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  • [Reality Check] – Are You For Real? – or “Do You Need an Advance to be Legit?”
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[Reality Check] – Are You For Real? – or “Do You Need an Advance to be Legit?”
Written by
Zetta Brown
March 2013
Written by
Zetta Brown
March 2013

A few weeks ago there was a considerable stink raised in some literary circles about what makes a “real author.” Some of the blog posts were downright insulting and vitriolic whereas others presented a more calm and measured argument. I’m sure many of you out there know what I’m talking about— and the organizations and  people who feel this way.

According to these brain boxes, if you accept a publishing contract without getting paid in advance, YOU are the problem. YOU are cheapening the craft. You are not a “real author.” If your publisher does not pay you an advance, handle all your marketing and promotion, or if you have to pay a penny in production or promotion costs, you’re not a “real author.” If your publisher doesn’t publish X-amount of books and generate Y-amount of dollars, you’re not a “real author” with a “real publisher.” Self publish? You might as well turn off your computer, cap your pen, and hang your head in shame, because you are not a “REAL author.”

No one really talks about the CONSEQUENCES of taking an advance from your publisher. It’s not just about getting “paid” in advance,  it’s more like a credit. It is an advance on future projected royalties. Some authors are quick to brag about how big their advance is...but you don’t hear too much from authors who’ve had to forfeit their advance or lose publishing contracts because of poor sales. Why? Perhaps because that would crack the rose-colored glasses people use when looking at publishing and the writing life.

Not me. In case you have forgotten, the name of my column is REALITY CHECK. You may not have a publisher sending you checks in advance, but I like to think that you can cash the checks of reality that I try to give to you, and I hope you find them useful.

If you earn out your advance, that’s good. You will most likely get a larger advance the next time. However...if you DON’T earn out your advance, don’t rest on your laurels. Your publisher may drop you or expect you to pay back the advance you book sales didn’t earn out—or both.  

If you’re lucky to earn out your advance, you’re not out of the woods. If your publisher accepts returns from retailers, and your books are returned, your publisher will take it out of your royalties.

Don’t get me started on book returns. Oops. Too late. Book returns kill.  They have bankrupted publishing houses and toppled bookstores (remember Borders?), and they have caused great anxiety for authors too. Book returns—now THAT’S a problem—not some B.S. about authors not getting paid advances.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because some author organizations do not consider you a “legitimate” author if you don’t get an advance and earn tons of money and/or make so many sales per year, which typically depend on your book being in physical bookstores, which can be a requirement in and of itself.

Frankly, a lot of this is twentieth-century thinking. We are almost FIFTEEN YEARS into the twenty-first century and simply cannot waste any more time clinging to Depression Era business practices. In case you haven’t noticed, the publishing world has changed since the 1920s and has changed more in the last twenty years than any time previous.

There are more means and models of publishing today than ever before. Authors are finding success and earning good money from royalties. Advances are not the end-all, be-all. Groups have every right to set their policies and standards for membership, but some of these professional organizations would be wise to adapt unless they want to risk becoming dinosaurs and go extinct.

I’m not saying that being part of a group or organization is bad. I belong to various professional organizations because I think it’s good to be in a community where you’re working towards a goal or ideal.

See my blog post about setting your own standards when it comes to your writing.  If you want to join a group, join a group that reflects and appreciate the standards you set for yourself or that you aspire to. If you want to go the ultra-exclusive route, go ahead. There is nothing wrong with setting high standards. What’s wrong is when those standards are used as a bludgeon of intimidation in the name of self-serving superiority.

Some people are just fickle. As soon as they get the seal of approval, they turn around and start disparaging those who don’t have it. If you do decide to join a group that takes pride in bashing those who don’t conform to their ideal, it says more about you than it does the people being excluded. Lucky for me, I was raised better than that.

When all is said and done, it is the WRITING that matters—not the payment method or the  publishing model, and certainly not the organization.

Stop debasing yourself.  You, too, are legit.

Too legit to quit.


©2013. Zetta Brown is the author of several published short stories and the novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or Zetta’s House of Random Thoughts.

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  • Zetta Brown

    This link was shared by one of my Facebook friends. It's Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules of Writing.

    Funny...not one of his rules has anything to do with publishing model or whether or not an author gets paid an advance. If these things were really that important to a writer of his success and influence, SURELY they would be in the top five of his list....wouldn't it?...Wouldn't it?...Bueller?...Bueller?

  • Jan Janssen

    Kamy, if we had a 'like' button here, my thumb would be way up for your comment.

    Best of luck with She Writes Press!

  • Zetta...amen sister.  Having just launched She Writes Press (and after getting an earful from several "real" authors who went as far as to say that by creating a model where authors fund the productions costs for their work, we would "trick" them into thinking they were "real" authors), and looking at the gorgeous, beautifully-written, professional and important work that SWP authors have published so far, none of which found an advance or a deal with "real" publishers (who seem to think that Snooki falls into this category), I am so proud to be, like you, searching for ways to be part of the solution, rather than letting the marketing department at some big corporate publishing house have the last word on who is a writer, and who isn't.   

  • Zetta Brown

    For those of you who publish or read ebooks, this message just came my way and I'm passing it along. It's about returns, and like I said before, returns can torpedo both publishers and authors, and when you have unchecked return policies, you're screwed:

    *** Permission to forward ***
    There's a petition on Change.org to get Amazon to change their policy regarding ebook returns/refunds. Right now too many people are buying ebooks, reading them within the 7 days allotted for returns, then returning them for a full refund. 
    There are people who cheerfully brag about doing this and see nothing wrong with it. I and many others see it as another form of piracy. Whether you're traditionally published or indie published, this policy negatively affects authors' incomes. If you're interested in signing, here's the link:

    And here's a tweet to help spread the word:
    Pls RT Sign & spread the word: #Change.org petition against #Amazon #ebook return policy. http://ow.ly/jATIZ

  • Nina Gaby

    On top of my intense 40 hour a week job, I took a teaching job for 3 months which pays OK. I pretend that's my "advance" for a project I am working up a proposal for. So then I find I am exhausted and can't keep up on my project. I figure that's pretty much "reality" for many of us. And I'm OK with that. What does infuriate me is reading Marci Braun's post a few minutes ago about the indie bookshop. I shop a lot from Amazon, I have a Kindle, I buy magazines and coffee In B and N, but I also go into every indie bookstore in every town I visit, or every time I go to any of the small cities near my home, and I buy a book. I order self published books from my friends. I blog about them. I consider myself a hybrid, spread the wealth. The local indie store I shop in the most? Won't even consider a reading from some up published local authors because we have not published our own books from a traditional publisher. The huge B and N in my hometown in NY? They held a reading for me after publishing 2 little essays in Seal Press. They treated me like royalty. We certainly do live in confusing times and flexibilty will go a long way in keeping us sane.

  • Marci Baun

    As a small publisher, I have run into the discrimination against our format. I recently walked into an independent bookstore looking to set up a book signing. No sooner did I say I was an independent publisher than she said, "We don't accept self-published authors." I think my face turned into a thundercloud because she quickly backpedaled, but all she would do is take my information and "call me."

    I was pretty upset by this behavior. From experience, I should have expected it, but when the indie bookstores cry for us to support them but won't support us in turn, why should I care what happens to them? Logically, it does make sense to support them. We don't want a monopoly in the industry (it does seem to be going that way.) And, yes, it sounds petty, but this attitude is part of the problem. As a local publisher, don't you think they'd want to support me, too?

    The industry is changing rapidly. Those who don't change with it will not survive.

  • Kathleen Kern

    I grew up with the concept of vanity publishing being a no-no.  After the organization I work for put together a book of essays about a hostage crisis we went through in 2005-2006, and a publisher dropped it because two of the essays were written by a queer partner and friend of one of the hostages, we published through CreateSpace (http://www.cpt.org/118days).  One of my much younger colleagues (who has played a big role in convincing me that my fiction is worth more than something that promotes my mental health) after I had shlepped my second novel around for a year told me I should publish through CreateSpace too--and I realized that his generation looked at self-publishing very differently.

    Nevertheless, I still wistfully look forward to the day when an agent or editor takes on something I wrote.  I hate to say it, but I think I will feel more legitimate then.

  • Jan Janssen

    Bravo Zetta! Very well said!

  • Zetta Brown

    @Suzanne - You're approaching the biz with a better mindset than many who eventually crash and burn. There are plenty of writers wanting to publish and they approach publishers as if they are doing them a favor and the publisher needs to kowtow to them.

    Uh...no. There is no lack of material and people to publish. While self publishing has always been an option (it's just more popular now than ever before), I think there has never been such a time where both publishers and authors have had so many choices.

    I gave some marketing advice to an author once who was upset because his book wasn't displayed in the front window of his local bookstore. I told him that getting his book published was big news to him--but not to a bookstore. Think about it. Bookstores are surrounded by the books published authors--what makes you so special? IF you have an angle that makes you "so special," get out there and promote the hell out of it. Even if you don't--get out there and promote the hell out of it!!

    This. Is. BUSINESS. No one is going to give you anything just because you show up! LOL

  • Zetta Brown

    @Karyne - Some of the things plaguing the publishing industry today come from the Depression Era: advances and book returns. Both spawned from this period to allow writers money to eat and to give bookstores credit so they could stay in business. Now, nearly ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER, these incentives have turned from incentives into entitlements.

    I'm in a publisher group where one of the publishers (whose been in the biz for years) rightly asks the question: "What other retail industry in the world works on returns???"  What other retail industry allows their customer to buy their product at a steep discount with the option of returning the product at ANY TIME in the future--and expect a full refund? Not only that, the customer has the right to DAMAGE the product (strip the cover) and expect their money back??

    As authors, we need to be concerned about these outdated, illogical business practices because they hurt us and the bookstores. This is why Amazon and online retailers are eating the lunch of brick and mortar retail bookstores.

  • Thank you for your insight. As a currently unpublished author about to move into publishing mode on my first completed manuscript, I am calmed by the knowledge that I have choices of how to publish.

    I think as writers we all dream of being wooed by a big publishing house who eagerly awaits your next novel ...

    But in my research, I am getting the clear message that with the vastly changing industry, just because you have a book that is well written and may possibly be enjoyed by many, doesn't mean that you will be 'the chosen one.'

    After reading about returns and lost royalties, I like the idea of self-publishing and being beholden to myself. But, on the flip side, when talking about independent publishing with others, I sometimes feel intimidated that the public, authors and readers alike, might see independent publishing as sign of a less than creditable writer.

    I'm moving forward with the belief that if I've gotten it right - produced the best possible work that I am able to - my writing will be received as I hope it will be. And as my knowledge of how to self-promote grows, I will do my best to get it out there for public to find it...  Because frankly, I'm too legit to quit!

  • Karyne Corum

    @Zetta-There is a point where an legitimate, professional organization backslides into a sorority/fraternity mindset. It speaks more about the insecure banding together than it does about superiority. I think your analogy towards the Depression era mindset is dead on, and going further, I think that as members in this constantly evolving frontier we all need to think like the settlers did. Be bold, be brave, stake your claim but never ever forget where you came from and how hard it was for you to get there. And as Dorey from Nemo would say,"Just keep writing, just keep writing."

  • Zetta Brown

    Hi everyone!

    @Peg and Kathleen - See, y'all have been around the block and have seen it from various angles. That's what makes y'all such good people to work with. :)

    @Rachel, Andrea, and Alicia - In the end, it doesn't matter how/where you publish because if your writing stinks, no one is going to read it anyway, let alone publish it unless you do it yourself. It's about the writing. Just because you write doesn't mean you have to publish your writing, but the debate is over what makes a "real" author, which means publishing that writing. Some authors want to be published it strictly for the money, some do it for fame (and the money), some do it out of passion and hope to see it payoff, whereas some do it because they have to and anything that comes from it is a bonus.

    Whatever your reason for wanting to be or being a published author, know yourself, and don't forget where you came from because you never know...you may end up going back there.

  • Alicia M. Smith

    Zetta, this is brilliant.  Loved: "If you do decide to join a group that takes pride in bashing those who don’t conform to their ideal, it says more about you than it does the people being excluded."  Also makes me wonder why people decide to write in the first place?  Passion?  Purpose?  Or simply the prestige of being supported by a traditional publisher and the cushion of the royalty check.  The money most certainly isn't everything.

  • Andrea Johnson Beck

    When all is said and done, it is the WRITING that matters—not the payment method or the  publishing model, and certainly not the organization.


    Stop debasing yourself.  You, too, are legit.


    Too legit to quit.

    LOVE that last part! 

  • Rachel Hoyt

    Hahaha.  I LOVE that you ended such a serious, semi ranting article, with such a silly line.  Too legit to quit!  :P  And, I couldn't agree more.  We all have to find the route to publishing that works best for us.  You're a writer because you write.  Thanks for the encouragement!  :)

  • Kathleen Kaska

    My thought on the matter is: an author writes (period). Thanks for your insightful message, Zetta.

  • Peg Herring

    As a writer who receives advances with some books and doesn't with others, I whole-heartedly agree, Zetta. The publishing world is changing, and it's really hard for many people to accept that. That "seal of approval" that comes with advances can produce really bad, really formulaic books because the big guys keep buying what sold last year.

    Quality writing matters, but what is done between the writing and the publishing is terribly important as well. That's where the publisher--large or small--is invaluable, providing advice, hiring editors, and looking at all the things writers can be blind to.

    I say go ahead and self-publish if you understand the industry and know what you're doing. Just make sure your work is the best it can be.