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.