Poets & Writers

Getting Paid

MICHAEL BOURNE is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

LET’S say you’re a first-time author who has just landed an agent for your novel or memoir. Your agent has sent the book around to editors at top New York City publishing houses, and you’ve learned that at least one of those editors—and possibly more—wants to publish it. There might even be an auction, in which editors bid against one another for the right to publish your work.

How much of an advance are you likely to get? Or, since that may be hard to know until the bidding starts, how will the editors vying for your work decide how much to pay you?

The official answer is that each editor will draw up a profit-and-loss statement—universally known as a “P&L”—balancing the costs of acquiring, editing, and publishing your book against the book’s potential sales earnings. Because you are a first-time author and have no track record to fall back on, editors will calculate your book’s earning potential by looking at sales figures of comparable titles, or “comps,” as they’re often called.

If your book is a memoir about, say, a woman recovering from a divorce by taking a spiritually cleansing overseas journey, editors will look at sales figures for a half dozen recent travel memoirs by women, leaving out terrible books that didn’t sell at all and breakout best-sellers such as (Viking, 2006), the sales of which are likely too high to be a useful measure, to determine the market value of memoirs about women taking spiritually cleansing overseas journeys.

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