Should you accept a traditional publishing deal with a zero advance?

Increasingly, traditional publishers are making offers that do not include an upfront advance on royalties paid at signing. Without the advance, are there any real advantages to working with a traditional publisher, or would you better off with a hybrid publisher?

Why zero-advance deals are spreading

I’ve connected with two authors recently who received traditional publishing deals that included no advance. Both had used my book proposal template (although I’m not sure I should be bragging that it generated $0 advances). One was with an indie publisher, the other was with Wiley, which publishes more business books than any other.

The advantages of a traditional publisher are: professional quality layout and manufacturing, professional cover design, some (usually minimal) editorial help, some (usually minimal) promotional effort, broad distribution including potential foreign translations (although these are hard to secure unless your book sells well), the prestige of a traditional publishing imprint, and payment of an advance. Books I’ve been involved with have generated advances of $225,000, although advances have significantly declined lately. In my author survey from 2019, the median advance for traditionally published authors was $17,500, and 15% of authors got a zero advance.

(A quick note on updating this data: we’re still collecting data from authors in a new survey and will publish it in July. the date of this post is the last day you can share your own experience in our survey and reserve a spot to get a look at the results.)

For a zero-advance deal, you still get all the usual traditional publisher advantages, but no upfront payment. You will still get royalty payments per book, which typically start at 10% of the cover price and go up to 15% after the book has sold a bunch. You also get ebook and audiobook royalties, but for the sake of simplifying this discussion I won’t go into detail about those.

There are disadvantages, too. You typically have to wait about 18 months from signing for the publication date. Traditional publishers will give you a few free copies (you can usually bargain it up to about 25), but after that you’ll have to pay about 50% of cover price for author copies. Royalty statements are slow; for example, you’ll get paid royalties for books sold in the first half of 2024 during October or November of the same year.

Compared to a zero advance, hybrids are more competitive

A hybrid publisher is a publisher you hire to publish and distribute your book. As with these zero-advance traditional deals, you get paid no upfront advance. But you start with money paid out of pocket, typically $30,000 or more. Zero out of pocket is still cheaper than spending $30,000 before a single book is sold — but as I’ll show, that depends on how many books you sell.

A quality hybrid publisher like Amplify, Ideapress, or Greenleaf will help deliver a book of equivalent quality to one produced traditionally. Compared to traditional publishers, you get many of the same advantages. You can get better editorial or promotional help than with a traditional publisher, but you’ll have to pay additional fees for those services. Distribution is typically weaker, but remember, most people are not going buy your nonfiction book in a physical bookstore anyway, and Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores aren’t likely to stock it. And hybrid publishers can still get books to bookstores that order it, as well as all the major online retailers.

One significant advantage is speed. You can often get a hybrid publisher to get your book out six to nine months after you sign the deal, provided your manuscript is ready. That’s way faster than a traditional publisher.

And based on my author survey, hybrid publishers were significantly more responsive to authors than traditional publishers.

Comparing the economics of zero-advance traditional and hybrid publishers

Let’s run a typical example. The numbers I’ll use here are typical of publishing deals, but if you’re in this situation, you need to do the math with your specific deal values. Again, these are for printed books only; ebooks and audiobooks could change these numbers.

Assumptions for this exercise:

  • The list price for your book is $30.
  • The traditional publisher is paying about $4 per book in royalties (between 10% and 15% of list price)
  • They hybrid publisher is paying about $10 a book in royalties. Hybrid publishing royalty rates vary based on whether the book is sold direct or through a distributor, but they’re much higher, so this is a reasonable assumption.
  • The hybrid publisher is charging you $30,000 to publish the book.
  • You want 100 author copies on top of your free allotment. The traditional publisher charges $15 per author copy, and the hybrid charges nothing, because your author copies come out of the price you already paid the hybrid for printing.

So you are starting at $30,000 cost for the hybrid, and $1,500 cost for the traditional publisher, the cost of the author copies. That’s a cost diference of $28,500.

But because of the difference in royalty rates, you are making an additional $6 per book in royalties.

$28,500 divided by $6 per book additional royalties equals a “crossover point” of 4,750 copies.

Here’s that that means. If you sell less than 4,750 copies, you’ll be better off economically with the traditional publisher, but if you sell more than that, you’ll be better off with the hybrid. In fact, once you cross 4,750 copies, you’ll be making an additional $6 per book with the hybrid.

(You can do this same math if you get a traditional publisher advance, but if the advance is significant, the crossover point will be a lot higher than 4,750 copies).

I want to emphasize that everything in this calculation — the cost from the hybrid publisher, the royalty rates, the cost of author copies, and the compensation for ebooks and audiobooks — is different for every author. But there is always a crossover point at which the hybrid publisher generates more profit for you than the zero-advance traditional publisher, and it’s almost always in the mid-thousands of copies.

Should you take that zero-advance deal? Maybe. If you can’t afford the upfront cost for the hybrid, are willing to wait for the book to come out, and don’t expect to sell more than few thousand copies, the traditional publisher is a better deal.

But if you can afford to invest the upfront cost, would like to publish sooner, and expect to sell more than 5,000 copies, the quality hybrid publisher is a better deal than the zero-advance traditional publisher.

Here’s my recommendation. Write a killer proposal and, if possible, get an agent who will get you the best advance possible. (Agents get paid on a percentage of the advance and royalties, so they’re very much incented to get a positive advance.)

But also be sure to get a quote from a hybrid before you start pitching your book to traditional publishers (or even while you’re negotiating your traditional publishing deal, most hybrids can generate a quote quickly). Then if you do get a zero-advance offer, you can make an informed choice. And you might just decide that the high-prestige, slow traditional publishing model isn’t actually the best deal for you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.