Welcome to Biting-Edge, a blog shared by authors and vampire experts, Mario Acevedo and Jeanne Stein. We’ll cover urban fantasy, vampires, pop culture, and all things Joss Whedon. Unlike other fantasy blogs, we don’t insist on body cavity searches (unless you ask politely). Snarkiness is most welcome...though we won't promise not to bite back!

Sunday, September 30, 2012
  Money, money, money
Mario here:

What I'm reading: Citizen Vince, by Jess Walter.

The book biz buzz this week: Publishing house sues writers to pay back their advances.

The most famous case of a writer being sued to return their advance involved actress Joan Collins. She had been paid a $1.2 million advance on a $4 million two-book deal. Her manuscript for the first book was rejected by Random House for being of unacceptable quality. But with millions of dollars at stake, high-priced legal talent piled on. Collins' lawyer argued that her contract only specified that she turn in a completed manuscript, not an acceptable one. The suit went to court and Collins counter sued, contending that she did not receive the editorial help she required, and since she had turned in two manuscripts, she was due the remaining $2.8 million offered in the original deal. In 1996, the court awarded her another million but the publisher did not have to pay for the second manuscript since it was not much different than the first. Where can I get a piece of this action?

Read here about the twelve writers Penguin is suing for advances paid and interest accrued. A couple of interesting points to consider:

1. All the writers mentioned had been contracted to write non-fiction, and some may not have written a book before and sold on proposal. Once they had to put their asses in a chair and produce, the words and ideas didn't flow quite so smoothly. Heh, heh, heh. While I don't feel much sympathy for the writers, I also have to point the finger of shame at Penguin. It doesn't help that one of the writers, Elizabeth Wurtzel, has made a cottage industry out of her personality disorders and drug addiction, so if she spaced out, the publisher can't say they didn't see it coming.

2. Playing the devil's advocate (for us writers, yeah!) Robert Gottlieb, the head of Trident Media Group (Jeanne's literary reps), provided a caveat to the issue of writers having contracted work rejected by their publishers, mentioning reasons the author has no control over. He stresses that good representation helps protect a writer's rights.

I don't personally know of any writers who have had their work rejected for quality reasons or have had to return their advance. I do know of authors whose work did not sell well (for various reasons--among them, the publishers doing squat for marketing) and their contracts were terminated. But the writers were allowed to keep the advances already paid out. And I know of other writers who have returned the advance to buy back the rights for their work.

When you sign a contract, three butts should be on the line: Yours. Your agent's. And the acquiring editor. Your success reflects the agent's ability to cull through the chaff of submissions and deliver a good read. The acquiring editor is the one who championed your manuscript to their editorial review board. Too many missteps, and said editor could be sent packing for a new job. In my case, before I submitted my contracted manuscript to the publisher, my agent wanted a first look so there would be only good surprises.

How do advances work? A book deal represents the entire amount to be advanced, that is, paid to you in advance of the royalties of expected sales, usually sales within the first year after publication.

Every advance is structured differently. For small advances, generally $5000 and less, you will get the entire amount upon signing the contract. As advance amounts increase, then you will get half upon signing the contract and the other half upon the publisher accepting the manuscript. For big amounts, say over $100,000, the money might come in thirds. $33,000 upon signing. Another 1/3 upon acceptance, and the remainder upon publication (which you the author have no control over).

For multiple book contracts, say a two-book deal for $50,000, you'd get half for each book upon signing, $25,000. Then $12,500 upon acceptance of the first, and another $12,500 for the second. So in that first year, you'd pocket $37,500, living expenses for most writers. The second year will be rather lean unless you have a sugar daddy or a day job.

Plus, advances are shrinking, even for proven NYT bestsellers. In many cases, advances are half, or as low as a quarter of what they were five years ago. Reverse inflation! If the industry is losing money, it's not because they're paying good authors too much.

The key to publication success is to earn out your advance within the first year, and the sooner the better. That means your book sales have paid back the advance. You'll start earning royalties and you've proven yourself to be a winning horse to bet on. But so many factors are out of your control that any outstanding writers are not given the opportunity to earn out.

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I would have to side with Joan Collins. If Jersey Shore's Snooki can get three books published, how bad could Collins' manuscripts be? These are celebrity cash-in books, after all, and even a sizable number of the general public assume these celebrity books are "somewhere between heavily edited and completely ghost-written" (as I said in my July 21st, 2012 blog post, "Zero Shades Of Vetting"). Joan Collins assumed such "heavy editing" would be provided for her celebrity cash-in books.

Shrinking advances and non-publications only add two more reasons why authors choose to self-publish. Even if you don't sell any books, you won't ever have to repay an advance. Even if you paid for a book cover, editing, etc., those are flat-fee services.

Makes me wonder why publishers bother with advances at all. A stated percentage of sales in lieu of an advance would actually be more in authors' favor, because this would provide additional incentive for the publishers to publish the books instead of shelving them.
My favorite bit was the discovery that someone at Penguin thought it would be a bright idea to pay a $ 20K advance for a book on the history of fishing lures. Seriously? Ambien has already been invented.
Daven: Great comment. We need to remember that the bestselling ebooks still come traditional publishers.
Cat: Obviously this idea was pitched at a bar, over many, many drinks.
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