Saving Adam, that I am working on now, will be a trade book with Beacon Press, in Boston. And while, I have worked with agents on two previous books, this was the first one with a more or less standard approach to the process of getting a contract.
Once there are two or more publishers interested in a book, the agent’s job is to get the biggest advance for the author and—since the agent takes 15% commission—that also means the agent gets the best deal for himself. Our interests were mutual—no conflict of interest here.
For a really “hot” book project—like the one being circulated now by that whistle-blower from Goldman-Sachs—the proposal will go to auction and publishers will bid against each other. I heard today that the bidding for that book is in the millions now. The publishers interested in Saving Adam were much smaller and the two bids for the book were $10,000 apiece. There was not a lot of headroom for an auction here and my agent was concerned that one—or both—of the publishers might back out if threatened with a bidding war. So he looked for other ways to sweeten the deal.
There are various ways to sweeten a deal without increasing the advance—everything from additional free copies at printing, to retaining ownership of foreign rights, to increasing the percent of the royalties on a future paperback, to artistic control over any movies based on the book. My agent got Beacon to give up the foreign rights to sweeten the deal. This could mean absolutely nothing, but it could also be significant. Suppose, for example, that Saving Adam sells very well, or perhaps gets adopted as a standard text in some college class. This would almost guarantee interest on the part of publishers in other countries, especially England and Australia where no translation would be necessary, to sell the book in their market. If that happens, my agent will negotiate a separate contract with these publishers and get me another advance. The same would be true with versions that had to be translated into other languages.
The advances that authors get are ambiguous in many ways. Technically, they are an advance on royalties from the book when it starts selling. An author would make between $1 and $3 per book, depending on the price, and the publisher would not have to pay anything until the advance payments was fully covered. If my royalties on Saving Adam are $2 per book, then I won’t see any funds beyond the advance until after 5000 copies have been sold.
In a sense then, advances on royalties might seem irrelevant—the author is simply getting paid early but ultimately you would get the money anyway when the books sold. But this is not how it works. Publishers typically give you more money in the advance than they expect the author to make from royalties. Harvard University Press gave Randall and I significantly more money in our advance for The Anointed than we would earn if the entire initial print run sold out at full price. The successful author, Paul Davies, told me once that a good agent would make sure his or her authors got advances so large they would never see a penny of royalty after the book appeared.
Technically, a publisher can ask for the advance back if the book doesn’t sell enough copies to cover it, but my understanding is that this simply never happens. My book Saving Darwin did not sell enough copies to cover the advance of $25,000 that I got for that book, but HarperOne has never approached me to return any of the money. My guess is they consider it their mistake to have given an advance that turned out to be “too big.” And they also make more money than the author on every copy so they don’t need to sell so many to start turning a profit.
And, for what it is worth, even with my largest advance, writing books still nets less than minimum wage per hour for the time spent writing. You gotta love the work….