Commentary: How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying

Commentary: How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying

Reading Time: 5 minutes read

Last month, author Heather Demetrios wrote a Medium article titled How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying. In this article, she addresses her experience with the advances her publisher gave her and “earning out.”

For those who don’t know: advances and earning out are how most traditionally published authors get paid in America. This means a publisher pays the author a set amount of money (usually between $5,000 and $15,000 according to this article by Michael Kozlowski). The author then has to earn that advance in their portion of sales of that book before they’ll be eligible to earn any more income. Author Blake Atwood talked about this in his article titled The Brutal Truth about Earning Out.

I’m coming at this with a bias. A lot of the responses I saw on Twitter were critical of the publishing industry. While I have plenty of not-nice things to say about the writing and publishing industry, that’s not what I want to talk about here.

I did see a few Twitter users critical of Heather’s take, and I’d like to add my $0.02.

Me too, Beverly.

The actual numbers Heather lists are:

One of the most respected publishing houses in the world gave me $100,000 to write two books

when I sold a trilogy to another publisher the following year for over $250,000 dollars

The publisher still wanted to work with me — something I was thankful for — but they were only willing to offer me what my most recent book had made: just over $17,000.

When I got that $35,000 advance, desperation set in.

That book didn’t earn out either, and so the advance for my next book with this publisher was only $25,000

The range of my advances had gone from $75,000 per book (my highest advance) to $20,000 per book (lowest) over the course of five years.

At her worst, Heather was given more than the higher end of average. $20,000 would be a life-changing amount of money for a lot of debut authors; it’s not a light sum by any means.

Starting off, I want to say this article made me angry. I’d kill for a $75,000 advance for my work-in-progress. We writers work for free until our work is finished. We put in years of our time in hopes of publishing (for those who wish to pursue traditional publishing). Heather’s story had me ranty because she was given what most of us only dream of and it wasn’t good enough for her.

I’m not here to bash Heather for how she spent her money. It was hers and she gets to do whatever she wants with it. Whether she paid off loans, put a down payment on a house, or bought six thousand $15 cocktails—that’s not my business.

My only concern is with her attitude once she’d spent her money. She’s allowed to spend it however she wants, but she can’t blame other people for her decisions when she later regrets them.

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions.

— Heather Demetrios

Your agent’s job is to get you to the publisher, your publisher’s job is to get you to the market. Your job is to ask questions. If you aren’t clear on the contract: ask someone. $100,000 is a windfall for most authors. You find a financial advisor or a contract lawyer, someone whose job it is to explain this stuff to you.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals?

— Heather Demetrios

I agree with Heather here. There should be more transparency in the industry and community. We writers owe it to each other to be open about how we’re getting paid, and how much. It’s partially our own responsibility to Google this stuff, but if no one’s talking about it there’s only so much Google can tell you.

As grumpy as Heather’s article made me, I respect that she used real, concrete numbers. We should be sharing those with each other in an easy-to-find medium.

Here’s my proposal: we authors start sharing the numbers. We need to be open about what we’re being paid, in what increments, and what the conditions of our payment are.

For other articles on the subject, you can read: