25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing

(Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)


…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)


An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.


Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com


  1. A great primer on the book biz, Melodie. And now I'm off to go on a bender.

  2. Many US publishers, if not all, take the money they spend on sending writers on tours from the writer's royalties. The writer pays. Money spent on other promotions and advertising of your book also comes from your royalties. At Bouchercon New Orleans I was approached by a traditional publisher and offered a deal to write a new series. Their offer included no advance and a low royalty, but they would push the book and I would join their list. Pushing the book meant putting the book out to discount online services like BookBub. Everything they offered I already do as an Indie writer only I get to control the cover, content, promotion. Of course, as an Indie writer I get the high royalty but I'm not on their list. With them my books will be in bookstores - for 45 days. With them, my books can also go out of print and stay unavaialble until the rights revert back to me. And speaking of rights, as an Indie writer, I control all rights, incliuding eBook, audiobook and film rights. I mean like, come on.

  3. Grin - I'll join you at the bar, Paul!

  4. O'Neil, I get a much better deal from my publisher/s (I'm with two trad publishers) but I know I've been lucky. A lot of my friends are going hybrid these days, and who can blame them? The book business isn't what it was in the 90s. You make good points.

  5. This is a great primer, Melodie. Easy to follow and logical. The only difference I see between Canada and America is that currently royalties are even lower and rarer in the States.

    Over-all, I'm with O'Neil.

    The one time in the last several years I was approached by a traditional publisher, they said they'd like to "re-release" my earlier books. But they would re-edit them, re-design the covers (I love my cover designer), and release one every eighteen months or so. All the promotion and travel would be MY responsibility.

    In other words, I'd get a small royalty and risk losing the rights to all my previous books, most of which would never appear again if I didn't sell through.

    Yeah, right.

    I released a collection of short stories a few weeks ago and expect to have two more novels out by the end of this year. My risk, my expense, MY return. Yea, Create Space.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Steve! The great thing about today is we have choices. In week 14 of Crafting a Novel, we talk all about self-publishing. I give equal time to both.

  7. Phyllis Smallman25 March, 2017 11:05

    Thanks for this, Melodie. I have never seen a complicated subject put more clearly.

  8. Mel,good column. I've only sold short stories. Sometimes publishers will offer a low set price to put your story in an anthology ($25 for instance). Other times you are offered a royalty split where the publisher typically keeps half the income on the book (minus expenses) and all the authors in the anthology split the other half of the income. In a book with 20 stories, my profit per book is thus 1/20th of half the income. And that is why I end up getting royalty checks small enough to buy a cup of coffee. But ... those checks keep coming and eventually they may surpass the amount I could get for the flat upfront payment. So which is the better way to go? Beats me! Ahh, publishing.

  9. Mel, thanks for this view of the novel side. Seems the writing business is becoming increasingly more difficult to survive, unless the writer is savvy about publishing and marketing, and has lots of energy and enthusiasm. Tomorrow is a narrow slice of the short story business.

  10. Helpful review, Melodie. Have you ever heard of a publisher (after an author has sold through her advance)holding back several hundred dollars in royalties as a "reserve against returns"? The publisher says it's standard practice, but I've never heard of it before or encountered it with any other publisher.

  11. Melodie, thanks for a very good blog. It confirms what I've heard from others - it's a tough game. I understand it's even worse among children's books, a real "bunny eat bunny" world.

  12. Phyllis, RT and Eve - thanks for your kind words! It is indeed, a bunny eat bunny world out there.

  13. BK - yes, I HAVE heard of that! I don't have that happen with my publisher, but they only pay semi-annually, to guard against exactly that.
    The other horrible thing I've heard of: one colleague contacted me to say that his publisher was not paying all the royalties earned on a current book because his last book didn't sell through. They were, in effect, 'making up the difference' with this newer book. We looked at his contract, and indeed, it did have that clause. My publisher doesn't have such a clause. But it's something more we need to watch out for.

  14. Barb, yes, that is my experience. The last anthology I was in paid me a flat $100, and they keep the royalties. The previous one gave me a split of royalties. I think last quarter, I got a cheque for $9, grin. Oh, how I long for the good ole days (1990s) when I got paid $750 a short story in commercial mags like Good Housekeeping, Moxie and Star.

  15. After reading all that good news, Melodie, I need a drink. I think some writers torsos come with graduations:

  16. Thanks for this, Melodie. Not an encouraging picture but better to know the facts.


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