Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing Even More Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3… Getting An Advance to Help You Write Your Book

Book three in this series.



Both books are available everywhere in electronic, paper, and audio.

What I call a “Sacred Cow” is basically a myth spread around publishing like the truth. Myths such as “rewriting must be done for every story.” Myths such as “you need an agent to sell a book,” or “sell a book to a different country.” And so on.

You can either buy the first two books to get all twenty of the Sacred Cows, or just click on the tab above and read them here in their original blog posts for free.

And Myths #1 and #2 in this book are under that tab as well.

Myth #3: You Get an Advance So You Can Write Your Book.

Well, maybe in 1960.

I came into publishing in 1974 and sold my first novel in 1987. I had to have that first novel written before anyone would even think of buying the novel. And that was 1987.

Things have gotten much, much worse since then.

Some History on Book Advances

Actually, the real start of this idea is lost in time. You can go back into the 1800s and find a few examples of publishers paying authors ahead of time to write something. But that was always a form of media of its time.

And no pulp writer in the early part of the 1900s got paid ahead. They wrote novels and short stories and got paid by the word when the story or novel was bought. A few writers in a couple of the syndicates were paid like employees, but not that many.

Where the actual advance thinking came from were the literary writers of the early 1900s. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the like. They basically “borrowed” money against their sales (royalties) of their next book from their editors. After all, the myth of drinking with writing dictated that writers needed money to buy the booze.

And it happened so often it got incorporated into the contracts.

Slowly, as time went on into the 1950s, just as the returns system got engrained, the advance system got put into place for most authors. Not all, but most.

And advances usually applied to second or third books in a contract even back then. Seldom in fiction did a first novel ever get bought not written. No one trusted a first novelist to be good enough.

It did happen at times with special cases, clear into the 1990s, and then the publishers would often hire someone like me to fix or write the book because the author couldn’t. I got three of those jobs through the years.

As editors lost the power to buy books for major corporations through the 1990s, the idea of advances against unwritten novels finally completely vanished for any person not a major celebrity. It still held for second books in contracts, but was cut down dramatically by cutting payments into thirds or fourths, with the second third coming on turn-in and the last third coming far after the book was published.

So by the turn of this century, all ideas of a publisher paying an author to write a book ahead of time had almost vanished outside of nonfiction and media books.

The Book Advance World Today

Sadly, the days of huge book advances are gone as well. And the days of huge-selling books are gone. The days of control by traditional publishers is also gone.

Actually, we have returned in many ways to the days of the early 1900s when books were published in conjunction with bookstores and there were a thousand ways to publish a story or book.

Want to know how things change and keep moving in publishing? Let me give you an example. A man by the name of Doubleday started a small press with a partner in 1887. As time went on, the second partners changed, but the small press kept growing under the Doubleday name, opening up their first bookstore in 1910. Doubleday Bookshop.

At their height, Doubleday had over a hundred bookstores and in 1947 Doubleday was the largest publisher of books in the world.  In 1987 the company even bought the Mets.

Also that year they sold a controlling interest to a growing book company out of Germany called Bertlesman. A few years later they became Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, combining sadly three major publishers from the past into one name. (Remember them? None of them exist anymore.)

The new owner didn’t like the bookstores, so in 1990 they sold the remaining 60 plus stores to B&N and the Doubleday Bookstores vanished into history.

Of course, B&N continues a publishing operation, (As does Amazon) but the upfront focus of a publishing company with their own bookstore has vanished.

Advances Today

Advances in traditional publishing in 2016 have almost become a joke for 99% of all writers. I have heard of advances of $1,000 and for most genre advances these days the average is under $5,000 per book. If you get more than that, you are considered a good seller. (And they limit you to writing only a book or so per year, which is another topic.)

Remember, an advance is a loan. So the company thinks you are only worth a $1,000 to $5,000 to them. That’s sad when you think of it that way, isn’t it?

So for the moment, let’s pretend you are in the top 1% of all writers. You hit your fantasy with that book YOU ALREADY WROTE and got offered a six figure advance. (not an advance in the real term because you already wrote it. More like a license price.)

Say you got $100,000.

Take 15% off that because you used an agent, so your take is $85,000.

Now divide that by four.(Sometimes five or six.) About $21,000 per payment. Now you get the first payment about two months after signing, you get the second payment about four months after that when you turn in your rewrite. You get the third payment on return of copyedits and start of production about six months after that, and about eight months later you get publication payment.

So you are one of the lucky 1% and it still takes you almost two years to get your $85,000. For a novel already written.

Now granted, there might be other payments, from translation sales to a second book in the contract. But even with those you can see that you won’t be rich anytime soon.

Now calculate dividing a $5,000 advance into three payments over two years. See why people who only look at traditional publishing are shouting that writers can’t make a living anymore with their writing? If you are only looking at advances in traditional publishing, that is pretty much correct, I’m afraid.

The math no longer works.

To put it flatly, the idea of lending a decent amount of money to writers so they can write is gone. Outside of a few literary writers back in the early part of the last century, it never really did exist in any real way.

Traditional Publishing Joke

The flat joke that traditional publishers push forward is that they give writers advances so that they have time to write. This is such a blatant falsehood I am constantly shocked it comes out of anyone’s mouth here in 2016.

But yet this last week I saw it touted as an advantage of traditional publishing in three different articles written by traditional publishing mouthpieces.

Now I will admit I am talking about fiction, because that’s what I know. So others will have to talk about how scientific books are now bought and the advances. Or maybe biographies. Or other specific nonfiction projects.

But with fiction, except for payments for a second book in a contract, no publisher I have heard of is buying unwritten novels by new writers from a proposal. I doubt agents would even look at an unfinished book, but I don’t know because I seldom glance at that dying part of our industry.

And if you are looking to an agent to help you write your book, oh, wow, do I have some great land in Florida to sell you. It’s only underwater part of the year, I promise.


For fiction, advances to write your novel don’t happen anymore. Haven’t for a couple of decades. Maybe longer. If ever.

In 2005 I had a well-realized proposal for a major thriller series. Even though at that point I had about a hundred traditionally published books to my credit, no one would look at the series unless I wrote the first book.

I had a record and a platform and couldn’t get an advance to write a novel.

So when you hear someone spout the flat lie that traditional publishers give you an advance to write your novel, first off ask them how much, and which publisher still does that.

You will get a puzzled look and a comment like “All of them do, of course.”

When you hear that, you know you are dealing with an idiot. Just walk away.

Novels now must be written, which means the amount in the contract is a license fee, even though it is called an advance. You don’t have to pay the fee back if your sales don’t match the fee. You get to keep it.

No major traditional publisher will give a first novelist an advance to write a novel, let alone a living wage. And even if your advance gets into the 1% range after you sell the book, you might not be able to live on the money long enough to write the next book.

And always remember just one major thing: An advance is just a loan. You screw up or they turn down the book you wrote and you have to pay the advance back. Happens all the time.

This lie about advances is a scam traditional publishers are trying to push at young writers.

The bottom line: Keep control of your own books, publish them yourself, and if you write enough and are good enough and keep learning craft and business, you can make a living with your fiction without worrying about someone loaning you money.


  • Vera Soroka

    There was an article not too long ago on the Passive Voice where a writer did about three chapter with proposal and her agent had to sale that. She wanted to get paid to write the book and apparently she was successful. Not sure about how many novels she had out but this latest one her agent convinced her to write it this time. But she still wanted to be paid to write it so she joined Patreon to get support while she wrote it. Not sure what they were to get for this other than to just read the chapters. There was no book promised. That was strange.
    I’ll stick to doing it myself thank you.

  • J.R. Murdock

    There was a fun show on in the ’90s on HBO: Dream On. It was a show about an editor at a small publisher (usually publishing smut once Lenny joined the cast). It wasn’t uncommon for Martin (the main character) to hand out $250,000 advances to writers who were there with a proposal, and anywhere from $400,000 – $1,000,000 to a celebrity to write a book. I remember watching the show and thinking…that’s not a good business model and there’s no way, outside of fantasy, that a publisher could do that.

    Now that I’m older, and hopefully wiser, I see that HBO’s writers were just perpetuating the myth that authors earned a living wage prior to writing a book. Even in the early 90s before I’d written a book, I know it was write the book first, then sell it, and you may get a modest advance if you were lucky. If you weren’t lucky, you got the book published and may get 25 cents per copy sold.

    Since I always wanted to write books, I’ve always looked into what it takes to do it, what the returns are, what rights are purchased by the publisher. I was horrified and knew I wanted to keep the rights to not only my stories, but to my characters as well. So…I wrote a bunch of books and sat on them knowing one day I’d be able to save up the money and self-publish them. Then Amazon came along and made all my dreams come true 🙂

    I’m not rich or famous, but at least I feel I have a good understanding of what I passed up on. Thank you for all your blog posts. I learn more every time I read one.

  • Horace

    Whoa, do people really end up having to pay their advances back? I was under the impression that that was just an urban myth or something. So, actual, reputable trade publishers actually do that? I’ve been told time and again by more than a few trade-published authors that this doesn’t happen, but it’s possible that it simply hasn’t happened to them yet.

    Great write-up here, Dean, as always. Thanks!

    • dwsmith

      Nope, happens all the time, actually. For example, say you have an editor buy a book and you can’t do the rewrites expected, they can under the contract, cancel the contract and ask for repayment. Say you got a two book contract and your editor left before you turned in the second book and the new editor doesn’t like your work and rejects your second book and under contract, you pay back the part of the advance that was for the second book. And on and on. And even worse, your agent keeps his 15% and you have to pay the entire amount back, so you can actually lose money.

      Or worse yet, you get sick or have an emergency and are late turning in a book and things change at the corporation and they cancel your contract and demand the advance back.

      Not kidding, happens all the time.

      And numbers of times the author buys out the contract by paying back the advance. Kris and I have done that more times than I want to count when things have gone wrong.

      If the authors telling you that doesn’t happen are new, meaning under ten traditional novels, ignore them. They are, as my friend called me for ten novels, a neo-pro and have no real experience yet. I hated that my friend was right. (grin)

    • dwsmith

      Not even some of them anymore. Not kidding. Sales have flattened for everyone. Heck, Nora Roberts just had to jump to another house because her sales were so far down and they fired her editor.

      And then there was Patterson a number of years back who got a huge amount of money for 20-some novels. I’m betting his next contract isn’t that long or rich. It’s a new world for even the top of the 1% in publishing.

  • Dane Tyler

    GREAT information for new writers, Dean. And yet another reason to indie publish, IMO. An excellent statement. I remember my (non-fiction) agent telling me that repaying an advance never happened in his experience. It could by verbiage in the contract, but never did to his knowledge. (He’s been an agent for a long time, so I believed him, and even though I’m sure my books didn’t sell out the advances the publisher paid me, I never was asked for the advance repayment.)

    And another GREAT add on your part in the comments about having to pay back the ENTIRE advance in those circumstances, including the portion the agent KEEPS. Yikes.

  • Stefon Mears

    “Now granted, there might be other payments, from translation sales to a second book in the contract.”

    Want to hear something scary, Dean? If the last few contracts I got to look at are any indication, those other payments are disappearing too. More and more it seems that publishers want to pay those out on the royalty schedule — after applying the author’s share of those payments to the advance, if you can believe it. They want the advance to not just be a loan against book sales, but against all monies they can make on the book.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, I’ve been seeing that more and more myself. Head-shaking that authors sell to a publisher rights the publisher does not need.

  • S. A. Hunt

    “The bottom line: Keep control of your own books, publish them yourself, and if you write enough and are good enough and keep learning craft and business, you can make a living with your fiction without worrying about someone loaning you money.”

    I wish it worked that way in self-publishing. I really, truly do.

    • dwsmith

      S.A., how many years have you been at it? Because that’s exactly how it works.

      And if you had enough belief in your own work and got it out of Kindle Unlimited and out to the larger world, you might be better off as well. This business takes time and takes not making bad business decisions such as Kindle Unlimited. And you have to keep learning craft and how to tell better stories.

      I know you are discouraged because I could tell that in your comment. But you are a long, long ways from even expecting to making a living yet with the small number of books you have. Sorry to be so blunt. But you made the comment.

      • CW Hawes

        I’ve self-published 20 novels and short stories in 20 months. I make a little bit here and there. I keep writing, reading, and learning. Now I’m starting to up my game by learning marketing. Self-publishing isn’t magic. It’s work. Hard work. I’m an author/publisher. I write the books, publish the books, and market the books. That’s how self-publishing works. If it’s instant monetary gratification one wants, writing isn’t the place to find it.

        Thanks for the excellent articles, Dean. They are a huge inspiration to keep on writing and striving to do better.