I followed a link posted over at Editorial Ass to Michael Meyer's NY Times article on author advances. I appreciate that this article is from an author's perspective, which may be why it includes this useful point:
The numbers can sound much bigger than they are. Take a reported six-figure advance, Roy Blount Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, said in an e-mail message. “That may mean $100,000, minus 15 percent agent’s commission and self-employment tax, and if we’re comparing it to a salary let us recall (a) that it does not include any fringes like a desk, let alone health insurance, and (b) that the book might take two years to write and three years to get published. . . . So a six-figure advance, while in my experience gratefully received, is not necessarily enough, in itself, for most adults to live on.”
I'm the first to shake my head in disbelief when I hear about huge advances, but its all relative. Advances are paid over the course of a schedule that can have a long timeline, over the course of years. Keeping this in mind, I'm going to try to reserve my anger for more legitimate outrages - such as the fact that books by Spellings keep getting published. (Simon Spotlight and St. Martin's, please please please stop.)
But I was surprised by Moonrat's (the Editorial Ass blogger) response to this article. Those who follow her blog know she's a hardworking editor who frequently admits being overwhelmed, especially since the latest industry rumble that left fewer hands on deck. But she didn't seem to get the above point. She expresses frustration at one author in the article who says his six-figure advance "allowed [him] to work for less than minimum wage for three years." She responds:
I wonder when the last time he looked at minimum wage was? That attitude frustrates me a little; there are a lot of people (frankly, a lot of us right here at this blog) who manage to work a job to support us and who find time to write even though no one is paying us a penny. What makes an advanced author worth so much more?
Huh. Now I don't mean to say employees at publishing houses should sacrifice all for authors like nuns to Jesus or what-have-you, but this is an odd reaction for someone whose job it is to advocate for authors in-house and work with them to create the best book possible. The blogger did not seem to hear Blount's point that even a six-figure advance spread out over years, and minus agent commissions, don't work out to a ton of money sometimes.
She goes on to make fair points about how authors and agents should remember to fight for marketing effort and not just bottom line money, but I know I have been frustrated as a publishing employee when people get this "we're here for the work, for the books, not the money" attitude, forgetting that bills cannot be paid with enthusiasm or intellect or creativity alone. It's almost shameful when you push for a raise at some publishing houses because so many employees are trust fund kids who don't need it and will work nights and weekends for the love of literature. Authors have a right to fight for money because, once again, it's spread out and they need a certain level of security to be able to spend the time it takes to write a really good book, and not some quickie piece of crap (see Spelling books referenced above). It's a different story at smaller, independent publishing houses, but at the big corporate houses, they need to find a way around it and not bellyache about advances.
The article makes the point that:
Today, some publishers are experimenting with low or no advances. In exchange for low-five-figure advances, the boutique press McSweeney’s, founded by Eggers, shares profits with its authors 50-50, as does the new imprint Harper Studio, which offers sub-six-figure advances.
We've talked about this, I know, but it always interests me. And Harper Studio... I'm kind of coming around to them. I still think there is an element of chasing the flash in the pan to their acquisitions, and I don't think they always think through what they buy (buying blogger projects is a real risk, for example), but they have supported some cool projects, such as Isabella Rosselini's Green Porno. But what I've really come around to is one conceit of their blog, the 26th Story, which I wish was more consistent. I like when they update with insider information, even on their own books. When I noticed this pattern on their posts, which I read on Google Reader, I thought it was self-indulgent and a little gross. I had a hand in creating a publisher's blog at one point and remember discussing how we needed to avoid making it look like a series of press releases or just an excuse to spread publicity. But Harper Studio gets around this by also talking in a kind of gushy way about projects they've just acquired. Somehow, their unbridled enthusiasm for what they're publishing works - it can be infectious and not seem self-serving, perhaps because they also mix in news from other places. I don't always follow the link to the post, but I appreciate their way of putting up a blog. I've been meaning to say that for awhile.
And I'd like to see a real book publishing journalist - if any are still employed - do a new profile of Harper Studio to let us all know how this new model is working out - though perhaps that journalist could also profile an independent that doesn't have Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets from which to draw.
The fact is, very few authors are sitting on piles of money at this point, so when people start talking trash about fat author advances, let's let that point stand while also expanding the question to see if there is more money to go around, and to see how else publishers are spending money. That inevitably brings up the blockbuster strategy, which is a conversation for another day...