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CMAP #7: Miscellanea

(This is a round-up of miscellaneous useful information rather than a structured examination of a specific widespread misconception about publishing.)

How much are SF/F novelists paid?

A few years ago, Tobias Buckell got curious about this question and ran an anonymized survey. In 2005, he re-ran it, and his full results are here, with input from 108 authors. (Note that his figures refer to the US market.)

If you want a full run-down, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, with discussion, but in a nutshell: the median advance for a first SF/F novel is $5000. For authors going through an agent it was $6000; for unagented novels it was $3500. (As I noted in an earlier CMAP posting, an agent is on commission and takes 15% of the author's cut. And they're cheap at the price, going by this finding!)

For established authors, the median advance for an SF novel is $12,500, and for a fantasy novel it's $15,000. Agented books average $12,500; unagented average $7,250. The range of advances is much wider in fantasy; the survey logged advances of $0 to $40,000 in SF, and $1000 to $600,000 in fantasy (the latter being a one-off that should probably be excluded from analysis of the results).

Note that, as I explained earlier, the US book advance is not the whole story; royalties and foreign rights sales may add considerably to the pie — or not, if the author or their agent don't exploit them properly.

How do SF/F novelists break into the business?

Fantasy author Jim C. Hines got interested in this question and ran a survey of his own, just last month. The results are fresh in, with input from 247 writers, and Jim discusses his findings in two essays.

In the first he examines the received wisdom (at least in the SF/F field) that you break in by writing and selling short stories, polishing your skills, and then work your way up to novels; and he looks at whether self-publishing your first novel is a route to success. The full story is here. (Attention conservation form: writing and selling short stories can help some writers, but is by no means a universal route to success; and self-publishing your first novel is almost certainly useless.)

In the second essay, Jim examines a couple of other myths; the myth of the overnight success, and the widespread belief that you've got to know somebody in publishing. I'm not going to spoil his masterful examination of these issues: read the whole analysis here.

Note that if you see a conflict between my advice and the advice in these surveys, go with the survey. My experience and career path are very atypical in some respects (although utterly vanilla in others — the age at sale of first novel, for example, is 36).

Finally, if you're interested in writing and publishing (especially SF/F fiction), there are a bundle of resources online. If you're writing purely for your own enjoyment, you don't need to bother with them — but the moment you put your writing in front of someone else's eyes, you're dealing with other folks' expectations, and you'll find that it helps to know the basics of how to prepare manuscripts, how to participate in a workshop with other writers to constructively criticise each others work, and how to approach a publisher. SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America, run an online information centre with essays these and other relevant topics: highly recommended as a starting place.

30 Comments

1:

"the median advance for a first SF/F novel is $5000. For authors going through an agent it was $6000; for unagented novels it was $3500. (As I noted in an earlier CMAP posting, an agent is on commission and takes 15% of the author's cut. And they're cheap at the price, going by this finding!)"

I think this may be a red herring. The advance only counts against future earnings, yes? So if both the agented and unagented authors make 10k in royalties then the agented authour is out 15% of the advance (Or is it 15% of all royalties?).

The value of the agent would seem to lie in increasing overall earnings rather than advances.

2:

Charlie,

aren't you missing something there? An agent, after all, gets to pick and choose which novels s/he's going to take. They will discard the worst, which are most likely to fetch a below-average advance. Plus, having taken the best, they are depleting the pool of unagented novels.

Same as with private schools that - unlike public ones - get to pick and choose both their teachers and pupils, and mysteriously fare better.

I'm not saying agents are worthless, I'm just saying 'insufficient data'.

3:

The advance only counts against future earnings, yes? So if both the agented and unagented authors make 10k in royalties then the agented authour is out 15% of the advance (Or is it 15% of all royalties?).

Wrong. The advance is a non-returnable (usually) loan against royalties. If the books both earn 10k in royalties due, then the agented author gets $5000, and the unagented author picks up $6500 ... but they both get $10,000. It's just split differently. And more usefully, from the point of view of the agented author (bigger advance, better cash flow -- royalties can take years to come out of the pipeline).

The sting in the tail is that the unagented author's also probably getting a lower royalty rate, nickel-and-dimed around the edges on the percentage they're paid on discount/book club/subsidiary rights. A lower advance is symptomatic of other problems in the contract, in other words.

tp1024: yes, you're correct in principle -- but in practice, both books (your agented one, and the unagented one) are good enough to sell and to make money for the agent.

I don't know how we could design an experiment to control for this problem. Even with a crossover (track authors who acquire/lose an agent, before and after) it's going to be murderously hard to correlate, because no two authors follow the same career path and there may be other effects in play (an author who loses and agent and then goes down may have lost their agent because the agent foresaw the decline and got out, for example: which way does the causal link point?).

4:

Those numbers definitely seem in the fan club earnings does an advance typically represent, and what does the cash flow curve look like? From your past articles, it would seem books drop off the backlist quite quickly and you would expect the bulk of revenues to be concentrated in the first few years, with a few blips of renewed interest when a new installment in a series comes out.

5:

That's broadly correct.

The get-out is that these are median earnings. The $3500 average unagented first advance for an SF novel conceals both folks who got zero -- small press deals -- and the lucky one who got $40,000. It also conceals people in the middle who sold only US/NorAm rights for $5000, and picked up another $5000 from the UK, and $5000 from France, and $5000 from Germany, and $5000 from Japan, and so on.

Backlist ... depends. Most books drop off the backlist, but some don't. It depends largely on a combination of the author, the publisher, the bookshops, and the phase of the moon -- but if you're lucky you stay in print, selling at a low level, indefinitely. ("Singularity Sky" got reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic, in paperback, in the last 12 months; the whole back-list of Merchant Princes books got reprinted about a year ago. And so on.)

6:

One additional aside:

In my (extensive) experience, the places that an agent helps are those not so obviously related to the author's income at the time that an individual contract gets signed... but that have immense implications later. To list a few examples:
* Limiting the scope of an option clause (number of works, type of works, etc.), or even getting the option clause stricken
* Territories and languages; many publishers won't negotiate these with an unrepresented author as a matter of corporate policy, particularly in trade nonfiction and trade general fiction
* Schedules
* Cover approval/input
* Warranties and indemnities... particularly important for libel issues, given the UK's wretched defamation law and practice
* Scope and timing of editorial revisions that can be made without author approval
* Farming out (too complicated to explain here)

It's not just that authors often don't know to negotiate these things; it's that publishers, as a matter of policy, will only negotiate these things if the author is represented. (Not to mention that having the agent do the negotiating helps keep the author-acquiring editor relationship from going downhill over contract language...)

And that's before even considering one of the dumbest, most-self-defeating, most-self-destructive policies current in publishing:

Agented Submissions Only

7:

Re: "Agented Submissions Only"
Being a bad agent is easy. Being a good agent is hard.

Because I was going to the post office several times a week anyway, sending my and my wife's story and book manuscripts to major markets anyway, some SFWA members in the distant past adopted me in my guise as Emerald City Publishing to agent for them with their story and book manuscripts to major markets. I made only a handful of sales for them. My second-hand experience as the son of a major Science Fiction Book editor did us little good. For that matter, I could never get the writers with whom I did this experiment to do the rewrites that editors and publishers suggested.

So I dropped out of the agenting game, other than the very sad story of my handshake deal with John Brunner a few hours before he died at that worldcon. His widow is a worse agent for him that I ever could have been, but to detail this would expose us all to attack, so I'll refrain.

I just printed a contract for a hefty $50.00 royalty (it's for a short-short) at a SFWA Major Market, as emailed to me, for an April publication, and will snailmail two originals today or tomorrow to the kind editor with flawless good taste. Ironically, $50.00 falls halfway to the minimum that a new author would need for this to have been an Active Membership Qualifying sale, major market or no. As if a short short (or -- heaven forfend -- a poem is easier to write than a full-blown short story).

I have posted a link to this great blog thread on my facebook page, where a few of the professional authors among my 727 "friends" have strongly agreed with you.

8:

Here's my roommate's tale of getting and losing agents. She got an agent (a relatively big one, too), fired that agent, sent out her book herself, got an offer from a mid-sized imprint for low four figures, used that to get a new agent, who immediately said, "no, this can be bigger," and went and sold it for five figures.

9:

Thanks heaps for this series of posts. Very serendipitous timing and very useful content. :)

10:

Jonathan Vos Post, are you any relation to the Jonathan Post who appears as a character in Greg Bear's The Forge of God?

11:

Yes, Pete Y. The closest possible relation.

The Forge of God - Page 251
by Greg Bear, 2001, 480 pages

"He shook hands as Sand introduced Jonathan V. Post, an acquaintance of Kemp's, dark and Levantine with a gray-shot curly beard..."

I'm in there, under my own name, because Earth is destroyed in 2 ways there -- one antineutronium, one nanoassemblers. Larry Niven et al came up with 1/2 of the antineutronium trick (they had mere neutronium, I plotted the antimatter/matter and spiralling trajectory); and I suggested the nanotech to make sure the Earth unzipped correctly.

Hence my wife, Dr. Christine M. Carmichael is described, under her name in the novel, too...

I was not completely happy about the "gray-shot curly beard" as mine was jet black at the time.

"Just wait," said Greg Bear, wisely.

The son, Andrew, of me and Dr. Carmichael appears appears as "Andrew Cheetah" -- who loves to count -- in the sequel. Indeed he does -- and earned his double B.S. in Math and Computer Science by the age of eighteen, having started full-time at university at age thirteen.

Truth is stranger than fiction. What fun to be in both!

12:

Cor, I'm so impressed. Now I just need Oliver Morton to turn up, so I can ask him about Darwin's Radio.

Ah yes, I'm PeteY, just forgot to sign in properly.

13:

Oh yes, I must say, Jonathan, you're so right about John Brunner's poor representation. I can hardly find his books these days, but anyway, I nose them out of dodgy secondhand shops in Charing X Rd and other places.

Sorry, Charlie, for hijacking your thread. I suppose I'm up for a bollocking now.

14:

It's almost certainly not a representation issue.

Republication runs of a book are never going to sell as well as the original editions. And lots of people have really bizarre expectations of the value of a literary estate -- especially relatives who've seen the author in their family making a living at the job, but who have no idea how much actual work goes into it.

So you end up with the literary estate being inherited by someone who won't entertain offers of less than $100,000 up-front and 50% royalties for republication of a book that never really sold terribly well in the first place.

And so, the book isn't republished and the author's work falls into obscurity.

The hard truth is that 98% of us fall out of print within 5 years of our deaths. Stieg Larsson is a very strange exception to the usual rule.

15:

I feel that Stieg Larsson partly sold as well as he has because of the story of his death, and his leaving manuscripts behind.
That and they're pretty good books.
Maybe you should arrange to pop your clogs in some interesting way leaving behind your master work Charlie?

(joking obviously)

16:

I didn't even know John Brunner was dead. I'm finding a lot about writers I used to read from these comments (Previously, Timothy Mo's career nosedive)

17:

I see you've commented on advances vs. total royalties, which I was going to ask about. Steve Jackson Games pays decent advances, given the small print runs of their books . . . not nearly comparable to what you science fiction writers get, but then it's a different industry. But I never care much about the amount of the advance; I'm interested in the total royalties over the life of the book . . . those monthly (for online titles) and quarterly (for print titles) royalty checks make a nice little addition to my budget. So I'm curious what total earnings are like in your part of the publishing industry. Any data?

18:

I know there are some escape clauses in contracts, both ways, so an advance isn't quite rock-solid (another advantage in having an agent, I suppose). But I don't think I would want to bet on future royalties, not in that market.

There's another writer I know who does a lot of ghost-writing, and I wonder how the payment for that compares to an advance. If you're writing the latest book in Toon Dodgy's Nuke Farce series, it likely takes as much work as an original novel. You've still got to figure out the gosh-wow-o-boy-o-boy tech McGuffin, and make it sound not-ridiculous.

19:

No data, alas.

I haven't been in this game long enough for any of my novels to fall out of print and the rights to revert to me -- the closest I've come is "Toast" (now out of print, I'm going to revert the rights) and "The Atrocity Archive" (I'm getting the hardcover rights back because GG sold out and have no desire to reprint, but it's still selling well in paperback). It takes 8 or more years from frist publication for a successful book to go through this life cycle and I only sold my first novel 9 years ago!

What I can say is: if your books earn out the advance and pay a royalty, then it means you are almost certainly profitable for the publisher, so you're in a strong position to sell them more books and ask for the same or larger advance. If your books earn out the advance in hardcover before a paperback run, you're the apple of their eye. And if your books don't earn out ... you may still be breakeven grade and get another crack of the whip, as long as they don't lose too much money on you.

And all of my books that have been in print for more than 18 months have earned out.

(But I'm a single data point and I don't think I'm representative of the midlist as a whole.)

20:

Charlie,

let me give it a try. If we had data to get both the mean advance and the standard deviation of agented and unagented books, as well as the number of agented/unagented books, I think we could say something.

Let's treat each book as if it were a part of a noisy electric signal going into a black box that generates two output signals. One labeled 'agent', the other 'no agent'. We only get the outgoing signal strength (the advance), but we can assume that the input has a well defined random distribution with a given level of noise. On average, the 'agent' signal will be twice as high as the 'no agent' signal.

The extreme assumptions of what happens would be (in your case) a) the signal is split in two random batches, one of which goes to the agent, which will then amplify the signal, whereas the other goes without amplification and (in my case) b) the 'agent' output simply returns signals above a certain threshold, the 'no agent' one those below it.

In case a) you will find that the 'agent' amplifies the noise as well as the signal. Thus, the relative level of noise will be the same for both agented and unagented signals, but the absolute level of noise will be twice as high for the 'agent' signal.

In case b), since you don't actually change anything about the signal, the absolute level of noise will be constant. But the relative level of noise will be much smaller in the 'agent' signal, than in the 'no agent' signal.

Reality will be a mixture of both (and then some), but you will probably still find the traces of selection processes in the form of lower relative noise in the (not really) "amplified" signal, compared to the untreated signal.

21:

Probably it is too early, but have you got any feedback from the publisher on whether "Trade of Queens" is selling well ? I ask because I tried finding it in three local bookstores and it was sold out at all three.

22:

Broca: no data, as yet.

Publishers sell on net 90 day or 120 day credit terms. For a book that officially came out on March 16th, the stores don't have to actually cough up cash for sold copies until June 16th or July 16th. At that point, the publisher will get some idea of how many copies sold through, i.e. went out of shops and into the hands of end users. Before then, they can get a crude feel for it by checking on the volume of re-orders, but re-orders are tricky ... bookstores can re-order stock then ship it back to the publisher if it doesn't sell.

Tracking sales is easier for publishers in the UK where most individual bookstores are plugged into Bookscan; they can get near realtime feedback on individual copies sold, broken down to the bookstore level. Alas, this edition isn't for sale in the UK (other than as grey market copies)!

23:

An agent can certainly get an author a higher advance and a better royalty rate, but that 15% applies to both and, but for pennies, tends to suck up both increases. They charge what the market can stand, surviving on new writers unsure of their ground (in this area also acting as a filter for publishers) and established writers who are complacent about money matters. A greedy agent can also cause damage by getting high advances - there's only so many advances that don't get paid off by sales that an author's career can stand.

24:

Neal, in my experience ... let's just say, having an agent has (a) boosted my advances by 400% over a decade (on titles that are consistently earning out), and (b) made a bundle of foreign rights sales I'd have been ill-equipped for.

A bad agent is worse than no agent at all, granted, but being excessively greedy springs to mind as one of the traits of a bad agent; understanding how to build a career, and knowing when to stop demanding too much money, are as valuable to an agent in the long run as to an author.

25:

Fair enough, Charlie. There are some good and some bad out there and no one can know which is which without testing the water. As for foreign rights ... I'm not sure how many countries I've totted up now with the publisher acting as my agent, certainly over ten. And I know that some agents take the easier option of selling those rights to the publisher straight off.

It's all a bit moot really for new writers. I got there without an agent, which required 20 years of running at a wall with my head, and I'm not sure even that would work now. Can publishers afford slush piles now?

26:

Word of mouth is useful in choosing an agent. (It helps to be plugged in to other authors, though.)

Foreign rights: in my case, I, too, have hit over ten. The difference ... those contracts I've seen where the publisher takes translation rights, they usually take a 50/50 split of the proceeds from re-selling those rights. My agent takes 20%, and seems to be more successful at selling the rights in the first place.

(I'd argue that if publishers don't try to engage with the slushpile they'll go the same way as the music companies, and for the same reason: it's where their next big hit may come from. Admittedly I can see the downside to pearl-diving in sewage, but ignoring it seems unwise to me.)

27:

"It helps to be plugged in to other authors, though."
What a horrible mental picture that summons up.

Suffice to say that a publisher going 50/50 would be taking the piss. Of course a new author would need an agent or to read comments like these to know it's bad. The Internet is a wonderful thing - when I started out you needed to join something like 'The Society of Authors' to get hold of percentage gen like this.

I must ask about slush piles - see if publishers still bother with them.

28:

Think of it this way:

"Agented Submissions Only" is the publishing-industry equivalent of "let's outsource all tech support to South Asia." If one looks at the immediate bottom line, it removes a potential cost center with variable-to-no-apparent revenue from the balance sheet. If one looks at long-run issues like potential harm to one's good will (another balance sheet item), the answer is... different. The key point is that in both instances, it involves trusting an outsider to perform essential judgment functions. The best example I can point to at the moment for that is Lehman Brothers.

29:

It is certainly an accepted reality in the UK that to get a book picked from the slush pile carries about similar odds as winning five & the bonus on the lotto. I discovered (think it was from a radio 4 programme) that some [bored] junior assistant would rummage through the mass of MSs, and open one that looked somehow appealing, maybe start reading it. This one lucky author might even have their novel passed on to an editor.

By the same token, there are so few agents in my country who actually accept science fiction that many début authors (such as myself) are left with limited options. Get the pitch wrong, make some errors with that too-early submission, and you’ve effectively blown it. All that awaits are the embracing arms of the self-publishing and POD companies with their appealingly egalitarian philosophy.

Quite comforting to read those stats on authors’ successes, though.

30:

It does sort of make you appreciate why fan-fic level publishing happens. Maybe not the stories based on well-known TV shows, but there are places where somebody is reading the story and choosing to publish it.

It maybe counted for more in the days of paper fanzines, but its still going on.

Maybe the eBook is evolving in the gap between that and dead-tree publishing.

It's a gamble. The market isn't big enough to support a full-time author. It's too soon to tell. And not having a slush-pile isn't going to bite quickly.

Charlie, I know your writing career isn't typical, but I have the feeling that many of the opportunities you took just aren't there any more. And it's more than just the rise and fall of individual magazines.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on March 24, 2010 10:05 AM.

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