As an agent, I love large advances, but I’m wondering if they are always in some client’s best interest. What happens if a large advance is offered but the novel or book fails to pay out the advance? Is this client’s career over or does the client have enough staying power to overcome this? Is there more to a big advance than just saying, “Yes?”
There are advances and then there are ADVANCES. Even though it staggers my Midwest sensibilities that any publisher would pay a huge advance in these uncertain economic times, research will show that this particular advance wasn’t a dumb move.
Scribner knew what they were doing when they very recently paid an advance of $5,000,000 for Audrey Niffenegger's, Her Fearful Symmetry. Yes, this is a time when some major bookstores seem to be gasping for breath, returns are at an all-time high and seven out of every ten novels or books fail to pay out their advances. But if you understand what has happened here, Ms. Niffenegger’s success won’t be a shock since her first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was a runaway best-seller. Because of that, Her Fearful Symmetry was hugely anticipated, sought after by everyone in publishing and was bought at auction at this unheard of price because of this anticipation and because every major publisher was also bidding for it—and Scribner won.
They are playing this book close to the vest, too. Even though it’s do out in September, there’s not much known about the actual plot except the story, set in England, is about two twin girls who inherit their aunt’s haunted house near a famous cemetery. Release will probably be timed to coincide with the release of the movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife. So even at 5 million cool ones, there’s a very good chance that this entire deal will be a huge success. But is every very large advance this good to its author? It appears not. As stated earlier 7 out of 10 advances fail to pay out and, because of this, we believe that many publishers are paying way more for books than they are worth. These days, however, it’s more about hype than actual quality. Bragging rights are great until it’s time to pay the piper.
The fact that Ms. Niffenegger prepared herself to be an artist also further validates that one should prepare oneself for a career in the creative arts. It works better to prepare rather than to just attempt writing a after buying a new computer and realizing it doesn’t take long to put words on a page, a point we’ve written about often, much to the chagrin some writers. Our reasoning is and always has been that those who prepare themselves consistently beat the odds. Yes, some have been successful without training, but some have also won the lottery. To fortify what we advocate, Ms. Niffenegger has a BFA and MFA in creative writing and the quality of her books reflects her preparation.
The question of whether large advances help or harm a writer’s future, however, can only be played out author by author. In Ms. Niffenegger’s case, it appears her writing is strong enough and/or her books sell well enough that the large advance could be justified. Is she the exception or the rule? There are tales of many authors who have ruined their careers by success that came too easily and too early in the form of a large advance. So ultimately, it is vital to look at the advance as part of a whole package and not just as a badge of prestige, an indicator of talent, or a predictor of success.