The secret to getting more up-front money is persuading your publisher to project higher book sales. Every publisher I know has an internal “advance offer calculation” process, based on a formula for estimating first year sales, revenues, and royalties.
The formula for book advances
It’s not a shot-in-the-dark but a scientific data dump that projects a precise number, based on (total first year unit sales) x (retail price) x (royalty rate) = first year author earnings = advance offered.
So let’s say an agent sends me your dynamite proposal or manuscript. I love it enough to circulate the proposal throughout the company and now everyone loves it. Yes, this still happens on a regular basis. How do you think all those new books get published every year?
And in each case the publisher has to decide how much of an advance against earnings to offer the prospective author.
Department heads weigh in
Since I need approvals from a large team of financial, sales, marketing, and publicity department heads (maybe even the USC intern) in order to offer a deal for a book, I meet with and persuade more than a dozen people to get their support and commitment to specific numbers.
Ahead of those meetings, I prepare complex profit and loss spread sheets, based on projected advance book orders, alternative pricing, first printing, formats, and royalty rates, plus tip sheets about the book, the market, key sales points, and most importantly the author platform and track record.
Then, in large committee rooms sometimes teleconferenced to key outposts around the country, we poll specific sales reps for major national and independent accounts and require a commitment to a specific numbers of estimated sales.
This is when I hear hard-nosed feedback like, “We can get 2500 copies into Barnes & Noble nationwide if we can guarantee this author will be on the Today show,” and “Borders is hurting, so this might be a skip or maybe 400 copies with enough publicity buzz, or how about a good review,” or “Wal-Mart will take 20,000 of this if we drop the price to $6.95.”
And this is when publicity and marketing execs ask me, “Show us that DVD again of the author on Dr. Phil, or is it the local PTA, whatever, we want to see how she can do on her feet without a script. Is she authentic? Is she passionate? How big is her blog, her email list? How many copies did Nielsen’s BookScan say she sold of her last book?”
One by one, around the table and over the live call-in conference lines, everyone makes a conservative estimate. After furious adding and subtracting, the final numbers emerge: Let’s say a total of 54,235 total units projected at $24.95 and an average royalty of 12% retail comes to exactly $162,379.59 first year earnings to the author and that’s my offer: a straight $160K.
There may be no one else interested in this book, but more likely there’s a competitive best-offer or round-robin offer, with a short deadline and blind numbers coming in from other bidders with no way of knowing how many or how much. It’s a nerve wracking experience.
But given this formulaic process, what can an author or agent do to jack up the number of projected sales and get the biggest possible advance? The bottom line is that publishers want to know what authors can do to sell the book on their own.
What you can do to negotiate a higher advance
1. Be a celebrity ~ Tina Fey just got upwards of $6 million for an unspecified humor book. Incredible, yes? That’s an exceptional figure by any stretch, but if you can claim a measure of celebrity status in your particular field, it can help boost your own advance.
2. Be honest and smart about your platform ~ Be sure to have that web site up and working, and a blog posting going out at least two or three times a week, before your book goes out for sale.
3. Tell the publisher how many names you’ve captured for own your email list ~ We know that a certain percentage of any blast to a personal email list will buy the book, and they’ll add in those numbers to their total units sold first year.
4. Tell us how many email lists you’re going to purchase yourself ~ These are not very expensive, and they’re key for ongoing email blasts. Publishers know that these lists work and are delighted to keep adding in more units. I know an author who sent out two million emails for his first book and it worked so well he’s committed to sending seven million the next time around. If you get the right lists for your book’s market, it can definitely pump up those numbers.
5. Commit to hiring your own publicity professional or web site marketing specialist ~ Every successful author I know these days has their own publicity and marketing people to fill in all the gaps left by conventional publishing efforts. Publishers will increase their projections when they hear you’re planning on this, so do this for at least a few months before and after pub date, and further, if all goes well.
6. Sell a chapter from your book to a respected periodical ~ That proves your work is already recognized and that it has a real market. For fiction there are many excellent literary journals. They may not have a huge circulation but publishers respect their taste and judgment. For non-fiction it depends on your topic, but there are good magazines and journals in every field.
7. Include a DVD in your proposal ~ Whether it’s you on a big network show or at the local Kiwanis, we want to see who you are and how you present. In one case, a first-time author sent me a home video her husband took of her full-face, just talking into the camera. She was so telegenic and persuasive that we doubled our numbers and paid her a larger advance.
8. Get endorsements from recognizable names ~ Go for published authors, respectable experts, folks with good affiliations and credentials. Sure there’s a lot of mutual back-scratching in the blurbs business, but it really does work to have an outside quotation, publishers do want them, and it affects their estimated numbers.
9. Meet the editors, sales and publicity people ~ Offer to come into our offices, especially when your dollar expectations are high. Making the human connection can greatly strengthen your case. As an editor, I sometimes bring an author in to meet with key decision-makers on my team.
Remember: It’s all about the numbers, but by being an active self-marketer, you can influence what are really seat-of-the-pants projections based on subjective impressions and relationships.