Everyone's abuzz this week because a blogger got a $300,000 advance to write a book (that's money borrowed against the book's future earnings). I dislike stories like this one because it raises everyone else's expectations about how much book advances should be. Joe Wikert does a good job of showing why this kind of advance is a losing proposition for the publisher. Odds are, the book might not even break even.
My first job as an acquisitions editor at a small company is to manage author expectations in terms of advances. If someone has a really unrealistic idea of being entitled to a six-figure advance, I generally cut my losses right there and don't waste time on them. If they are trained to think that everyone gets six figures, they'll never be happy when I offer them four figures--or nothing at all!
It all sounds very stingy, but it doesn't make good business sense to give away big dollars we'll probably never recoup. And if I'm wrong and the book does very, very well, the author will get their fair share--later, when the publisher does, too.
And how does this tie back to agents? The Rejector has a post today about why editors love and hate working with agents. Often an agent will push for a higher advance. That's the very reason I've avoided working with agents for the most part (although I have negotiated contracts with several agents). They help raise the expectation of a bigger advance because they need the cash up front to keep their business working.
So if you're trying to get published, close your ears when you hear stories of people getting big money upfront. Unless you're already a high-profile person or have something really compelling to write about, you'll probably be disappointed by the advances you are offered. And if you get a huge advance and your book doesn't earn it back, nobody will want to publish your next book (but if you're on the beach in Bermuda, you likely won't care).