An interesting side development emerged out of the upheaval from the Black Lives Matter protests. People also ramped up efforts to challenge institutional racism in all aspects of society, including publishing.
Seeking to make a point about the industry disparities around what publishers pay authors, YA author Tochi Onyebuchi suggested authors start talking candidly about how much Black authors make compared to their white counterparts. Picking up on the thread, YA author L.L. McKinney started a hashtag on Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe, to push people to share actual numbers.
And things took off from there.
Real Data About What Publishers Pay Authors
In the span of a few days, thousands of authors had shared specifics about their book advances. The information was compiled into a spreadsheet which also contained information about genre, type of publisher (or even the specific name), and demographic data about the author (gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and, of course, race).
Onyebuchi and McKinney succeeded in shedding some light onto how many celebrated Black authors were failing to receive robust advances for their work, even for books that had received substantial critical and commercial acclaim.
I’m not here to get into a discussion about the disparities around what publishers pay authors. There are many great articles written about the topic, following the revelations of #publishingpaidme. These include the New York Times, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and PBS. I would encourage you to read them because the issue of transparency in pay by the publishing industry is an important one.
A Treasure Trove of Data
What #publishingpaidme also provided was access to a sizeable amount of data regarding advances among different genres and types of publishers. Keep in mind this is not a scientific survey. Participants self-selected, and there is no way to verify (at least in most cases) how accurate the data is.
But regardless, it sheds a brighter light into a subject that has been notoriously difficult to analyze. Some people were willing to reveal all in their Tweets, including advances per actual book title and publisher. Others provided data anonymously, and some responses were from those who self-published.
My intention is to try to analyze the data and summarize the results for you in the future. But as a start, I’ll offer a few broad conclusions that I’ve drawn from the information.
In the children’s book category, there were quite a few responses for middle grade, young adult, and picture books. There were a handful of entries for chapter books as well.
Children’s Books Get Smaller Advances Than Adult Books
The highest advances were given to authors of YA books.
This is probably not very surprising.
Overall, authors of adult books receive higher advances than those who write for children—for comparable situations. And YA books basically sit just under the adult category.
From the data, advances for all categories of books for adults averaged just under $66,000.
For children’s books, the average advances came out to the following:
· YA average advance: $47,000.
· MG average advance: $32,000
· PB average advance: $11,900
While informative, these numbers are not terribly helpful if you are wondering what you, as an individual, might expect from an advance.
These numbers are simple averages, which contain some serious outliers on both the low and high end. For example, in the YA category, several people reported advances of $0 – $30 on the low end. On the high end, there were many multiple-six-figure amounts, including two at $1,000,000.
In an attempt to provide a more useful figure, I also calculated the median average, which worked out as follows:
· YA average advance: $25,000
· MG average advance: $20,000
· PB average advance: $8,000
And because data is easier and more interesting to consume visually, here is a summary of the analysis in graph form:
The Money is Not in Picture Books
Again, nothing about this is shocking. But while the data had examples of authors who received very small (including zero) advance amounts for each of the three categories of children’s books, only one picture book author reported a six-figure advance. For MG and YA, there were several who reported six-figure advances. There were even a couple of seven-figure YA advances paid.
On the other hand, MANY picture book authors reported advances in the range of $1,000-5,000. In fact, I was surprised at how many authors reported advances in the $6,000-7,500 range even from large publishing houses.
I am assuming (for the sake of consistency) the numbers being reported in the picture book category were for the author’s share of the advance. (Advances are split between the author and illustrator).
Looking at this data, I would caution any writer of picture books to expect an advance in the range of $8,000, especially as a debut author. Unless the $8,000 was the total advance, to be split with an illustrator.
A Quick Lesson on Advances
To clarify, the information shared on the #publishingpaidme hashtag are for advances offered to authors for their books by the publisher.
How do publishers decide how much of an advance to offer? Well, it depends.
The amount of the advance takes into consideration market research, the publisher’s budget, expected trends, and maybe some consultations with a fortune teller.
But an offer is based on the publisher’s best guess of how much they think the book will earn. In some ways, it’s kind of a crap shoot. A book may be expected to be a huge bestseller, and be a dud. A book that appears risky because it is unlike anything that exists on the shelves could surprise everyone and be a big hit.
What About Royalties?
IF (and this really is a big if) an author earns out their advance, then they can start to earn royalties. I talk about this calculation in my blog post here.
Basically, because most children’s books sell less than 10,000 copies, most authors do not earn out their advance. Which means the total amount they are paid for their book is the advance provided by the publisher.
Remember: Advances Do Not Come With Value Judgments
One of the most important points authors need to remember is that an advance is not a reflection of how good a book is, or how well it is written.
I think we can all come up with many examples of really terrible books that are known to have received six-figure deals. Some of them even end up on the New York Times bestseller list.
For writers of children’s books, this can feel especially unfair. But the fact that publishers pay lower advances on average for children’s books does not mean they are less worthy than books for adults.
To boost your faith in this truth even further, here’s something I heard Newbury Award winning author Linda Sue Park say about writing for children as opposed to adults.
Books we read as children stay with us. They affect us deeply and lodge deep in our hearts. While books we read as adults can be important to us, nothing is like the experience we felt as kids.
No one ventures into writing for children because we hope it will make us wealthy. If you are like me, we do it precisely because a book, or many books, had a profound impact on our lives as kids. And we want to pass on that meaning, that joy, or that comfort to the next generation of children.
So keep writing for children, and know you are doing something worth far more than the monetary value of any advance, regardless of the amount.