Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Book Report: Will Advances Retreat?

International mega-publisher Penguin Books is going to court to get back the advances they paid to some prominent writers & would-be authors for failing to deliver on what they promised in the contract.

Now for those who look at that paragraph and furrow their brow in a feeble attempt to understand, I'll do some explaining.

When a publisher wants a certain writer to publish their next book through them, they give that author an "advance." That advance is form of loan that is made in "advance" of the royalties that author would normally earn from the book's sales.

In a perfect world the author delivers the book that's contracted for, then it's edited, polished, published, packaged, and sold. When the "advance" is paid for, the author then starts earning royalties.

However, if the author does not deliver the book they contracted for, they are legally liable to pay back that advance, and that's the case Penguin is making.

Now some might gripe about the big bad corporation picking on the poor struggling authors, and commerce trying to force itself on art, but those people are wronger than a big box of wrong found on the wrong shelf in the "Everything Wrong" store in the heart of Wrong-ville.

Commerce is essential to getting books to people. It's how the industry can afford to manufacture, market, and distribute books to readers. Before its commercialization literature was the property of rich and politically powerful patrons who  could afford to keep poets and playwrights singing their praises as long as they're kept in food and wine.

Commerce got the printing press invented, it led to the eventual development of industrialized "mass market" publishing, making literature affordable to everyone capable of reading. It's what makes it possible to earn a living through art.

Then there's another angle.

Every advance that's paid that doesn't deliver a book creates a tiny black hole of lost opportunities in the publishing business. It means that money has gone out and nothing has taken its place to generate revenue.

That nothing can't go to another author who actually might deliver a book that could sell. For every writer who fails to deliver on their contractual promise, a minimum of one other writer is denied a shot at getting published entirely.

Sure, each individual black hole is relatively tiny, but they all add up to create a serious level of suckage at the heart of the industry.

It's bad enough that the publishing industry is so wrapped up in crazy bidding wars that result in millions upon millions of dollars in advances being dropped on trashy "celebrities," and pissed away chasing fads that are usually long dead and buried by the time the copycat books hit the shelves.

Publishing, like every other form of art/commerce, is a gamble at the best of times, and these lean times mean that no one can afford to pay people for nothing, because it hurts not only the business, but the art.


  1. Blast Hardcheese27/9/12 10:30 am

    Ah, D, your photoshop of the Penguin book cover made my day. Thanks for the laugh!

    My personal opinion is that e-books and the internet is causing the writing field to transition into a sort of 'micro-patronage' system. The artist doesn't have one rich patron giving them a big check, but instead has lots of fans giving them a bunch of smaller checks.

    Publishers still provide value (especially in the areas of proper editing and marketing) but less and less value in the area of getting books in front of readers.

  2. Hey D, have you heard that rumor from last month that Disney is eyeing to buy HGTV, the Food Network, and a few other "lifestyle" channels for TEN BILLION DOLLARS?

  3. I haven't heard that rumor. Not sure if Disney & those lifestyle channels are a good match. But what do I know?

  4. Apparently it's to fill that "cable for woman" void. Which means they're probably going to have to sell their stake in Lifetime, and possibly a lot more.

  5. Blast Hardcheese28/9/12 10:56 am

    The plot thickens...

    Turns out one of the authors being sued is claiming that she's 1)already discharged the debt via bankruptcy, and 2) it's beyond statute of limitations anyway for breach of contract (6 years).

    Weird that they would do this after so much time has passed. Could this be a panicky attempt to grab some cash by a foundering publisher? I'm wondering if Penguin has some cash flow issues...

  6. Blast - I suspect that they let it go for so long was because the old policy was to let a lot of delinquent authors slide and write it off as a loss, especially if they've had previous success, to keep friendly relations with said author for future projects.

    While I don't think Penguin's exactly suffering, I do think the management has decided that professional authors should treat their work as a profession and either deliver the book or the money.