publishers face a threat to their own survival… and continued ability to provide those advances. That’s when publishers start to do strange things like slash advances, dump authors, downsize, merge, and desperately experiment with imprints like Hydra and Alibi (whose terms—I agree with Scalzi here—are indeed terrible for authors!). We authors look at that mess and decide they are being “malicious.” And honestly, it’s nice to see us standing up for ourselves—because we do have to renegotiate our relationship with publishers. But to be truly empowered advocates for author rights, we have to understand the whole economic picture.
That picture is complex and constantly shifting, but not always for the worse. Even now, companies like Entangled—with its pure profit-sharing model and ever-growing trophy case of bestsellers—offer the tantalizing hope that there are other ways to succeed. That’s encouraging news, because some major innovations will be necessary to keep publishing going in this new era, and we’re a long way from solving the problems we face together as an industry. As we search for answers it will be vital for authors to balance openmindedness with constant critical evaluation… and never sell ourselves short. But also, as we search for answers, it will help us to look in all directions. Not just backward.