Oscar Villalon and Arthur Phillips on Getting That Big, Fat Writer’s Advance
Episode 24 of Fiction/Non/Fiction, With Whitney Terrell
and V.V. Ganeshananthan
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, critic and editor Oscar Villalon and novelist and screenwriter Arthur Phillips discuss book advances and the effects of finances on creativity with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. In part one, Villalon explains how advances work, and why the publishing industry uses them. In the show’s second half, Phillips chronicles how his finances have changed over the course of his career as a bestselling fiction writer.
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Readings for the Episode
Prague, The Egyptologist, and The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips · City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg · The Girls by Emma Cline · Annals of the Former World by John McPhee · A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe · Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
“No Royalties Are Due at This Time”
Oscar Villalon on whether or not your book can fetch as much as Obama’s
V.V. Ganeshananthan: A lot of my students, of course, hope to publish books of their own eventually, and on their more optimistic days they ask me about this, the legendary advance: how much should they expect their first book to fetch? I wonder if there’s such a thing as an average advance. There are the famous advances, J.K. Rowling getting £2,000 for the first two Harry Potter books, and the Obamas just sold their memoirs for $65 million. What do you think is the average, if there is one?
Oscar Villalon: I think the average is probably the same average I heard back in like 1998, which is the average I think I heard in 2008, and I’m guessing is probably still the average today. For a first-time author, for a work of fiction, I think the average is somewhere between, let’s say, $5,000 and $10,000.
Whitney Terrell: Oh, really? It’s that low? I didn’t know that.
OV: Yeah, absolutely. For a first-time work of fiction, absolutely. If it’s a work of nonfiction, it’s much more, you can get a lot more money. But for first-time, yeah.
WT: And that’s including everything? You’re including university presses or smaller presses and the big New York presses?
OV: Right, this is the average. It can actually be much lower, depending on where you go. Someplace you might get $2,500 or $2,000 as an advance for your first novel or a first story collection. And of course, as we know, there are the anomalies: you might get two million dollars for that. So, I think it averages out to something like that. And that makes sense, too, because when we talk about the average advance, a lot of the books being published are not being published by the huge houses, right—the huge houses that can afford the two-million-dollar advances. They’re being published by a lot more modest publishing concerns. And these places are not loaded with money—I dare say a lot of them are nonprofits. For them, it’s going to be reasonable to give the writers as much as they can, but that’s going to fit with whatever their budget is and what their mission is, so it’s going to be something pretty modest. But then of course this raises a whole other question: why are you publishing this book, and why do you feel you must pay two million dollars for this book?
VVG: It seems like there are high-profile deals all the time—of course those are the ones that make the news. But pretty frequently there’s seven-figure deals for politicians, like the Clintons, or celebrities, like Bruce Springsteen, and multi-book deals by genre fiction writers, and even some debut literary authors get huge advances—I mentioned Emma Cline’s 2016 novel, The Girls, earlier. There’s also Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light, or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. And just this summer a two-million-dollar deal for a recent MFA graduate, Lara Prescott, whose debut novel [We Were Never Here] is about Doctor Zhivago. We’ve talked before on the show about how the market for literary fiction is shrinking—the Times ran a really compelling slash totally terrifying article about that, I think by Alexandra Alter. So, Oscar, I’m curious what you think the rationale is behind publishers offering these massive advances?
OV: Before we can answer that, let’s figure out the raison d’être for, let’s say, a Viking or a Random House. You are trying to publish books that are going to reach the widest audience possible. Now it’s not a perfect analogy, but they are kind of like the big Hollywood studios. So I want to produce something, hopefully of a high quality, which I also think is going to cut across all kinds of demographics, or at least find a very passionate readership among a certain group of people, of which I think there might be millions. So I’m going to try to find a work to do that; it’s high-stakes, high-reward. Therefore, I’m willing to pay two million dollars for this work.
Now, I think one of the problems with understanding advances is that somehow the amount of money attached to an advance has some sort of metric as to how good, shall we say, the book is. Now here’s me talking as a critic—
WT: That’s why you’re here, Oscar! You must talk as a critic!
OV: But there is, of course, zero correlation between those things, any more than there would be between a big-budget Hollywood film and whether or not it’s going to be a movie we’re going to even still be talking about in five or ten years. There’s zero correlation.
WT: But hold on, I mean, that’s not how it gets presented in the press—I went back and printed out articles about some of the big debuts, including the ones Sugi mentioned, but also ones like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, and what you notice is that when there’s an auction for a book (meaning many of the major houses are bidding on it), it means that a bunch of editors, even if they don’t end up buying the book, are committing to the idea that the book is good. I feel like it translates into people thinking that the book is good, because it was bought for a lot of money.
OV: Sure! I mean, look, there were a lot of people who thought that Dances with Wolves deserved eight Oscars! What can I tell you?
“I’d Better Be Able To Write a Good Sentence Tomorrow”
Arthur Phillips on getting an advance, being a bestseller, and not earning out
Arthur Phillips: I know you guys just had this nice conversation about advances and stuff. When I, to my amazement, got an advance that I really enjoyed, one of the things that happens is you think, “Oh, now everything that will follow from that are huge numbers. Everybody’s going to buy this, it’s going to be a movie, and it’s going to be on the New York Times bestseller list”—and this and that, and none of those things happened. So from one perspective, it was nothing but disappointment. [laughs] All the things that you could imagine happening, or lots of the things I could imagine, didn’t happen. I was having a ton of fun, and I got to go on tour, and I got to go to my hometown. . . my book event in my parents’ town was a much bigger deal than anywhere else on earth.
It was a pleasure and a joy. But if you think about the numbers about anything—how much the advance is, how high it climbs up in sales charts, how long it seems to be in print—any number is disappointing. I don’t think there’s any way around that for somebody of a certain personality.
Whitney Terrell: Would that be your personality, Arthur? [laughs]
AP: It might very well be. And I’ve gotten over it a little bit. But there really isn’t enough of any numerical payoff if you start to get excited about them, really. It all comes back to, “Boy, I’d better like sitting down to write.” And especially by the time a book comes out—at least for me for many, many years—I was on to the next book. So my heart was really like, “I hope I can write a good sentence tomorrow.” So when the stuff that was being published was happening, it was like, “Well, that’s great; this is like a party. But I’d better be able to write a good sentence tomorrow, because none of this is going to matter if I can’t.”
WT: We were just talking with Oscar about the pressure that an advance can put on a writer. So you were on tour, and this book was doing well, but you were still feeling the pressure because you were like, “Oh my God, I got a bigger advance . . . It needs to do well to earn out or make this advance worthwhile so that my publisher will be happy”?
AP: Right. So here’s the thing—Prague was published in 2002, and I got a nice advance and the book did well—but according to my royalty statements, I have never earned out.
WT: [laughs] Right, we were talking about that. Well, welcome to the club, pal!
AP: Right. And then I’ve got five, six books after that, and I have never earned out. So I don’t know if they’re making any money off me or not—the evidence suggests they’re not. If you start to look at all those statements—I try to delete them before I read them, as a rule.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You’re talking about the value of wanting to write a good sentence tomorrow, and at the same time having this refrain of critical reception as background noise. Your novels have been exceptionally well received. Your last book, The Tragedy of Arthur, was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. But there was one review by Michiko Kakutani for The Egyptologist that began a lovely relationship between the two of you. And I wonder how you think that early success, or really any success at all, affects the way that critics look at a writer, and how you think about that producing a second book, and a third book, with everyone suddenly watching, when you got to write your first book in the privacy of anonymity.
AP: [laughs] Here’s a good story about what this can feel like sometimes: I came to Kansas City on book tour, and Rainy Day Books had me speaking in like a Baptist temple or something. . . ?
WT: Unity Temple on the Plaza.
AP: Unity Temple. . . it felt like an arena. How many people can that thing hold?
WT: It’s big. At least a couple thousand people.
AP: Yeah, something like that—a couple thousand people. And the same night they had Jennifer Weiner at the store. And I had, like, six people at the temple and Jennifer Weiner had, of course, standing room only in the store, and then people outside desperate to get it in. So it’s very easy to realize you are not a big deal no matter what any of this stuff says.
Transcribed by Stephen Paur and Kelsey Beck.