My publishing company, Lantern Books, doesn’t give advances. Quite simply, we can’t afford to lay out cash to pay an author before spending more money on producing the book, in the hopes that we’ll recoup the money from the sales. The risks are too high. I find that it’s often necessary to remind authors that the money they receive before the book is published is in lieu of royalty payments after the book is published. That’s why the money is called an “advance,” and that’s why you won’t see any royalty checks until you’ve earned out your advance. Since few authors with an advance of any size sell enough books to pay for the advance, publishers immediately place themselves at a considerable disadvantage.
Nonetheless, the current (and frankly crazy) business structure of publishing resembles more and more a casino, where a few “big” authors get vast sums of money that they’re very unlikely to earn out, while less-famous authors (those who once appeared in the middle of a publishers’ list and who actually could use an advance to complete their research and take some time off from work to write the book) get much less or nothing at all. Would-be authors tend to hear only about the six-figure advances, and somehow believe that the publishing industry is awash with cash and all they have to do is pull the lever and they’ll get three strawberries in a row. Unfortunately, they’re about as likely to strike it rich as any fool at a slot machine in Vegas. So, apart from the pleasure of composing itself, how might one find value in writing a book?
One answer is to think of your work as a business card. A book is a fairly robust and tightly organized distillation of your ideas, your ability to marshal information, and your skills at communicating. Academics have written articles and books to get tenure, land a bigger job, or improve their standing within their discipline. You can use the book to get a speaking engagement, or a more prestigious gig in front of a larger audience. Books still (heaven help us!) carry social cachet: they suggest someone who thinks, who has conducted research, and is authoritative (as an “author,” of course, should be). You can use all that to your advantage in your chosen profession.
In my experience, thinking of a book in this manner gives the book added value and weight—and not merely in terms of revenue earned. I’ve had the good fortune to publish an author who earned a Ph.D. on the strength of completing their work for me, ones who’ve brought in a healthy income from their life on the road promoting their work, and those who’ve been invited to speak to audiences who previously wouldn’t have given them the time of day. These considerable benefits don’t come immediately from the royalties or advances you may or may not receive, but they’re nonetheless potentially significant sources of satisfaction for an author.