The Book Advance: Why Authors Should Turn It Down and Own Their Own Work Instead

Shannon Clark
December 06, 2023 | 7 mins

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Let's talk about book advances.

Just a couple of decades ago, when the powers that be gathered around the water cooler to discuss book publishing and authors, two groups always emerged: traditional and everything else. Self-publishing always fell into the everything else pile, relegated to a corner table in the back of the room where all the other uninvited guests sat, but then something changed. 

Traditionally-published authors and aspiring ones began weighing their output against their returns and found that something was off. Whether they spent a few months or years writing their book did not matter. It was still the same blood mingled with their sweat and tears, not to mention valuable time. So why, after all of that work, were authors being compensated with the leftover table scraps after the distributors, printers, and publishers took their cut off the top? Ouch! No wonder so few authors could make a reasonable living as a writer. 

We'll look at what book advances really mean for authors who are traditionally published and if holding out for one is the best use of your time.

Although self-publishing has been around forever, in more recent times, it was often considered a last resort for anyone who could not get traditionally published. But, when POD (print-on-demand) technology introduced itself and became a mainstream option for the public, aspiring authors could finally test the market demand for themselves without investing a lot of money on the front end.

Suddenly, new authors and established ones were testing the waters of self-publishing to see if they could stay afloat. Not only could they tread water, but many with established audiences, innovative ideas, or a niche audience found that they were outswimming traditionally published authors.

Authors who already had a built-in audience found that self-publishing allowed them to have creative control over their projects and get the lion’s share of the profits. Examples include J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter ebooks), Andy Weir (“The Martian” self-published first), and Lisa Genova (“Still Alice” self-published first).

What is a book advance? 

A book advance or advance against royalties is when a publisher takes a chance on an author selling a certain number of books and prepays them before the book goes on sale. A book advance is not a signing bonus. Once the book starts to sell, an author will not see a royalty check until the book advance has been paid back in full. 

How much is a typical book advance for a first-time author? 

To get the answers to what a first-time author can reasonably expect for a book advance, I researched literary agents to see what they had to say. After all, they are on the front lines of making the deals for authors who want to be published traditionally, so they have the most experience with the ends and outs of the process. 

According to literary agent and founder of The Bindery literary agency, Alexander Field (and others), first-time authors can expect a book advance of $5,000-$50,000 on average, but as with most things, there are exceptions. Field points out that the amount a first-time author receives upfront can depend “on a whole host of factors, including the size of the publisher, passion of the book editor involved, author’s platform, the power of the book concept, current cultural landscape, the competition involved, and so much more.”

So, what does this mean for first-time authors who want to be traditionally published? It means that there are a lot of uncertainties and a whole string of hoops that you and your book have to jump through to get a good book advance.

…and you still have to pay it back before you
can get your first real royalty check from sales. Sigh.

How hard is it to get a book advance? 

Before we look at the likelihood of getting a book advance with a traditional publisher, we should look at first-time author statistics. Here are some sobering numbers that relate to traditional publishing;

WordRated estimates that:

  • A publishing house of medium/large size will often receive more than 5,000 unrequested manuscript submissions annually.
  • Within the book publishing industry, it is agreed that the odds of an author getting their work published stands between 1% and 2%.

Many traditional publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. They prefer to work with literary agents. If you are publishing the traditional route, a literary agent is one of the first gatekeepers you’ll encounter. Below you’ll find a cross-section of submission statistics from the literary and publishing sides: 

  • “When I worked for a publishing house we received nearly 3,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year. The company only published about 120 new titles per year, and most of them were from previously published authors.” – Steve Laube. The Steve Laube Agency
  • “To my personal submissions inbox I receive about 50 a week.” – Danielle Zigner, literary agent. LBA books
  • We, like many agencies, are fortunate enough to receive sometimes hundreds of submissions a week.- Josephine Hayes, literary agent. The Blair Partnership
  • “As an agency, we receive about 200-400 submissions a month. Of those, we only take on a few a year.” – Carrie Plitt, literary agent. Felicity Bryan Associates

When you look at the numbers, the chances of getting picked up by a traditional publisher or literary agency are possible but slim. Established authors often have a better chance, while first-time authors can have a steeper hill to climb.

The self-publishing solution

By no means is self-publishing the magic cure for all publishing woes. On the contrary, as a self-published author, you’ll have to put in more work because you are acting as both author and publisher. However, when you control the puzzle pieces, you have more influence over the outcome. There are so many resources available to help authors walk through the publishing process. 

A couple of decades ago, if you wanted to self-publish a book, information on the process was limited, so you had to wing it and hope that you could drum up a few sales from family, friends, clients, and the occasional book fair. Now self-publishers have access to the same high-quality designers, editors, printers, and distributors that traditional publishers do. 

According to Bookstat (via Publisher’s Weekly), self-publishers accounted for 51% of ebook sales in 2022. That’s a hefty share of the market. Gone are the days when self-published authors were not taken seriously. Book sales are proving that independent authors can be serious contenders in the book publishing space. 

YouTube video

The golden key of self-publishing is that it puts the control back into the authors’ hands. 

  • The turnaround time for publication is shorter – you do not have to wait in line for your book to amble through a traditional publishing schedule. 
  • Higher profit margin – keep the extra percentage that publishers and literary agents take off the top. Self-publishers often make 30%-70% of the list price of each book minus printing costs compared to 10%-15% royalties for traditional publishers.
  • Creative control – you choose how much or how little you want to participate in the creative process.
  • Wider cross-promotion options – work with an expanded network of self-published authors within your genre. 
  • Bypass the gatekeepers – if you have a unique story that fits outside of what traditional publishers are looking for, you can publish it yourself so that your audience does not miss out. 


Final thoughts

The pool of authors who benefit more from traditional publishing than self-publishing is getting smaller. Publishers are requiring more from authors than ever before just to be considered for publication. While one of the main benefits of traditional publishing is not having to pay for the process upfront, it is increasingly being overshadowed by the limited opportunities to get selected, low royalty rates and book advances, longer publication times, and limited marketing support (depending on the contract). 

A self-publisher can leverage their audience, do their marketing on their terms, and get paid more. 

If you are an established author with a proven track record and a loyal following, traditional publishing could be a good fit if you find the right publisher to back you. For all other authors, seriously weigh the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing before you sign the dotted line.

At the very least, consider self-publishing as a way to get your idea out into the marketplace and prove your book will sell. Then you'll have more leverage if you choose to go the traditional route later.

Next steps

Are you on the fence about self-publishing, not sure if it's the right path for you? Book a no-pressure call with one of the team members. They’ll be able to answer all your questions about the book writing and self-publishing process and help you determine the best next step for your book publishing journey.

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