ASK THE AGENT: Paying Back Your Advance

Do authors ever have to pay back their advance? I mean, what if the advance is $5,000 but I only sell 2,000 books? Do I have to pay that back, or is that just the gamble that the publisher takes?

No, you don’t have to pay back your advance for lack of sales, or at least I’ve never seen such a case. Of course, everything is outlined in the author contract and I suppose it’s possible for a publisher to work that in (and the way things are going these days, it wouldn’t surprise me).

You’re right, it’s part of the risk the publisher takes on you. I say “part” because in actuality, your book is costing them a lot more than your advance. (See “How Much Does It Cost…“)

Just FYI, there are cases in which you have to pay back your advance, specified in the contract. This is usually if you don’t deliver your book on time or if it isn’t what you promised in your proposal. So read that contract carefully, deliver your book on time, and make sure it’s what the publisher is expecting.

And one more thing… because the finances of publishing are so difficult and risky, more of the smaller houses are doing away with advances and instead, offering “straight royalty” contracts. So you only make money if your book sells. I just got word that my former employer, NavPress, has gone the no-advances route. This isn’t the norm among the good sized publishers, but definitely a trend on the smaller end of things. No, I don’t like it either.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Cecelia Dowdy on February 8, 2008 at 7:03 AM

    >Wow!! I didn’t know about the straight-royalty contracts that some publishers are now offering! (with the exception of e-publishers). That’s an interesting fact to know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if larger publishing houses were to start doing this too.

  2. Pam Halter on February 7, 2008 at 2:38 PM

    >Not only does the NO ADVANCE affect the author, it also means an agent doesn’t get a decent check either, does it?

    It’s somewhat discouraging.

  3. Kat on February 7, 2008 at 11:10 AM


    I was thinking the exact same thing. Re-investing to promote success seems to be the logical thing to do.


  4. Katy McKenna on February 7, 2008 at 9:55 AM

    >I remember reading somewhere (who knows where?) that a new author (fiction or non) would do well to sow most or all of her advance back into marketing her book. (Of course, this assumes there IS an advance…) I don’t mind this idea at all, especially since the sales of the first book might determine whether the second is ever published. But I wonder if, for a newbie, free-or-at-the-most-cheap marketing efforts might not produce reasonably similar results.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

    Katy McKenna

  5. Rachelle on February 7, 2008 at 8:36 AM

    >Christa — NavPress operates under a non-profit ministry so it’s kind of an odd duck. They’ve recently completely revamped their publishing program so they’re no longer operating as a regular trade publisher. They’re focusing on direct sales (as opposed to the bookstore model) as well as various electronic formats. I think they’re trying to reach and disciple believers in creative ways, and they’re cutting their overhead in order to make it work financially.

    Regarding publicists & marketing companies… it’s not my area of expertise (yet) so I hesitate to make any proclamations. I’m sure I’ll learn more as time goes on, but right now, my thought is that a new novelist probably wouldn’t find those publicist fees to be worth it, from a strictly financial standpoint. (A newbie non-fiction writer, with a specific topic about which to speak and write, may well find a publicist worthwhile or even necessary.) It’s possible that after a novelist has published a couple of books and gotten some good reviews and word of mouth, at that point a publicist may be worthwhile to start really pumping some energy into their “brand.”

    But don’t quote me on this. Anyone else want to chime in, feel free!

  6. Christa on February 7, 2008 at 8:22 AM

    >On Christian Writers’ Marketplace, Sally Stuart mentioned the trend of general publishers buying out the Christian ones, increasing the emphasis on the bottom line.

    But she also said that because “these Christian companies are under the larger parent companies, they can afford to offer bigger advances–but smaller Christian companies can’t compete.”

    How/where does NavPress fall in here?

    Also, a semi-related question. . .I’ve noticed an increase in the number of publicists/marketing companies for Christian novelists. Fees seem to vary wildly. What are your thoughts about this in terms of increasing sales/platform/visibility?

  7. Richard Mabry on February 7, 2008 at 8:18 AM

    >When I was offered a contract for my non-fiction book (before I was represented by an agent), the publisher said, “We don’t ordinarily offer advances for non-fiction work.” I held out and managed to get one, paid in two parts–at signing and upon delivery of the manuscript. Of course it wasn’t much, but at least I finally had a check in my hand that helped me say, “Hey, look. I’m a writer.”