Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Money now or money later?

I could start by saying 'only write for money', but here I am writing for nothing so I won't bother with that line.

This is what most people believe is the relationship between writers and money: an author writes a book, a publisher pays an advance for said book, and then the publisher pays royalties for the book when it sells lots of copies. Frabjous day! Everyone is happy. To members of the general public, this model often seems to involve a six-figure advances that is spent like a lottery win. To real-world writers, it means the publisher might give you a couple of thousand and you'll slave for weeks eating only toast. (More money and more weeks for an adult book.) If you still think authors earn a lot, read Danuta Kean's excellent breakdown of author's pay and publishers' costs. It's a bit old (2006) but things have only got worse since then.

The royalty/advance combo is not the only model, though. Many books are written for a flat fee, and some for a strange combination of flat fee and royalty. Which you are offered (or can negotiate for) often depends on the type of book you are writing. Typically, a novel or a trade adult non-fiction title attracts a royalty. Children's non-fiction, some types of children's fiction, licensed character books (that's books about pre-existing characters such as Ben Ten or Angelina Ballerina) and some types of adult non-fiction are written for a flat fee. Academic books are often written for nothing (but then, academics generally have an income, and may have been paid by their institution/the state to do the research - if writing the book is part of your paid employment, getting a good deal on the book is not really the point unless you are especially greedy).

Which is best, flat fee or royalty? It depends on what you want. If writing is your main or sole source of income, flat fees are usefully predictable. You know how much you will get, you know when you will get it, and you don't have to wait ages to be paid (well, not big ages anyway). But if your book becomes a bestseller you won't get any extra money - unless you have managed to negotiate a clause in the contract to that effect. On the other hand, if the book bombs you still get the same fee. It's not your problem.

If you have other sources of income, or you are not the sole earner in your household, royalties might work better for you. Negotiating a big advance gives the same kind of security as a flat fee, but with the benefit that if your book sells well and earns out the advance you will get extra money, long after you have finished writing the book. I still see royalty payments on old books as a nice bonus when they come in - which is stupid, because they are not a bonus at all, they are normal income for work done! But if your book doesn't earn out the advance and sales are disappointing, not only will you not earn any extra but your publisher will have a much harder time persuading acquisitions to take your next book. Why take a book they expect to make another loss on? It becomes a hard sell. At best, you will get a much smaller advance. At worst, they'll just say 'no thank you'. The 'no thank you' is likely to follow you around the publishing world as Neilsen BookScan tells everyone else just how poor your sales were.

If you get a royalty, sales figures matter to you. You will be more willing/likely to do some publicity. You may trail around bookshops, schools, literary festivals (if you're lucky/famous), and do guest appearances on writing courses. If you get a flat fee, why bother? You aren't going to get any more money, and the publisher probably won't pay you to make appearances and might not even pay expenses. You might feel it will boost your public profile and so is worth doing for that reason. Or you might feel you'd rather get on with the next book and earn money for your time instead.

If you get a flat fee, it is usually considered 'work for hire' and you sell all rights in the book. It is no longer your copyright, you can't do anything else with it. It's like an old car you've sold, or a partner who's dumped you/you've dumped - you can't do anything with it, but it's also not your problem if it breaks. You don't have to change its tyres or wash its socks - you don't have to update your book or check its Amazon rating.
If you get a royalty, you're likely to find your royalty cut if you don't do essential updates (in non-fiction - novels don't generally need updating).

Personally, I mix flat-fee and royalty projects. It's swings and roudabouts. I have lost out on flat fee books - one book I wrote for £3000 has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages, but I get no more money. And I have lost out on royalty-based deals - one non-fiction book I did for a small advance on the assurance that it was going to sell well and earn lots in royalties did not sell well because the curriculum changed the following year. The publishers could not foresee that, but I should have thought about it. So: enough flat-fee work to cover the bills and some higher risk royalty-based work to provide jam and holidays. Just as well I'm not that bothered about jam.

STOP PRESS: Go and visit Book Maven at her blog birthday party!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post.
    I've done both, too, and I've had one book in particular that was commissioned for a flat fee (educational publisher)and then sold on to an American publisher. This means that in this much bigger market it has probably sold many many more copies than the Austrailian publisher it was commissioned by.
    At the time I didn't know this was going to happen but I figure I got paid for the writing time.
    I also retained the copyright in the text, but I'm not sure the US publisher will let me know if it goes out of print (will they even know how to contact me?)
    So now I am reluctant to go for a flat fee again, I would rather take my chances.