By Chris Bigelow
In this post’s title, the word “advances” could mean two different things: a synonym for progress or a reference to the practice of publishers paying authors an advance on royalties. The second meaning is the one I’d like to mainly discuss.
I was recently asked by an LDS-market publisher to consider researching and writing a couple of nonfiction books that the publisher had conceptualized. As part of our discussion, we talked about expected minimum sales and related percentages and figures. When I went home to think about it, I pulled out my calculator and figured the worst-case royalties on projected sales. I then went back to the publisher to see if they would give me an advance based on that.
To my surprise, they said, “No, we never pay advances.” For some reason, I’d been under the impression that the Mormon market had matured enough to start paying advances, at least with nonfiction books. I believe I’ve heard of Deseret paying advances, and I’ve even seen actual communications from Cedar Fort talking about $50,000 advances. The advance amounts I proposed to this publisher were well under half that amount.
In this small Mormon market, I can understand not paying an advance to a previously unknown novelist who has already completed his or her novel at the time of acceptance. However, I can’t fathom why a publisher would not offer an advance to a professional nonfiction writer with a proven track record, especially when the book is the publisher’s idea in the first place.
To my way of thinking, an advance is much like the retainer paid to a lawyer to engage his or her services and get him or her working on your case. Without paying an advance, a publisher is making an author bear the full weight of time investment and risk. I guess they can get away with it if the author is an amateur who doesn’t rely on the income, but it doesn’t seem fair to someone trying to make a career of writing. By not paying an advance, the publisher is essentially saying to the author, “We’re not positive we’ll actually publish this, and if we do publish it, we’re not sure we can actually sell any.” Otherwise, why not put forward a show of good faith in the form of a reasonable advance?
Not only is an advance on royalties simply a professional way to treat authors, but many authors reinvest advanced funds to help the project. For instance, one main reason I asked for an advance on these commissioned books was so I could subcontract with a researcher. Some authors use advances to hire their own PR firm, hire out design of their own professional website, etc. Lack of advances may be one main reason why there’s little, if any, agent activity in the Mormon market.
Personally, I’d like to see the Mormon market get more universally professional in this and other areas. In the case I mentioned above, I declined the jobs because of the lack of advances. If I’d been desperate for work at the time, I might have been more willing to speculate with my time, but I still would have felt that I was being taken advantage of, to some degree.
What have you observed in the Mormon publishing world related to advances? Do you agree that more advances should be paid more often? And what other advances need to be made?