Any Novelists Out There?

Once a novelist has sold his/her first book to a publisher, how much can he/she expect to be paid and how is payment structured? Is there a standard formula for first-time novelists, for example, $20,000 and 5% of sales - or something like that? Does anyone have examples?

I would start here if`n I were you. Writer.Net , and browse the different forums and info located on that site.

Thanks whuckfistle. I was there just before I came to SDMB. No luck.

The “standard contract” generally doesn’t offer any real compensation to the author. It’s an agreement to publish, in exchange for the right to do so exclusively (among other things). In general, anything a first-time author gets beyond the advance (if any) should just be considered gravy, and not relied upon.

First time authors often sign the ‘standard contract’ because they are intimidated by the process, or gleefully happy to be published. Rarely, if ever, will a publisher revoke their offer if you haggle. However, you should not expect to get rich. First time authors often make more cash from book-signings, media appearances, etc., than from royalties. They also often find they made a pretty dismal per-hour return. Oh well, it’s all about the art isn’t it? (yeah, right)

You should get a good agent who is experienced in books of your genre, and willing to haggle. It’s also a good idea to have a good business lawyer, experienced in literary publication, review the contract and make suggestions. I’ve seen cases where haggling led to a formulation of the royalty basis that substantially increased the agent’s commission, but did little for the author’s bottom lin.

YMMV, but I’ve heard similar things from many sources.

The royalties on hardbacks are about 10% and those on paperbacks are about 5% to 8%. I think $20,000 is high for most first novels as an advance. $5,000 is more common, I believe. And that’s an advance. You don’t start getting any additional royalties until after your 10% has earned you the $5,000.

Novelist chiming in.

It depends on what type of novel it is (mainstream, best seller, genre, small press, etc.), hardcover or paperback, what publisher is publishing it, whether you have an agent, etc.

Payment is an advance against royalties. The advance is negotiable but, for a first novel in paperback with a major publisher in a genre novel, figure $2000-$5000. In hardcover, it might go up to $10k, with trade paperbacks being somewhere in between. Royalties are usually 10-15% of the cover price for a hardcover and 6-8% for a paperback on a sliding scale (you get a lower rate until the book reaches a certain sales level).

The numbers are different if you’re written a best seller, of course (i.e., in the “best seller” genre).

Once the book sells enough copies for the author to be owed royalties over and above the advance, you get further payment. However, if the book does not sell enough copies to earn the advance, the author still gets to keep the money.

The publisher also keeps a “reserve against returns”: since books are fully returnable, publishers set aside money due you in order to pay back bookstores who return the book after the royalty statement. Eventually, any leftover reserve money is returned to the author when the book goes out of print.

It’s an extremely good idea for a first-time author to find an agent to negotiate the contract (some publishers insist on it). Agents know how to negotiate book contracts (Don’t go to a lawyer for this; they probably don’t) and know which rights to keep, which to give up, which are negitiable, etc. They also know how to ask for more money.

The first thing to understand is that there is no such thing as “publishing.” You have to think about it as a series of boutiques, even inside one name, some of which are connected by marketing and distribution arms. You can’t ask what a standard first novel pays any more than you can ask how much a standard first movie performance pays.

What makes it so hard is that you have to turn the question around and ask, who are you? Have you published some acclaimed short stories? Do you have a name in another field? Did you go to a major writer’s workshop? Do you know people in the industry? What are you writing? A “literary” novel? A “thriller”? A big fat bestseller wannabe? Are you in one of the many genres: science fiction, mystery, romance? Is your book likely to be made into a movie? Is it on a hot subject? Are you a celebrity or do you mention any in your book? Are you telegenic? Will you get onto Oprah or Good Morning America? Are you prepared to go around the country and market the book by making appearances on your own money? (If you think this has nothing to do with how much you might be paid, find another industry right away.)

Expect little and you won’t be disappointed. But lightning regularly strikes in the field. Publishing depends on lightning out of its control far more than it makes stars off of authors merely because they are good.

KP wrote:

If you need a lawyer in addition to your agent, fire your agent. Agents are expected to know and understand everything about contracts. The very wealthiest writers may also need lawyers, but not usually for anything as basic as a contract. In any case, there are only a few lawyers who are in fact “experienced in literary publication,” and you can’t afford them.

Since an agent’s commission is based on what the writer makes, I’m not sure how haggling could improve the commission without adding to the bottom line. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but I’d need an example to believe this.

However, as a general principle, haggling is fine. If you have sold a novel without one - and don’t ask me how since most firms will not look at unagented manuscripts - you will get an agent very easily. And your agent will create a better contract for you. It is less likely to increase your direct bottom line, however, than it is to improve your ancillary rights - a better share of foreign royalties or audio book royalties or the like, or possibly an earlier cut off for the standard increase in royalty percentage: 12.5% after only 5000 copies instead of 7500, e.g.

Just don’t expect ever to see that higher percentage. Unless lightning strikes.

I used to want to be a writer – then I found out how much writers make. It’s really quite depressing; the median salary for writers (and actors, and artists) is lower than minimum wage. When I learned this (I was 11, and had just started writing seriously), I decided to do something else. (It ends up that I still get to be woefully underpaid for the work involved, but that’s beside the point.)

I’ve been working on my first novel for eight years. Given the advances and royalties that are common for first novels, I’ll probably end up making something like a dollar an hour. Or maybe it’ll be worth nothing, since it exceeds the 100,000-150,000 word limit by several times.

On the other hand, sailorbychance, there are a few rare examples of authors getting very large advances on their first novel. I have no idea what determines who gets an unusually large advance. You’d probably need a very good agent and good legal representation – and of course you’d need a novel that was going to be very popular, or at least one which could be made popular by aggressive marketing. (cough “I know they’re children’s books, but I love them anyway.”)

Yikes. I guess it really had better be about the art.

RealityChuck, is writing your sole source of income? If so, can you describe the financial transition from traditional employment (if it’s not too personal).

Since this is about publishing I’ll move this thread to CAfe Society.

moderator GQ