Sweet Deal (It's not always about the money)

I'm out of town and up to my neck, but I wanted to chime in at least a little this week. About 18 months ago, I posted the bit below, and I got an email earlier this week from a reader who pointed out that with the dramatic shifts in the marketplace, it's even more true now than when I wrote it...

According to the legend at the bottom of every deal report from Publisher's Marketplace, a "nice deal" is $1 - $49,000, a "very nice deal" is $50,000 - $99,000, a "good deal" is $100,000 - $250,000, a "significant deal" $251,000 - $499,000, a "major deal" is $500,000 and up. The legend is basically a waste of space, of course, because only a tiny fraction of authors make it past "good", and even those lucky ducks who do recognize the difference between the $100K and $250K per annum lifestyle. If PM actually wants to make this information useful, to give authors (and agents and editors) some actual frame of reference, they need to break those first two levels down to bite size and label anything over $150K "Neenur Neenur Neenur".

A far more accurate system for quantifying your latest advance: "The Real World Book Deal Descriptions" from John Scalzi's Whatever blog, which still cracks me up years later.
$0 to $3,000: A Shitty Deal. Because that's what it is, my friends. Possibly the only thing worse than a shitty deal is no deal at all. Possibly.

$3,000 to $5,000: A Contemptible Deal. The deal you get when your publisher has well and truly got your number, and it is low.

$5,000 to $10,000: A "Meh" Deal. It's not great, you know. But you can pay some bills. Get a few of these, and a tolerant spouse with a regular income, and you can tell your day job to piss off. This year, anyway.

$10,000 to $20,000: A Not Bad Deal. Note that "not bad" here should be said with a slight appreciative rise of the eyebrows and a small approving nod -- this is the level at which the money begins to look not embarrassing both to writers and non-writers. A couple of these, and you'll definitely be punting the day job (I did, anyway).

$20,000 to $100,000: A "Shut Up!" Deal. This needs to be said in the same enviously admiring vocal tone as a teenage girl might use to her girlfriend who is showing off the delicious new pumps she got at Robinsons-May for 30% off, or the vocal tone (same idea, lower register) Jim Kelly used when one of our number admitted to having at least a couple of deals in this range. With this kind of money, you don't even need a supportive spouse to avoid the Enforced Top Ramen Diet (although, you know. Having one doesn't hurt). But it's not so much that the other writers actively begin to hate you.

$100,000 and above: "I'm Getting the Next Round." Because if you're at this level, you can buy and sell all the other writers at the table. Get 'em a friggin' beer, for God's sake (ironically, this is the only level not thought up at the bar, but in the cold hard light of the next morning, by Shara Zoll).

Seriously. There's a lot of truth there. But we need to go one step beyond that and recognize that there are a lot of intangibles that have to be considered when striking a book deal, whether it's your first or forty-first.

I placed my first novel with a small literary press. (A book presciently titled Crazy for Trying .) I had no agent, so I fielded The Call on my own.

"What sort of advance were you hoping to receive?" asked the editor.

"Advance?" I gasped liked I'd been goosed. "Oh, I never expected you to offer me an advance."

He cleared his throat and quietly said, "Um...Joni? You're not supposed to tell me that."

"Ah. Right. I meant..." (Backpedal, girl, backpedal!) "I meant eight million. Yeah, eight million is what I usually get."

The fact is, getting published by this prestigious little press was -- well, it was beyond stepping stone. It was elevator. It was oil rig. It was flying buttress. It was the vital difference between being a writer and being an author. In the course of that phone call, I went from being Joni Rodgers to being Joni (Crazy for Trying) Rodgers.

The editor offered me $4K, I gratefully accepted it, and took my kids to DisneyWorld. I've gotten bigger advances for subsequent books, but that was the biggest deal I ever signed.

The bottom line isn't always the bottom line in book deals. Getting that first book properly published is a huge, crucial step. Any advance is gravy on top of that critical career biscuit, and as you go forward, there are other concerns worth compromising for. Working with a particular editor. Building a relationship with a publishing home. Signing with a smaller press with a more motivated and personalized PR plan.

On the flip side, I was watching Suze Orman's spiel on PBS the other day, and she said two things that really resonated with me: "You are not on sale." And "Stop doing things that make you feel like a liar." It's really tough for me to be assertive about my own value, especially in the realm of ghostwriting, but homegirl here ain't no bargain basement. I'm good at what I do, and I work insanely hard at it. If I sign a deal that strips me of my self-respect, I am forcing every word and faking every smile. That doesn't serve anyone well.

It's been ten plus years since I struck that first book deal -- a nice deal, a sweet deal -- and I've learned a bit from every contract since. A good deal is not just in the dollars. It's in how I feel about my work, where it goes, and how it gets there.


Lark said…
Glad you posted this again. I missed it the first time. I may send the link to some friends and family who think all authors get mega-advances and become instantly rich.
Joni Rodgers said…
Lark, for the hundredth time, all you have to do is get your book published and go on Oprah. Haven't all your friends explained this to you?!
This is one of my favorite posts. Love that you ran it again. And thanks a lot. I choked when I read your comment to Lark! LOL

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