On Advances


Dr. Seuss never took an advance.

Seth Godin explains in his Domino Project post “Dr. Seuss [...] refused to take an advance from his publisher. He wanted his publisher to have the same incentives he did.”

I absolutely agree with this sentiment but disagree with the conclusion.

My incentives are to write the best book possible, to bring that book to market in an attractive package as quickly as possible, sell the book at an attractive and reasonable price, and to have the target market know about the availability of the book.

Initially, most of the work on a book is mine. At some point the editors, tech editors, copy editors, typesetters, etc. from the publisher will get involved. In the beginning I’m the only one working on this project.

I don’t need the money from the advance. Well, let’s say that another way – an advance is not a gift, it’s an upfront payment for money we are betting the book will earn. If I’m not optimistic that the book will earn out the advance then I shouldn’t be writing the book.

To me the advance is a commitment on the side of the publisher. They are saying that they think it will earn at least that amount and that they would like to see this book written and published. Without an advance, they can sign all sorts of books they aren’t truly committed to. As long as we haven’t reached the stage where they are committing resources to the project, then there is little reason for them not to sign books they have no intention of publishing.

I recently turned down an offer from a publisher. I’ve written for them before and like them and believe in them. I like the editor I would be working with and loved the project. I turned them down because they decided not to offer me an advance.

They would not could not pay up front

So I said “Sir, not to be blunt,

If you don’t think this will earn out,

Then we should stop and think this out,

This book, good sir, we should not do.

It’s bad for me, it’s bad for you.”

Really it was as simple as that. If they didn’t think I would earn out the advance they had originally offered me then they didn’t believe this book would sell very well and we shouldn’t be engaged in this project. I made a quick calculation that I could sell this book directly in the iBookstore for one third of the price they were going to charge and earn out the advance if I sold fewer than one thousand copies. I’ve decided if I can’t find one thousand people who want this book then I shouldn’t be writing it. Their calculation was, no doubt, different.

An advance is one way the publisher shares in the commitment and shares in the risk. Dr. Seuss didn’t take an advance, but he had a good deal of clout that most of us don’t have.