Is it a scam to not offer an advance?

Something has been bothering me and when something bothers me, I write about it!

Writing and publishing scams are all around us. And there’s a lot of great advice out there about how to avoid fake publishers who are going to steal your work or make you buy author services that don’t do much to help your book.

I live in fear of someone accusing me of being such an operation!

The fact is, we are a very small press. We’re just starting out and we don’t have a track record yet.

The best way to tell what’s definitely a scam from what isn’t has always been this:

Money flows from the publisher to the writer and not the other way around.

If a publisher ever asks for your money, that’s a bad sign. The publisher takes on the risk of fronting the cost for editing, proofreading, cover design, review copies, etc.

I think that is absolutely true.

But yesterday I saw someone on Twitter claiming that if a publisher is too small to be able to offer you an advance, they don’t have the money to be handling your book.

That’s definitely your choice to make as you look at your options for who should publish your book. It is a warning sign that money is very tight at that company and you don’t want to attach yourself to a sinking ship. But many very legitimate small presses cannot afford advances. We’re in that position now. I hope someday we’ll be able to offer advances, but right now we’re stretched to the max, putting all our money and other resources into promotion.

I asked the woman on Twitter about this and she said:

1) Writers need a show of confidence in their work in the form of money, since a publisher is going to be making money off of their hard work.

2) She is owed thousands from a bad experience with an indie publisher

3) She’s never seen a good indie publisher, they don’t pay their royalties and they don’t promote

So let me address those. The first is a very valid way of looking at it. If you’re concerned that you might contract with someone shady, then you might want that good faith money up front. However, a company that doesn’t offer that is not necessarily a scam.

As I said earlier, the publisher puts a ton of resources into the book behind the scenes before they even know if it’s going to make any money at all. Most of the risk is the publisher’s (and I think that’s why so many look for short cuts or ways to make money off the author instead of from legitimate book selling). My good faith showing in your book is the money that I’m putting into proofreading, editing, cover design, etc.

An advance is a mixed blessing because it is an advance against royalties. That money is nothing more than royalties up front and you won’t make any more on your books until it is recouped by the publisher. Many small presses offer a higher royalty rate and one that you’ll earn much faster by not having the advance.

As far as number two, I’m not sure how it is possible for the press to owe her money. If she’s talking about a small press that didn’t offer an advance, but was otherwise identical to the large houses (in other words, if the maxim of money flows only from publisher to author and not the other way around was followed, then where is this missing money?) I haven’t asked because I was starting to feel like I was getting overly defensive in talking with her and I do think she has a legitimate point.

What I think could have happened is that when small presses fail and declare bankruptcy, it can tie up the rights to your work. You may end up fighting a legal battle to get your writing back. That really sucks.  Coming from the background of being a writer myself, I will never let that happen in my press.

Again, we are a baby press. We don’t know yet if we’ll be able to thrive. We’ve got hard work and passion on our side, but if it looks like we aren’t going to be able to make it, my number one priority is to get authors the rights to their works. As well as any money they are owed. The money coming in goes to the author first and then gets divided up for the rest of the company. That is how I operate. I will go into debt myself rather than see any authors not get their rights returned immediately if my business goes under.

The last point is the strangest to me. In a publishing house where money is never taken from the author, then promotion is the only way for them to make any money at all.

We’re in this together, my authors and me. The only way for either one of us to make any money is if I am working my butt off promoting and getting sales for their books. The only source of money for this business is through getting sales of the books. Unless you are an author services company and selling authors “promotional packages” or what have you, then you have to promote the books.

All businesses intend to make money. They see a need and decide to fill it, expecting to be able to profit from filling that need. If one is greedy or selfish, one might see the dreams of thousands of aspiring novelists as a place to get money. Many, many indie and small presses are not like that. We do not take money from authors, we find a way to get them money by working very hard ourselves.

I’m not asking you to trust me. If you decide to sign with this press, then you will know all the risks and benefits up front and that’s your choice. It might be the best option for some. It might be a terrible option for others and so you are not forced to become my author! It’s only if it’s the right choice for you and what you want for your career.

I hope to have a track record soon. I’m working on releases now so we can see if this little baby press can fly. I’ve advised more than one author to wait before signing with me, to make sure that I can do all that I think I can do for their books.

When vetting a publisher, look at their track record. Look at what they have done and how their books are doing. Make sure that you understand any contracts before you sign them. Writers, you are the ones with product here. You are the ones in control.

Don’t let anyone take advantage of you, but also don’t dismiss the small publishers just because we can’t offer an advance. Believe me, we are hungry to prove ourselves and sometimes that’s a big advantage for you.

One comment on “Is it a scam to not offer an advance?

  1. merryfarmer says:

    It’s not just small presses that don’t offer advances these days. Carina Press, the eBook division of Harlequin, doesn’t offer advances either. (I’m 95% sure of that. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong) But they are one of the absolute best publishers in the business as far as I’m concerned. No advances is the way of the future, or so it is beginning to seem.

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