What is a good advance in a literary publishing agreement?

In a previous post, I wrote about what an “advance” is. In short, it is a payment up front that is an advance against the future revenue streams for a book.

What is a “good” advance?

A cynical answer to this might be “any advance is a good advance.” That is a reflection of the fact that the majority of authors are never selected by an agent, never sign a publishing agreement and never receive any advance at all. That said, if an author is being offered an advance, they should have some idea how to evaluate it objectively.

The market ebbs and flows, and at a given time the “market rate” for a first-time author may vary.

First-time authors might get an advance as low as a few thousand dollars or as much as a million or more. Why the range? Simple: demand. A first-time author with a built-in audience appeal, a super-compelling story or just impeccable timing can expect more than average, sometimes much more. There is also an enormous variance between fiction and non-fiction.

Apart from an author’s sheer market draw, the amount of the advance should bear some relationship to the scope of the rights granted in the agreement.

That is, if the publisher is being provided worldwide rights in all languages, the amount of the advance should be higher (perhaps over five figures) than if they are only taking North American or English language rights. Likewise, if the publisher has claws in every subsidiary right (dramatic adaptations, serial rights, audio books, etc.), the advance should likely be higher.

A good literary attorney can help an author evaluate the proposed advance, the grant of rights and the author’s market power (which an agent can also assist with). An attorney can also help negotiate a higher advance where it might be warranted (or suggest ways to maximize value by cutting the scope of the license while preserving the advance).