The other day some money inexplicably appeared in my bank account. This intrigued me. I wanted to know more, like: Who put it there? And: Could they send more? It turned out it was from my agent, Luke. “Oh, that’s royalties,” he said. “Jennifer Government earned out the advance.”
Authors earn money in two ways: royalties and advances. Royalties are the cut the author receives from the sale of each book (usually around 10% of the cover price, but can be much higher or lower depending on the edition, country, and how much more famous they are than me). An advance is a payment made to the author before the book goes on sale. It can take a year or more for a book to hit the shelves after a publisher has accepted it, and months or years to sell significant numbers of copies, and six months on top of that for it to show up in a royalty statement with a check attached. So if there were no advances, authors would turn up to bookstore readings with their possessions in a shopping cart. Because this would be embarrassing for all concerned, the publisher makes a kind of bet: they guess how many copies they’ll sell, and pay the author the equivalent of a year or two’s royalties. The author doesn’t earn anything else until actual royalties exceed the advance.
You don’t have to pay back an advance even if the publisher over-estimates, which is fortunate because otherwise I’d be washing dishes in the Penguin Putnam cafeteria. They expected to sell more copies of Syrup than they did, so my royalties have never earned out the advance. On the one hand, this makes me one lucky asshole, because I got overpaid. On the other, it’s largely the reason why Penguin dumped me from their list, so I think it mostly works out.
Anyway, the point is this is the first time I have earned actual royalties. I’m so excited about it. I feel as if I am a real author, not just a guy with an attack-dog literary agent. I’m making a living from telling stories!