How Come That Person Got All That Money?
And how do I get all that money?
Let’s talk about money. Frankly, I like talking about money and talking about money is one of my primary jobs. When I first started out as an agent, I was TERRIFIED of making counteroffers when I got a deal. What if they were mad? What if they pulled the offer because they were mad? What if I asked for too much or too little? I’m happy too report never not once has an offer evaporated because I asked for more money. No one has been mad to my face (and if were mad behind my back, well, I can’t do anything about that) and I have zero problem with asking for more money now—in almost all scenarios: when negotiating conference fees, haggling at the flea market, negotiating rent. It’s just money! It’s not that scary anymore.
When I send out a project, I always imagine the offer we’re going to get. I call it my Sugar Plums. The dollar signs dance in my head and the zeros pile up. Obviously all of my projects are amazing bestsellers and deserve a million dollars every time. If only it worked out that way. Sometimes I’m surprised by an offer, sometimes disappointed. So it goes. I never make promises about an advance that might come in because I do not have control over what the editor offers. Zero control. All I can do is send out good work to the right editors.
I think authors think that agents are all powerful wizards who can demand money from editors. But we can’t. I have certainly turned down offers (with the client’s approval, they get final say) because the advance was too low. I have turned down offers, especially in non-fiction, because the author was going to lose money on making the book, either because of time invested, supplies, photography, or other things they had to pay for to make the book happen. It’s not fun, believe me. But NO ONE should go into debt to write a book. I have not yet turned down an offer because it was too much money, though. I don’t supposed that’ll happen any time soon.
But that’s what it looks like from the inside, from my POV when I get an offer. From the outside, I think authors feel differently (and certainly differently after they get their own offer for the first time and when they haven’t yet). They can point to someone they know/someone they heard about/someone’s interview where they said how many millions they got and they think wait, why didn’t I get that? I have done the same mental gymnastics. You start to think well my book is like that one in these ways, my book was published by X and theirs by X, my book got this review and theirs got that. It’s natural. It’s normal. Everyone does it. But we shouldn’t do and and here’s why.
(Dear clients who think I am talking about you—I am talking about basically all of you at one point or another, because we have all thought this. I have thought this about my very own novel, too! We are the same. We are all doing this. You are not alone. I am not singling you out.)
First, comparison is the thief of joy. There is absolutely no way to reverse engineer someone’s billion dollar book deal and figure out why they got it and why you didn’t, and then how to do it yourself next time. Sure, if their first book sold a billion copies, got made into a movie, and won all the awards, they’re gonna get a pile of money for their next hundred books. That’s no shock. But when the outwardly visible indicators aren’t so obvious, there is just no way to figure out why someone got all that money (and/or why you did not) because books are not the same. Even in the same genre! Maybe their book was so fantastic (yours is still good!) and they had 12 publishers throwing money at them. Maybe their subject matter was the single most important thing to that editor and they wanted to stake their career on the success of that book. Maybe they’re BFFs with everyone, and that goodwill bled into the P&L. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I didn’t say any of these reasons would be fair or merit based. I’ve said a million times publishing is not a meritocracy. “Bad” books are gonna get lots of cash, and “good” ones are not. People you do not think “deserve” success are going to get it by the bucketful. You are going to be disappointed by success or the lack of it in some way, shape, or form many times over the (hopefully long!) course of your career. This is GOING TO HAPPEN. There is nothing you can do to insulate yourself from these feelings but accept they are a natural part of doing creative work in a capitalist system and try to move on from them in a way that protects your mental health.
Second, no one can go demand more money than the publisher is willing to pay, regardless of the reasons you think support this position. An agent, your agent, any agent, can’t go in and say “you must give us a million dollars or we walk.” Or, I mean they can, but you have to be prepared to walk. If the publisher does not want to pay a million dollars then they will let you go. And an agent cannot do that over and over without damaging their relationship with publishers, which makes it really hard to sell your next, and next, and next books, even when you’re not demanding a million dollars. You can ask your agent to make an ultimatum, if you really, really want to, but you have to be prepared to not get what you want.
(Again, clients, I’m not talking about any of you specifically. I’m talking about all of us collectively, as writers who want lots of money to validate our lonely creative pursuits. Me, too!!!!)
Maybe it is disappointing to learn that the agent behind the curtain is just a funny person in a green velvet suit, that we are not the All Powerful Oz. I mean, I like to think I am all powerful, but I am not. None of us are, no, not even that guy you’re thinking about. Or her either. Not even them. We’re just agents, standing in front of editors, asking them to love our books (and hopefully increase their offers by at least 25%.) (Is that enough movie references for one paragraph? Probably).
So, how do you deal with this? Remember that it’s just feelings. Money gives us feelings that are hard to deal with and that’s ok. Remember that money doesn’t correlate to artistic value. Sometimes it does! But not as a rule. Publishing is a retail industry. Your wonderful book might earn a modest advance and well, that’s where you are. You will talk to your agent about expectations and reality and decide what you want to do. You can ask for more. You can say no. You can say yes. That is the power you have. You cannot make them give you a million dollars. You cannot make them not give a million dollars to someone you don’t think should have it.
Money is not just feelings, I know. Money is rent and healthcare and food and childcare and comfort and stability and safety. Publishing is capricious and unstable and fickle and unfair. Those two things are in opposition. Publishing is trying, I really, really think they are, to rectify systemic inequity in who and what gets published and who and what gets paid. Will it ever be fair? I don’t think so. I hope it will be much, much better for those it has marginalized. But I do not think it will ever be fair in the sense that everyone gets what they deserve, because capitalism is not about deserve. And that’s a whole ‘nother problem.
We are all trying to get the best deal possible, across the board. Sometimes that’s more money. Sometimes that better royalties. Sometimes that’s the perfect editor or publisher. If this is something you’re struggling with, talk with your agent and remember, they’re mortal. And so are you.
WEAR A MASK. OXOXOXOXOXO,
And also, let's not forget, there is more to a deal than the advance. There are royalties, and there are rights. And sometimes both of those things - on a moderately successful book - can beat that initial advance hands down. But you have to be in it to win it.