Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Tripod of Publishing: Establishing Priorities

Before I went to college, I was told there were three things I could have: sleep, a social life, and grades. Pick two.

In publishing, there are also three things: best home, best advance, best editor. Pick one.

As an agent, my goal is to get you all three. But usually, there are trade-offs.

For a nonfiction author, a small advance can be devastating if it’s not enough to cover the cost of writing the book. Having the wrong home can hinder support from the publishing house when it comes to marketing and PR. And having the wrong editor can deadpan the project in the water when neither can agree on edits or a direction for the book.

As an author, it’s important to establish your priorities before you sign with an agent, because each agent is going to have a different view on which of the three trumps the others.

Personally, I believe in finding the perfect editor for the project – within the right house. Advance is bottom on my list (which doesn’t mean I won’t fight tooth and nail to get what I can!). Because I work primarily with debut authors, getting them established is priority – and to get them established, they will need the devotion of their editor, and the right house, to push their book.

A small advance isn’t going to hurt your career. You’ll just see royalties faster. If the advance is small, ask what they’ll do for marketing, because low sales will hurt your career (or at least make it difficult to sell your next project).

But don’t get me started on the low numbers debate – with the expanding success many small (and big) presses have with e-book sales, I believe in royalty statements, but most publishers use BookScan and…well, check out this to read more on that!

More established agents who rely primarily on commission may see advance as top priority. And they can afford to do this, because they work with established clients. For these clients, they have a built-in platform or fan base to work from, and do not need as much PR to sell the same amount of books as a debut author – and so the advance trumps all other concerns.

As for the right house? Well, two reasons this is important: two, they’ll have a history marketing this type of book, which means they can do it well, and first, they’ll still want to publish it even if your editor leaves (and hopefully there will be someone else there who will actually be happy to take over the project).

In the end, it comes down to what you’re comfortable with. Never publish quickly – publish well. But publishing well doesn’t mean having all three factors.


  1. It seems like this ties into the fact that debut authors might still harbor dreams of that miraculous publishing auction that nets them a six-figure advance. Whereas it seems much more realistic to me to look at the long haul plan, a place to settle in and work on the career, not just the cash from the first book. My idea of being an author is not so much the millionaire lifestyle (though if someone offered me a million dollars for a book, I wouldn't exactly say no) but rather making it work as a long-term career.

    In the long term, the difference between a $10,000 advance and a $50,000 advance is not actually that much. But the difference between the right and wrong editor could be devastating.

    Great post!

  2. Thank you for this! I needed this right now. :) As I've been having pretty much this SAME discussion with the hubby. It's nice to know we're in the same boat and I can use this to prove my point. :D

  3. Excellent post, Natalie. A similar best-selling author (Diana Gabaldon) gave similar advice to me and few other writers, and I paraphrase...it's better to start small and grow big, than start big and grow small. :)


  4. I love your detailed insights into the industry! It helps me get a good perspective so I can figure out my goals for a writing career. I'd definitely agree that I'd pick the right editor/house over a large advance!

  5. Say it again...the part where you work primarily with debut authors?

  6. This is such an informative post! I've yet to see this information laid out so simply and clearly. It's a big help to aspiring authors.

    Like you, I agree that finding an awesome editor trumps a big advance in importance. I'd much rather have a talented and devoted editor than tons of money up front. When it comes to longevity, a great editor will be a heck of a lot more helpful than a big advance.

    Thanks again for the great post!

    And in college, I chose grades and a social life. :)

  7. This makes things a lot clearer. Thanks!

  8. This was very insightful, thanks. I do have some questions though. If a larger advance isn't a big deal for you, does that give the author/agent team more leverage to find the best home and or negotiate better marketing for the book? I would assume it does, but after years of testing software I know its not the best idea to assume things like that.I can understand how someone would really want a big advance (who wouldn't really) but right now writing as a career isn't even in my mind. Don't get me wrong, if I could make a living at it I'd stop being a software engineer in a heartbeat, but since I make a good living a big advance wouldn't be my first pick of those three. I personally think finding the best home for my book, with someone that loves the story as much as I do would be the best place. What are your thoughts?


  9. Excellent post on a very important subject. I love your advice on deciding which of the three is most important and making sure your agent has the same goals. Best home and best editor are top of the list for me because you're right, it all comes down to sales, not the advance.

  10. Interesting! I've never considered this trade-off before. Thanks for explaining it so well.

  11. Hi Anonymous - not worrying about the advance does give the agent/author team more options on publishing houses (i.e. smaller presses), but it doesn't usually help with negotiation with marketing. Any publisher is going to do what they can, and smaller presses just don't always have the same reach as larger houses. Some university presses have harder times getting reviews. So, that's again where the agent comes in who will hopefully know exactly what you'd be getting into!

  12. Great explanations! I suppose advances are important to some degree, but it seems to me the other two are much more important.

  13. We had this conversation early on, and I remember feeling such relief when you said that a house's support for marketing was a big factor in your opinion of an offer. A large advance without marketing is a formula for disaster. And thanks for the BookScan links! Very enlightening...

  14. Thanks for the great advice. I'd rather find a good fit with a publisher and not worry about not earning my advance than getting a big advance. It's good to know it's okay to think like that.

  15. As an independent editor and a professional writer, I found this blog post very reassuring. I always tell my clients to be comfortable first and I let my own work stand on its own. Thanks!