write to win

How much money can you really expect when you turn in your manuscript to a publisher?

A handy guide for writers to advance payments for their books.

Bragging rights for writers often flow not just from who’s publishing them but also how much they’re being paid upfront. The “advance”, as it’s called, is the subject of competition, gossip and heartburn.

Many writers have misconceptions about this advance, unaware that it isn’t a one-off payment from a grateful publisher for the sheer labour that went into the book, but simply a certain amount of royalty paid in advance. Most important, this is adjusted against future royalties.

In other words, if an advance against royalties of, say, Rs 50,000 is made to a writer, the next time a payment will be made is when the writer’s royalty earnings actually cross Rs 50,000. However – and there’s a however – this advance is not expected to be returned if the royalties do not even add up to the advance. So this advance payment is guaranteed payment.

How is the advance payment calculated?

But why does one writer get an advance of Rs 50,000 while another one might get Rs 5 lakh? The advance is usually calculated as the likely royalties due to the author if the first print run is sold out. Thus, if the author’s royalty for every copy sold of a book is, say, Rs 25, and the publisher is expecting to sell 2,000 copies in the first run, the author is given an advance of Rs 25 multiplied by 2,000 – or, Rs 50,000.

Now, for another writer – someone with a reputation for producing bestsellers, say – the publishers might be expecting to sell 20,000 copies instead in the first run. Accordingly, this writer will command an advance of Rs 25 multiplied by 20,000, which amounts to Rs 5 lakh.

However, a word of warning for today’s writers: publishers are beginning to play it safer these days, and sometimes offer advances amounting to the royalties from the sales of only part of, rather than the entire, print-run. That’s because they prefer to factor in overhead costs – salaries, office space, etc., – allocated to each book.

As a literary agent, I have been involved in book deals where an author received an advance based on sales of 3,000 copies or even less, even though the print-run mentioned in the offer letter was double that or more.

What is the first print-run?

Put simply, it is the number of copies of a book that a publisher will print in the first round. Only when – or if – it appears that there is a demand for more copies will there be a second print-run. Publishers keep their first runs conservative – except in the case of bestsellers – because the production costs of a book are very high, and the money spent on printing cannot be recovered if sales are low. Nor do publishers want to have masses of unsold copies of a book, storing which is expensive. Naturally, this lowers the likely advance payment.

The first print run is almost always decided by the sales team of a publishing house, based on the potential of a book. This in turn usually factors in the profile of the author, the genre of the book, sales of the author’s earlier book, sales achieved by similar books, the topicality of the book, and the confidence and enthusiasm of the editorial and marketing teams and even the CEO of the firm.

At what price will the book be sold?

First, why is this germane to the advance? Because the royalty that the author earns from a book is usually fixed as a percentage of the cover price – literally, the price marked on the cover of the book, no matter what the discounted price might be. This is normally fixed at 7.5% or 8% (for most authors, though marquee names and bestseller writers get higher royalties) for paperbacks and 10% for hardcover editions. So the higher the price, the more the royalty due per book sold.

The price is decided by the number of pages and the format of the book – for instance, hardback or paperback? Also, the size – B-format, demy or royal? Obviously, all these factors will determine the production cost and, therefore, the price.

There is also the question of how much readers are willing to pay for a book, irrespective of its thickness and format. This is where writers of literary fiction and non-fiction have an advantage over their counterparts in the area of commercial books. That’s because most titles in the first category are priced at Rs 450 or more without affecting sales, whereas commercial titles can seldom be priced higher than Rs 200.

This in turn means that a commercial fiction or non-fiction title must sell more than twice as much as a literary one for the writer to earn the same royalties. This is why literary fiction, for instance, can still command a sizeable advance payment despite a very conservative first print runs. Coffee-table books and graphic novels belong to the same category, for such books are priced even higher.

What kind of royalties can a writer expect?

The figures of 7.5%-8% for paperbacks and 10% for hardbacks are par for the course. Bestseller writers, however, do negotiate their way to royalties between 15% and 20%, but that obviously doesn’t materialise overnight. It needs a track record of huge sales, which prompts publishers to share a higher percentage of their sales proceeds, since revenues are much higher.

There is also the incentive of escalating royalties that many publishers have started offering. This amounts to the writer’s earning a higher royalty once a certain threshold of sales is crossed. For instance, the figure of 7.5% may work up to 5,000 copies sold, but once that level is crossed, the royalty increases to 10% for every additional copy. This may even go up to 15% after the sale of 10,000 copies.

The objective is to rope the writer in to the task of marketing the book, for it will be worth the writer’s while for more copies to be sold. Interestingly, this offer is also being rolled put to new and untested writers.

How much in advance is the advance payment made?

The advance is never paid fully on signing the contract. It is usually split into two or three instalments. Authors signing with a completed manuscripts usually get 50% of the advance on signing and the remaining on publication of the book. Those signing with a proposal or an unfinished manuscript get one-third on signing, one-third on delivery, and one-third on publication.

I have seen contracts in which a writer was offered just 10% and sometimes even zero advance on signing. On the other hand, some publishers make an exception and pay as much as 60%-70% on signing, and, on rare occasions, even the full amount. But in general, a writer must be prepared to wait till the book is published before getting the entire amount.

While most standard contract state that each instalment will be paid within 30-60 days from signing, delivery or publication, as the case may be, some publishers do make the payment in less than 15 days if there is a request by the author or their agent.

Will the publisher pay for a writer’s costs?

Some publishers have a provision for a travel allowance, usually for non-fiction books that require the author to travel. Such allowances usually range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, and is usually based on actual expenditure – which means the author has to present all travel, accommodation and food bills.

What costs do publishers consider for a book, besides production?

In addition to overhead costs, publishers sometimes allot augmented marketing budgets to particular books. Unfortunately, this often means a proportional reduction in the author’s advance. The marketing expenses sometimes go towards book launches, which are not very useful as either marketing benefits or sales boosters – so the author and their agent must decide whether it’s worth it. Publishers also allocate budgets for illustrations and photographs needed in a book, which in turn might mean reducing the advance payment correspondingly.

While most standard publishing contracts specify that the cost of a legal opinion, if required, will be split in half between the author and the publisher, I have never come across a situation where the former had to actually pay for legal vetting. At times, due to the nature of the book and the risk involved in publishing it, a publisher may decide to have it vetted by more than one lawyer. A prominent multinational publisher consulted more than three lawyers for a provocative satire whose author I represented. The authors were not asked to contribute to the legal cost.

Do writers ever earn fees or bonuses?

Some publishers make up for moderate advance payments by offering a sales bonus to authors – a small, one-off payment to the author once the book achieves a certain sales threshold. Recently, a publisher offered a small sales bonus on the sale of 4,000 copies of a work of fiction whose author I had represented. Far more rarely, a publisher might offer an author a bonus if their work wins a prize.

In every, very rare instances, a celebrity author might be offered a signing-fee instead of an advance against royalties. This payment comes in addition to the regular royalties paid subsequently, with no adjustment.

Despite increased transparency and the provision for auditing publishers’ accounts, there is a widespread belief among both new and established authors that one rarely gets to see any money after a book is published. This makes them push for as high an advance as possible.

The truth, however, is that only a fraction of published books are able to earn out their advance for the publisher. These books are, so to speak, subsidised by those that sell very well.

What can a writer do if they don’t care for the amount offered as an advance? One option is to offer restricted rights for the book. Thus, a writer may choose to sell only the rights for publishing in India to the author, keeping world rights for themselves. Another might define a specific term for the agreement, so that the publisher cannot keep producing the book till eternity.

Kanishka Gupta is the CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.