Much like salaries, book advances are surrounded by mystery. Authors who get big advances like to brag — but how much can you actually expect?
Here’s a frustrating answer: it depends. But in this post, I’ll at least give you some benchmarks for advances, based on my survey of nonfiction authors, and explain how you can maximize your advance from publishers.
What is an advance?
If you write a killer proposal and successfully pitch your book to traditional publishers (often with the help of an agent), you’ll get offers. The key elements of the offer are the royalty rate (typically ramping up to 15% of list price once a few thousand books are sold) and an advance. (Hybrid publishers don’t pay advances, but they do pay a higher royalty rate.)
The advance is money the publisher pays directly to the author on completion of certain milestones. You get to keep the advance money regardless of how well the book sells; it’s guaranteed money.
The advance is divided up into installments. These days, those installments are often:
- On signing the contract.
- On delivery of an acceptable manuscript.
- On publication.
- One year after publication.
Once the book starts selling, the publisher keeps an accounting of the accumulated royalties. Until those royalties exceed the total amount of the advance, you don’t get any additional money. If you sell enough to accumulate royalties that exceed the advance, you’ll get royalty payments for the excess and any future book sales. This is called “earning out the advance,” and for many books, it never happens — but the author still gets to pocket and keep the advance.
How much is the advance?
Advances vary widely. They reflect the publisher’s estimate of how well the book will sell. If they expect great sales, you could get an advance of well over $100,000; if their expectations are lower, it could well be in the low thousands of dollars. On some books, traditional publishers pay no advance at all.
For example, on my previous book, Writing Without Bullshit, I received offers that varied by a factor of ten — because different publishers had widely varying expectations of how well the book would sell.
Advances have declined in the last ten years or so, reflecting challenges in the publishing industry. So don’t set your expectations based on advances you heard that some author got in 2005.
Between 2019 and 2022, I surveyed nonfiction authors. Of those, 96 had published books with traditional publishers. This group isn’t “typical,” but no group could be, since nonfiction authors are so varied. Here’s a look at the genres they wrote in, to give you an idea who participated in the survey.
Among the traditionally published authors I surveyed, the median advance was $17,500. I use the median since it’s the best measure for understanding any data set with widely varying amounts; half the traditionally published authors in my survey got larger advances than this, and half got smaller advances.
Here’s the distribution of advances these authors got. I looked a little closer at whether authors got more if they’d previously been published; as it turns out, they didn’t. Advances for previously published authors look a lot like advances for first-time authors.
Here are a few notable observations from this chart. About 85% of authors, or seven out of eight, received some level of advance. About 40% received at least $25,000, and 23% received at least $100,000.
While my author sample isn’t necessarily typical of any group out there, this does tell you something. If your proposal and level of prominence are sufficient to get offers, you’re likely to get an advance. And if your proposal and ability to sell books are good enough, there’s still a decent chance to get a six-figure advance.
Maximizing your advance
Since there’s a good chance the advance is the only money you’ll ever see from the publisher, there are good reasons to want it to be as large as possible. Here are some strategies that can increase the size of your advance.
- Get an agent. In each case where I’ve sold a book to a traditional publisher, I had an agent. The agent knows how to get publishers bidding against one another. This maximizes your advance. If I’d only pitched one publisher on my previous book, I might have missed out on $150,000 in advance money; the agent is what made the difference in getting multiple offers.
- Beef up your author platform and promotion section. When it comes to generating good offers, the promotion section of your proposal is crucial. The more ways you have to generate awareness and sales, the more the publisher will believe you can sell a lot. Building a solid platform (blog, podcasts, social media followings, regular places that you publish, and the like) is essential to generating large advances.
- Differentiate. Your book needs to be unique. It needs to be the first book that [fill in the blank]. You won’t get a big offer for a book that’s too similar to every other book in your field.
- Time your book well. For a book to sell well, it has to catch fire in the zeitgeist of the moment. When Charlene Li and I wrote Groundswell, in 2008, social media was catching on but corporations were just beginning to realize they needed a strategy for it. Result: a big advance and more than 150,000 copies sold. A good book that’s perfect for right now will generate a bigger advance than a perfect book that’s not timed well. So be sure your proposal explains why this book is needed now.
A big advance isn’t the only thing that matters in your publisher. But in general, the bigger the advance, the more attention and support you get from the publisher. And it’s always nice to fund your book with the publisher’s money. So, if you choose to go with a traditional publisher, maximizing your advance is likely to improve your book’s chances of success.