Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
Q, Do advances have to be paid back to publishers? If so, when and why?
A. The short answer: it depends. On what? The terms and conditions set forth in the contract executed between the author and the publisher.
First, understand that an advance is actually an advance against royalties. Royalties are sums actually earned by the author for sales of the book contracted. So until there is a book and it is published there are no royalties from which an advance can be pulled.
The publisher advances money to the author in good faith, presuming that the author will in good faith deliver a manuscript acceptable for publication and that the book it becomes will earn royalties. The advance must be earned before any further royalties are paid to the author.
But what if the author doesn’t provide that acceptable manuscript?
Then, advances generally do have to be repaid. How? Depends on the contract. Some are immediate. Some repayments are due on the resale to a second publisher of the manuscript. There are other variances in between. The method is whatever is agreed to by and between the publisher and author.
Generally, writers don’t pay back advances unless the finished manuscript is deemed unacceptable for publication by the publisher. Again, it depends on the contract terms, but typically, if a manuscript isn’t acceptable, the publisher provides a revision request. The author revises. If at that point the manuscript still isn’t acceptable for publication, then the publisher can either request further revisions or dissolve the contract–or the author can.
(That the author can buy back the book [meaning, repay the advance and dissolve the contract] gets forgotten at times by authors.) In that case, again what happens to the advance is contract-term dependent, but it is customary to have the advance repaid when the manuscript is sold elsewhere.
So if you contract with Publisher A and after revisions the work isn’t accepted, then you can sell it to Publisher B and repay Publisher A the advance from funds you receive from Publisher B.
If the book doesn’t earn out the advance against royalties, then those sums owing are not typically repaid by the author to the publisher. Actually, it isn’t uncommon for books not to earn out, particularly the higher you get on a publisher’s list. The best deals made, IMHO, are those where the advance and earn-out are very close.
These are examples of what happens in many contracts, but by no means all of what can happen. The terms and conditions under which anything occurs with your book depends on your contract with your publisher.
Publishers have different “boilerplate” contracts for different agents and authors. That’s important to remember. You can’t assume that because another author’s contract with your publisher reads xyz that your contract does as well. That isn’t always the case. Frequently, that isn’t the case.
This is just another of the reasons you hear me so often say that unless you’re a literary attorney, you are doing yourself a sincere disservice by not having a reputable agent represent you to help protect your interests. The greatest challenge is that what appear to be minor terms can have long-standing effects that you never imagined. Frankly, I’ve been in this business for fifteen years and there is no way I’d negotiate a contract without an agent. There are too many details that can bite you.
Advances are repaid to the publisher–by earning royalties or by agreement in the manner stipulated to in the contract. Few publishers demand that an advance to be repaid be repaid immediately. They well understand that most writer’s need the opportunity to resell the work first. But don’t assume that is your case. Check your contract for specifics.