If you are an aspiring book author I want to give you some blunt author-to-author advice you will not likely get from your publisher or your agent. Agents and publishers generally do not want this sort of discussion to take place between authors because they don’t want us sharing this information.
Many contracts even forbid revealing advance amounts and royalty shares and other intricate details of the deal. Authors need to stick together. The better deal I get the better deal you get because you can go to the same publisher and say, “But he got this much! Why are you lowballing me?”
Sharing information is dangerous for agents and publishers and you must find delight in that danger and share that danger with your fellow authors when it comes to the dangerous details of your deal. You have a moral, intellectual and aesthetic requirement as a writer to share the details of your deal with other authors.
1. Get as much cash up front as you can as an advance. If you are doing a scholarly book that means your advance — the money you get up front that you don’t have to pay back — should be at least $5,000.00. If you are doing a mainstream commercial book your advance should be between $8,000.00 – $12,000.00 as a first time author. Better authors will get better advances. Your advance is money you already earned for work done on the pitch and idea and pieces of your book and under no circumstance should you be forced to return any of the advance money for any reason at any time.
2. Your publisher will try to pay you as you submit the book in pieces. Don’t fall for it! Writing and publishing books is a risky business and every time you submit a piece of your book it is an opportunity for your publisher — for whatever reason — to kill the book and stop paying you (see number 9 below). Split the risk upfront. You want 50% of your advance upon signing the contract to write the book and the other 50% when you submit the final pages. That “half now, half upon completion” agreement shares the risk and bullies the burden between publisher and author. Remember you are in a business relationship with your publisher and using this payment scheme guarantees you will be able to submit the entire book before risking a “no” against publication. Share the risk and split the rewards!
3. Your royalty should even out to be around 10% of the price of the book. If your book sells for $25.00 you should get $2.50 as a royalty. Deep discounts and Book Clubs can skew that split so the general rule is to get at least dollar a book as a royalty. You can never know how well a book will sell or how much push or muscle your publisher will commit to selling your book so don’t worry about things you can’t control. Just get a bigger advance up front in lieu of a better back end royalty. Your publisher will try to convince you a lesser advance and a larger royalty will be better for you in the long run — and it is if you have a bestseller — but most books are not bestsellers so higher royalties and smaller advances are only better for your publisher because their upfront risk is lessened by your agreement to devalue yourself from the start by taking a smaller advance. If your publisher believes your book will be a bestseller they will have no problem giving you both a high advance and a high royalty.
4. I believe a good agent is invaluable because an agency can help buffer tension if you get into trouble and they can also search for other deals while you are busy writing your current book. Remember, however, that while an agent’s loyalty is technically to you their unspoken long term best interest is in keeping the publisher content. An agent can do 300 deals a year but you can likely only write three books a year. The ongoing big money for the agent is in currying favor with the publisher to keep them happy and if they can keep you happy at the same time your agency is doing a good job.
Remember the hallmark of a great contract is that neither side is happy in the end because each side gave up something of value and it is your agent’s job to create that shared, valuable, discontent. Read Your Contract! Know your contract inside and out! Book agents get 15% of what you get so if your advance is $10,000.00 your agent will collect that advance and take $1,500.00 as payment and cut you a check for the remaining amount. Your agent should be paid as you are paid.
Do not sign with an agent who demands 100% of their cut paid out of your first check. 15% may sound like a lot but remember you are purchasing the publisher’s best friend to legally be on your side so if there is any hard dispute between you and your publisher your agent’s job is to make sure the trouble is assuaged. No one wants to think there will be trouble — but there is always the risk of trouble — and we wouldn’t need contracts if we didn’t anticipate trouble would be part of the process.
A good agent has done hundreds or thousands of book deals and can call a publisher to the floor on unfair boilerplate contract language because they can use their prior knowledge to say with historical authority “we aren’t doing that.” A new author does not have the grounding to say “that isn’t fair and it isn’t standard.” An agent has that muscle and can flex it on your behalf if the contract is unfair. An agent better guarantees you will get paid because if you don’t get paid the agent doesn’t get paid.
Never sign the first contract. That contract is called a “boilerplate” contract and all the advantages go to the publisher. A good agent has standing changes they ask to be made to the boilerplate and those changes are worth much more to you than the 15% you will shell out over the lifetime of your book to an agent.
5. Never pay an agent upfront. There should never be a representation fee apart from the agent’s 15% of your deal. Do not pay to have your work read or considered. A good agent knows talent and originality means money. Don’t be a beggar. You don’t work for your agent. Your agent works for you.
6. Beware of agent expenses. I would not agree to blanket pay your agent’s expenses. Limit the top end of what you are willing to reimburse to $100.00 and anything beyond that needs to be approved by you. Most good agents submit your work electronically via email and that costs nothing more than the cost of doing everyday business. If you need to do a hardcopy bulk mailing, make the photocopies yourself and then mail them to your agent for publisher distribution. That will save you a lot of money.
7. Know your value in the marketplace. If a publisher is interested in you that means you have value. You need to be paid for that value. Do not cheapen your talent by taking a lowball offer that, in your gut, makes you sick. You instinctively know if a deal is fair or not. Follow your gut even if it leads to number 8.
8. Be prepared to walk away. If a deal doesn’t feel right or if you have bad vibes from the publisher, it is better to say “no thank you” now than to fail and cause universal misery later. Know your limits. Honor your limitations. You will be happier. If you are talented and driven there will always be another better deal down the road. Don’t get stuck in the heat of the present but always remember number 9.
9. “No” is easy. “Yes” is hard. The toughest thing you will need to have happen throughout the life of your book is to get someone to say “Yes”– be it an agent or a publisher or a person deciding to buy your book — because “Yes” means people are with you and they support you and they want you. Honor the intent of their “Yes” even if it appears difficult because every step you take in the publishing process (see number 2 above) is an opportunity to say “No.” Find great love and value in all the “Yes” replies presented to you along the horizon of your project.
10. The idea is everything. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT! If everyone had a great idea we wouldn’t need agents and publishers. Ideas have great worth. Anyone can have money. Few people have valuable ideas that can make money for other people. Do not give away an idea for free. Keep your ideas to yourself unless and until the moment is perfect and protected and your idea can be preserved for future use if the present situation doesn’t work out in your favor.
11. Own the Copyright. Your publisher will tell you Copyright doesn’t matter but will want the copyright in their name. Your agent will tell you Copyright doesn’t matter because the rights will eventually revert back to you. If it doesn’t matter — let it be known it matters to you. You write the book. You own the work. You allow the publisher a window of opportunity to publish the book and reap profits. You maintain control of the Copyright from word one. It is your right as an author. Keep your Copyright.
12. Hit your deadlines. Proving to your publisher and agent you can write well on deadline will make you more money on future projects because you will demonstrate you are a reliable business partner. Remember this advice is general and there will be exceptions and unique situations for each of the thoughts expressed. Use these ideas as you wish to your best advantage.