IVP - Behind the Books - On authors, agents and advances

September 5, 2007

On authors, agents and advances

Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, recently posted this lament about authors, agents and royalty advances in the Christian publishing market:


Many of us have experienced this. An agent brings us a proposal from an author who has published successfully with another house. Or maybe it’s an author we ourselves have already published. And the agent gives us a song and dance about how successful this project (which hasn’t even been written) will be. And then the agent subtly lets us know that other houses are competing for this deal. Our mouths salivate. We want this project. The agent might even hint at how much advance will be required to bring home the deal.

We sharpen our pencils. How many copies will we have to sell in order to earn out the advance? We grimace. We don’t think we can sell that many copies. So we figure out how painful the write-off will be if we don’t sell that many copies. Even with a big write-off, will the project still be profitable?
We put together our proposal and send it to the agent. We’ve stretched as far as we can stretch because we want this deal. Then the agent comes back to tell us that the offer wasn’t high enough. There are other offers that are bigger. But we want this deal—so we stretch even higher. Sometimes we run through all of the normal warning signs and make an offer that makes no sense at all. After all, we want this deal!
So we get the deal. We pay the advance. The manuscript comes in. We begin to wonder why we paid so much for this average manuscript. We edit it and market it and sell it and process the returns. And at the end of the day we take a huge write-off. If we’re lucky, the book earns a net contribution to overheads. But in most of these scenarios, the book generates a loss even apart from overheads.

What's interesting about this is that high-flying auctions and advances has been true of New York general market publishing for decades, but it has not been the case in Christian publishing until relatively recently, perhaps the last ten or fifteen years or so. And as a result, good books (with less "commercial potential") get squeezed out of the market and displaced from bookstore shelves to make way for high-profile books that publishers need to sell a boatload of to break even on.

This is not to say that agents are all bad, or that advances are all inflated. More than anything, it's a cautionary tale to publishers about bidding on new book proposals. The reality is that the vast majority of books are only going to sell a few thousand copies and thus only warrant advances of a few thousand dollars.

We're fortunate that relatively few IVP books crash and burn. Almost every book is at least profitable, and some do well. IVP is not a big-name bestseller-type publisher. Our latest theological dictionary or spiritual formation text is not going to burn up the charts. But we hope every IVP book makes some contribution to the kingdom and to thoughtful evangelical Christian discourse that is more influential than can be measured in sales figures or royalty dollars.

Posted by Al Hsu at September 5, 2007 8:42 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments

Dear Al,

Thanks for all the advice you gave me about these matters (and more) several years ago. Every blessing to you.

Alex

Comment by: Alex Chediak at September 5, 2007 2:17 PM

Please check your rss feeds - the links do not work.

Comment by: a at September 5, 2007 3:59 PM

Thanks for a great post. Yes, I have always wondered why some of the best Christian books published do not sell as well as books of lesser quality, even Christian "junk food." The result is that the body of Christ becomes malnourished and less effective as missionary agents in the world. I guess the shift happened when Christian publishing became a business instead of a ministry. Thanks to IVP for continuing to publish quality books over the years.

Comment by: Nicholas Hill at September 5, 2007 5:37 PM

From my limited experience working with editorial folks, they are often as frustrated by the seeming impossibility of the numbers as the authors are. We purposely avoided using an agent for the reason of staying as close to the process as possible and avoiding some of the inflation of a first-time manuscript. I wouldn't change that decision because of all we learned in the process (good and not so good).

Thanks for your commitment at IVP to publish quality books in the midst of all the marketing/sales pressure. I'm grateful for your willingness to fight the fiscal realities on behalf of good books that may not make you a mint, but may help mint one's faith.

Comment by: Craig at September 5, 2007 9:39 PM

Do you have a brother Ed? I think I know him.

But family lineage aside, thanks for the post. Kind of sad to be honest.

Comment by: Mickey at September 5, 2007 11:11 PM

Thanks for this - I think that these authors should be named and shamed.

Tim Challies Blog recently highlighted a much overlooked masterpiece "The Cross He Bore" by Fredrick Leahy that deserved to be read more than virtually all teh books by the big name authors.

There are many more like this.

I urge you publishers to print only useful stuff and to pour resources into promoting only the truly beneficial instead of 'Christianity lite' material. I'm not suggesting that everything has to be heavy like John Owen, just a good satisfying steak instead of a McDonalds happy meal.

Comment by: jmark at September 6, 2007 5:30 AM

Thanks for all these comments, folks. And yes, I do have a brother named Ed.

While I appreciate the kudos for IVP's publishing program, I should also say that I'm quite aware that Christian publishing necessarily covers a broad range of levels of content. I became very aware of this when I became church librarian at my church and found out that our church members tended not to pick up theological/doctrinal books from university presses and instead gravitated toward historical fiction. Though there were some folks who were loyal apologetics readers, say, others read only certain kinds of books and not others. I certainly wanted to stretch readers, but I also realized that I needed to have books by a variety of authors and publishers, putting the cookies at different level shelves. (I was occasionally surprised, as when Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was checked out before the latest Left Behind novel.)

So at any rate, the academic publisher cannot say to the devotional publisher, I don't need you. We would be impoverished if the only Christian books available were only from Eerdmans, or only from Harvest House. There's a lot of room in the industry for a wide range of kinds of Christian books to connect with a wide range of potential readers. All that being said, I'm glad to be at IVP, and that we've carved out our little niche of thoughtful Christian publishing.

And we all face the business/ministry tensions of publishing what is edifying and profitable (both spiritually and financially). Unfortunately many solid, thoughtful, challenging books don't sell enough to be financially viable. IVP's smaller size lets us have smaller economies of scale than some of the bigger publishers, and we take on projects that other publishers can't. But we hope that within our publishing program we have enough of a mix of authors and books that some better-selling books by Bill Hybels and J. I. Packer allow us to publish important but lesser-known works like the New Studies in Biblical Theology or the Christian Doctrine in Global Perspectives series. We find that having a "diverse portfolio" of Bible study guides, reference works and commentaries, academic texts and general trade books keeps our entire publishing program chugging along.

Comment by: Al Hsu at September 6, 2007 7:23 AM

Hi Al,

I am an author about to publish my third book with a wonderful publisher. I do not use an agent. I may have missed something in this post, but is it not ultimately the fault of publishers for allowing the royalties to bloat? In a free market, it should be expected that there will be less than ethical agents. That's no endorsment of them (!); I just want to underscore that the focus should be more on the need for publishers to have proper boundaries with unscrupulous folks.

Best,

Dave

Comment by: Dave Moore at September 6, 2007 8:25 AM

Dave - I think this something where agents, authors and publishers are all partially complicit and partly to blame for the state of things. Kind of a perfect storm scenario, where multiple factors cause tempests and shipwrecks. I'd agree, publishers need to do a better job of setting reasonable expectations and sticking to limits and boundaries, but I know firsthand what it's like talking to an agent on the phone who's asking us to up the advance by 33%, and if we don't, it'll go to another publisher...

I have not used an agent for my own three books. Haven't needed to. And the majority of IVP's authors are still unagented, though the number is gradually increasing. I'm proud to say that we have authors who intentionally choose to continue to publish with us even though they might be able to get more money elsewhere. While there are legitimate reasons to change publishers and shop projects around (especially if your current publisher doesn't do the kind of book you'd like to do next), it's nice to know that some authors stick with you for the long haul out of relational loyalty instead of going elsewhere to the highest bidder.

One of my authors, in fact, doesn't want royalty advances; he'd rather get paid royalties on the basis of actual sales, after the fact. For his most recent book with us, he said he wanted zero for his advance. We couldn't do that for legal/accounting reasons, so we issued him a $1 advance!

Comment by: Al Hsu at September 6, 2007 9:02 AM

I have limited experience in publishing (4 books) and no experience with agents and I understand the concerns you are expressing Al, but as a writer (and a researcher and teacher), however, I can understand why one might be tempted to hire an agent. I want to focus on teaching and writing, but instead I spend a lot of time dealing with understaffed Christian publishers.

It would be nice to write and let an agent deal with the publishers. I can think of one serious-minded writer who became so frustated with the "business" of Christian publishing that he more or less dropped out even though there was and remains demand for his books.

I have talked with several writers who feel marginalized by the direction in which evangelical publishing seems to be going. Are the publishers responding to or leading/creating the market or both? From my perspective it seems as if all the leverage belongs to the publishers. Could having an agent balance out the equation of power?

In any event, if publishers are going to treat the whole enterprise like a business (and I don't see why they shouldn't) then why shouldn't writers also treat writing and publishing like a business by hiring an agent to represent the interests of the writer?

Is there a place for a two-kingdoms doctrine relative to Christian publishing?

Comment by: Scott Clark at September 6, 2007 4:45 PM

Here's the correct URL.

Sorry to clutter the comments.

Scott

Comment by: Scott Clark at September 6, 2007 4:48 PM

The post by Mark Taylor unfortunately blamed agents and authors for the mistakes of publishers. He also blamed competition when the real blame was judgment. At the end he admits that they should push back from the table. This is the problem, not agents, authors, celebrities, mega preachers, or competition. Like every other business, Christian publishing has to learn from its mistakes in order to survive and thrive.

Comment by: Mark Russell at September 14, 2007 6:08 PM

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