First, for those who might not know, an advance is the money your publisher gives you up front for your book. It counts against your royalties, so you have to earn it back in sales.
Which means there are a couple of ways to look at advances. I mean, we all want that six-figure (or seven-figure) contract for our book. But the thing is, if you get a huge advance, you have to sell a crapload of books to earn it back, and that can be downright stressful. In the case of Charles Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, he got an $8-million advance, and I think he’ll probably be paying it off for the rest of his life. The book didn’t do so hot. Bummer for him. Granted, he still got $8 million, but next time around? Who knows. He’ll be lucky if his publisher still wants to work with him.
Then there’s the other category of books that get some money upfront, but then sell really well and earn out their advances. The author is earning royalties in his/her sleep. Like J.K. Rowling, for example.
So what can be expected? What’s normal for a book?
Well, when it looked like I might get an offer on Donut Days, I asked my agent this same question: What did she expect the offer would look like if it came in? Her response was that it’s almost impossible to tell. At the time I was disappointed with the answer but now I know, she’s right — every book is different. What’s more, there has been some question about shrinking advances now that so many book publishers are having a hard time financially. I talked to a writer friend recently who had almost finished a contracted manuscript, only to have the book publisher pull the title and say they weren’t going to publish it.
That said, books are still being sold to publishers, and advances are still being given out. And there are some benchmarks.
A Google search turned up the page of Tobias S. Buckell and his survey information on advances. He breaks down the data (culled from 108 authors) in great ways, such as those authors who are agented versus not, and also by genre. Very smart guy.
Author Justine Larbaleister also offers some general advance info on her website.
The bottom line is it all depends on what you’re writing, if it’s a first novel, if you’re agented … a host of things. The websites above offer some good data and you can probably guess where you’ll hit on the spectrum. Just don’t bank on it until your check is in hand.
[Image Source: Diane Chamberlain. Also, in finding this image, I also discovered Diane has a great post on how she gets asked all the time as a writer about how much she makes. It's worth the read!]