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August 11, 2008

Tales of the Big Advance
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:04 PM * 47 comments

When did vanity POD AuthorHouse start giving out million-dollar advances?

AuthorHouse is a “self-publishing” service:

For a modest financial investment you can choose what you want for your book. Our products and services vary in price and can be tailored to your specific needs.

Authors pay up front (that “modest investment” is generally in the mid-three-figure to low-four-figure range) to get their books set up for Print-on-Demand publication. AuthorHouse doesn’t mention advances anywhere on their web page because … they don’t give them. Instead of the natural order of things, where money flows from the publisher to the author, at AuthorHouse money flows from the author to the publisher.

The last time AuthorHouse hit the news for giving big money to an author was in August of 2006, when they were forced to pay $200,000 in punitive damages to Rebecca Brandewyne.

The judge acknowledged that, based on its business model of dealing in volume, AuthorHouse “cannot read every book cover to cover,” and that the company, to a certain extent, is entitled to hold authors responsible for the content of their work.

Now comes a news story, widely reprinted, about how 93-year-old Lorna Page published her novel through AuthorHouse (it came out on 12 July 2008) and has bought a $600,000 house on the advance, into which she intends to move her friends to save them from the horrors of nursing homes.

Sun Aug 10, 8:51 PM ET

LONDON (AFP) - A 93-year-old debut novelist has used the proceeds from her book to move her friends out of nursing homes and into her new country house, she said in British newspaper reports on Monday.

When Lorna Page hit the jackpot with “A Dangerous Weakness”, a raunchy thriller set in the Alps, she traded in her flat for a 310,000-pound (400,000-euro, 600,000-dollar) five-bedroom house in picturesque Devon, southwest England, and invited her contemporaries to move in with her.

The touching story continues with details of how the old lady’s daughter-in-law found the manuscript in a suitcase, sent it off to a publisher, and to her great joy got an acceptance. That she got an acceptance isn’t a surprise: With any vanity the only question on the publisher’s mind is whether the author’s check will clear. This says nothing about the quality of the book: A vanity press will print a good book as fast as it’ll print a bad one. But the good book’s author should expect the same sales as the bad book’s: 75-150 copies, depending on how many friends and how big a family the author has.

The book has not been reviewed anywhere that I can discover. The paperback version is currently out of stock at Amazon.uk, while the hardcover version has a 8-11 day wait for delivery. This is typical for POD books, which by their nature can’t handle volume sales, far less best-seller volumes.

My thoughts: There was no “significant advance” for this book. Even if the book was selling gangbusters, even if AuthorHouse paid royalties monthly, even if it sold a ton of copies, there’s no way that a book that came out a month ago on 10 July (hardcover) and 12 July (paperback) would have delivered a check in time to put a down-payment on a house and for the author to move in.

Someone is fibbing.

Google

Comments on Tales of the Big Advance:
#1 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 01:12 PM:

This -- LONDON (AFP) -- is all I needed to see. I worked at a Large Media Company and can remember a couple of questionable wire stories from AFP that put their stuff at the back of the queue: reputable (at the time anyway) agencies like AP or Reuters material could be used unverified, but AFP material had been found to be fact-deficient too many times.

#2 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 01:38 PM:

Most interesting is the "Mike Cane 2008" link, which notes that the POD publisher doesn't have the book available in any of the electronic formats.

Since UK regs allow buying a house with no money down, and no one is saying how much the "significant" advance was, I fear for the follow-up reports.

#3 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:16 PM:

Since the housing market crashed, though, 100% mortgages are virtually impossible to come by and sellers are having to settle for lower offers. Something about this happy tale of moving up the property ladder seems, uh, amiss.

The Beeb and the Guardian have also picked up the story. Something's amiss -- maybe she had already bought the house, or had the finances before "publishing" her novel?

#4 ::: Felicity Shoulders ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:23 PM:

Perhaps the daughter-in-law is massively wealthy. She discovered the manuscript and concocted the 'advance' scheme as a way of slipping her proud mother-in-law charity without ruffling her feathers. What hijinks will ensue when the press investigates and the 'authoress' begins to suspect? You may scoff, but I think P.G. Wodehouse could spin this straw into gold.

#6 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:24 PM:

Maybe the media splash is to get people buying the book?

Since we're told where the lady's new house is, the small village of Weare Giffard, and its price, £310,000, we can look on this site and find that a house was sold there for that amount back in February.

#7 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:29 PM:

Today is Rosy Lens of Optimism Day. Therefore, it's clear to me that the daughter, a woman of considerable means, has been trying to help her mother financially for years, but the proud woman would have none of it. Finally, she concocts a scheme that allows her to support her mother, while leaving the older woman with not only her dignity, but also the glow of pride that comes with being a Published Author.

Of course, nobody could help but be at least a little proud about their writing accomplishments, and so the news has leaked to the media. But the daughter remains confident that nobody will discover her ruse; all most people know about publishing is that those who get books on the shelves become instant millionaires, and the risk of discovery is low.

I'm sure that must be what happened.

#8 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:31 PM:

Felicity Shoulders @4 - see? Great minds think alike. (Only some post faster, darnit.)

#9 ::: Irene Delse ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:35 PM:

Next month's story:

93-Year-Old Debut Authoress in Legal Battle with Daughter-in-Law: Who Keeps the House?

"It was my idea in the first place," moans DIL of famous author. "I payed the publisher, I advanced the cash for the house, I thought up the publicity angle and all that! Now she could at least will the house to me! But no, it goes to charities for old people and writer's cats!"

(Now, I'll go wash my imagination with bleach...)

#10 ::: CJColucci ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:36 PM:

I look at ads placed by vanity presses all the time. Sometimes, a book looks promising, but I would never risk buying it. Maybe some magazine or newspaper ought to have a continuing feature reviewing randomly or quirkily selected vanity press books. Some of them might be good, and many others might well be entertainingly bad.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:45 PM:

Maybe some magazine or newspaper ought to have a continuing feature reviewing randomly or quirkily selected vanity press books.

Pod-dy Mouth used to do that, before she burned out.

#12 ::: Joe Mason ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:50 PM:

My first thought was that a $600,000 one-time actual advance payout to a first-time author is a much smarter publicity move than $600,000 worth of standard print ads. But then I realized that vanity presses never spend that much on print ads in the first place.

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 02:54 PM:

But then I realized that vanity presses never spend that much on print ads in the first place.

A vanity press pay for ads?

No, with vanity books the author pays for ads.

#14 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 03:15 PM:

I have suspicions that her 1 bedroom Surrey flat sold for quite a penny...I also have suspicions that perhaps a sale or two from her vanity press self-published novel went into the funds used to mortgage (or outright buy) her new home. So with a minor technicality we can say that she bought her new home with revenue from the book but... an advance ? From AuthorHouse?

I think CatMeadows@7 and Felicity@4 are on to something.

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 03:52 PM:

I also have suspicions that perhaps a sale or two from her vanity press self-published novel went into the funds used to mortgage (or outright buy) her new home.

Given the timing there's no way that any money from any sales from the book itself could have reached her yet.

And "a sale or two" is about right. We're talking about pennies, not entire pounds here.

#16 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:04 PM:

Given the timing there's no way that any money from any sales from the book itself could have reached her yet.

Couldn't she have got a few copies of her own, and sold them cash-in-hand to friends/family?

#17 ::: Issendai ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:11 PM:

The news stories make me wince. I don't blame her one bit for wanting to get out of the care home--I've been to a nursing home like that, and she's not exaggerating by a word--but she's moving herself and several of her friends into... a regular house? With no one but her daughter and son-in-law to help? They're essentially starting a private nursing home with a staff smaller than they'd need to run a B&B. And what happens when Lorna Page dies? Do all her friends expect to stay on? Will they have to find new places in care homes, and possibly get stuck in homes even worse than the ones they started with? And oh god, what happens if the money really isn't real?

Forget the AuthorHouse angle, the whole situation is a nightmare from the human angle. I really, truly hope that someone has put more thought (and financial backing) into this than the news stories are suggesting.

#18 ::: Chris Gerrib ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:18 PM:

CJColucci @ 10 and MacDonald @ 11 - I am one of a group of people who review self-published and very small press stuff at POD People. From that site, there are links to other reviewers of self-published books.

My apologies if this is off-topic or excessively self-promotional.

#19 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:21 PM:

Note that a £310,000 advance isn't required for this story to be true... apparently the author had a flat in Surrey to sell. Now, house prices in some parts of the south east being what they are, I would be unsurprised if she got, say, £250,000 for such a flat. So all she has to do now is convince a bank that her recently-published novel is *bound* to earn her enough to pay the interest on a £60,000 mortgage and she has the funds she needs to buy the house.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:23 PM:

Couldn't she have got a few copies of her own, and sold them cash-in-hand to friends/family?

That's the usual way vanities operate. They sell books directly to the authors. The authors are on their own to sell the books out of the trunks of their cars, at tables at flea markets, or to their friends at the lunch table at work.

It's unlikely that any amount she's brought in equals what she already paid to the publisher.

#21 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:43 PM:

The link to POD People in #18 is not spammy, but because the HREF code is mangled, it might wind up looking that way.

Use this one instead: POD People.

#22 ::: Issendai ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 04:56 PM:

So all she has to do now is convince a bank that her recently-published novel is *bound* to earn her enough to pay the interest on a £60,000 mortgage and she has the funds she needs to buy the house.

Or her daughter and son-in-law could have co-signed the mortgage. Far easier than selling a banker fairy tales about AuthorHouse royalties, though harder on the authorial ego.

#23 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 05:12 PM:

Given the timing there's no way that any money from any sales from the book itself could have reached her yet.

And "a sale or two" is about right. We're talking about pennies, not entire pounds here.

Yessir. I seemed to have overlooked that AH royalties payout schedule (despite it being posted on their site and a few times here...).

It's PR. Heart-touching, clever and deceitful PR.

#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 05:14 PM:

Here we see a mother and daughter who went on Dr. Phil arguing about $3,000,000 in royalties that they expected to earn from PublishAmerica.

#25 ::: Chris Gerrib ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 05:55 PM:

John @ 21 - thanks for fixing that link.

#26 ::: Ray Girvan ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 06:25 PM:

It's PR. Heart-touching, clever and deceitful PR.

It does look almost viral in its apparent crafting to slip under the reality-check radar. It has a payload ("buy this novel") heavily cloaked inside a feelgood philanthropic story well-shielded against critical analysis (why, only a mean-spirited person would question the scenario of a dear old lady altruistically helping others out of Dickensian care homes).

#27 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 06:36 PM:

Ray @ 26 How dare you question that sweet little 93 year-old lady?!

Jim @ 24 Thanks for sharing that link. I hadn't heard of that 3 mil PA advance story. Dr. Phil nonetheless...WITH a PA rep in the audience? O.o

#28 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 06:54 PM:

This has little to do with the vanity-press-story, actually, but I think there is one exemption from the "money flows from the publisher to the author, not vice versa"-rule:

A legitimate publisher might own a successful "shared world" a lot of different authors write for over the years - a role-playing game, for example. So, a prospective author might be required to read up on the setting details, and this will mean s/he has to (borrow or) buy the books that are already published. In practical terms, s/he will probably have to give money (via a bookstore) to the publisher before s/he can expect the first part of an advance.

(I have been in both roles before, as a writer and working for a small publisher. I still was surprised when a prospective writer called it a "proof of shady business" when she heard she would not get the whole backlist of 100+ titles for free upon signing her one-title-deal.)

#29 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 07:45 PM:

So, a prospective author might be required to read up on the setting details, and this will mean s/he has to (borrow or) buy the books that are already published.

In that situation, the very minimum I'd expect from the publisher would be the series bible and a couple of the more recent titles.

While the author might want to overachieve and read the entire 100+ books to date, I'd expect that she'd get most of them from the library, friends, and used book stores. Provided she didn't already have them all on her shelves -- that's the sort of writing that requires that the author already be a fan.

A year's prep before even starting a single title in a tie-in project seems excessive to me.

#30 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 07:46 PM:

Actually, the BBC article is very careful not to state, or even imply, that proceeds of publishing paid for the house, neither in the article or video; it's quite clear that someone in the editorial process spotted that it was a vanity press book.

I suspect, based on what the son and daughter-in-law said, they're also planning to take advantage of the special legal position of small residential care homes.

#31 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 07:53 PM:

Issendai at #17; my expertise here is many years out of date, but there used to be a provision for small residential care homes with three or fewer residents. The mother won't count as she's a relative, so it's mother + three, and although the articles talk about 'nursing homes', that's the common confusion between nursing care and residential care; this is surely residential care.

When I did visit care homes as part of my job, I had several of these small homes in my patch; all the ones I saw were vastly nicer than the average of the larger homes, pretty much for exactly the reasons outlined in the articles. But I believe that the proportion of these small homes that are substandard is also higher.

#32 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 08:27 PM:

James D. Macdonald @ 29

I agree completely. If the publisher explicitely demands that such a number of titles must be read, he should offer access. One publisher I work for supplies the most important titles (setting descriptions) as pdfs. But I think that there might be cases where a very small or hobby publisher (even while paying acceptably) might state that s/he can work only with those who have already read titles A, B and C. That might be semi-professional perhaps, but if stets upfront, I would not call it ethically dubious, scammy or predatory (and I know you did not call it that, either).

Anyway, there are grey areas: In some cases, titles with extensive background research become much more popular, so the author might get better conditions for future works - so s/he tries to research as much as possible without actually being asked to. In other cases, everything collapses under the weight of the research and the text becomes a series of infodumps and innuendos glued together with little original plot.

In the situation I mentioned, the lady was a fan who assumed that she would get the backlist titles as additional benefit and completely lost her countenance when that wasn't so. Her expectation might have been incorrect, but not unreasonble. Her reaction certainly was.

But I will shut up now. I certainly do not want to distract from the original theme (I am certain that is the wrong word, but I cannot come up with the correct one, sorry).

Is there any information how quickly a true British bestseller writer (like eg J. Rowling) had real money available? I would have thought that it would have taken a few months at least, even if very positive info from the publishing house might have helped with getting a loan.

#33 ::: Issendai ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 08:31 PM:

Alison, what is the difference between residential and nursing care?

Having finally been able to watch the video, it struck me that neither of the relatives who will be running the home mentioned any experience with taking care of the elderly. They want to try it because it would be a nice thing to do. That's true, and it would be wonderful if they succeeded, but I still hear--well, because of the location of this thread, I hear, "We're starting a small press to help new authors."

#34 ::: Victoria Strauss ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 10:17 PM:

My theory: sloppy journalism. Just did a blog post.

(And Jim, I swear I put it online before I saw your post.)

#35 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 11:26 PM:

Is there any information how quickly a true British bestseller writer (like eg J. Rowling) had real money available?

Her initial advance was reportedly £3,000, probably half on signing and half on turn-in. After the book came out, perhaps six months later would be the first royalty payment, which would be entirely swallowed by reserve-against-returns. If the book was an amazing best-seller right from the first moment, and had totally earned out, the first time she'd see any additional royalty money would be six months after that.

Call it a year, minimum, before she saw anything beyond the initial advance. How much that might be would depend on exactly how well it was selling, what the cover price was, and what her royalty rate was.

#36 ::: Abby ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2008, 11:32 PM:

Not to mention that, IIRC, HP and the Philosophers' Stone wasn't an immediate hit - the phenomenon took some time to build. I wonder what the advance on HP7 was...

#37 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 01:26 AM:

Issendai, #33, in the US, residential care isn't nursing care. It's a place they can live without having to cook, clean, do laundry, etc. Someone checks their meds, encourages them to try activities (I hear the Wii Fit is a real hit in these places), may set up excursions. If they can still drive, then they do, but otherwise, there's usually planned trips to places most folks want to go, using a van or shuttle.

#38 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 01:32 AM:

Perhaps the BBC is being cautious, but the Guardian is coming right out and saying that the book earned her the money:

A raunchy novel with a dauntless heroine has transformed the lives of a 93-year-old author and three of her friends who were living in nursing homes.

Pushed by her daughter-in-law, who found the manuscript and couldn't put it down, Lorna Page has become one of the oldest debut writers on record, with equally unusual social results.

Suddenly prosperous on the advance and sales of A Dangerous Weakness, a feminist thriller set in the Alps, Page has traded her one-bedroom flat in Surrey for a big, detached country house, and invited contemporaries to move in.

#39 ::: Tracey S. Rosenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 04:55 AM:

Marilee @37:

I hear the Wii Fit is a real hit in these places

Yes, and it gives a new meaning to the cry, 'Nurse! Nurse! I've lost control of my wii!'

#40 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 07:28 AM:

James @38; yes, the Guardian's article goes much further. The proceeds of a 1-bedroom flat in Surrey could easily have covered most of the costs of the house. If the son and daughter in law sold up as well, that would be that.

Marilee @37; that's pretty much the distinction here.

Issendai @33; that's how most of these 'small residential care homes start'; adults, faced with giving up work to provide regular care for an elderly parent or a disabled (adult) child, work out that if, instead, they care for two or three, they can earn enough to keep them afloat.

#41 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 12:35 PM:

Somehow this reminds me of the flap in ML a year or so ago over the son in "For Better or Worse" buying a house with the advance from *his* book -- something most here regarded as quite unlikely. I'm with the cynics this time too (and that previous thing helped drive me away from a comic strip that had been a fave for ages).

#42 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 01:47 PM:

Dear Madame Author House, Greetings!,
I am the third collateral cousin thrice removed of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Due to the recent political turmoil in my country, I have a need to solicit some assistance in moving a great deal of currency out of my country in order to provide for croneys of my President in their oldage.
My proposal is thus, if you agree to help, to send you a great deal of currency for you to exchange at the official Zimbabwean exchange rate the some of 500 Billion dollars which I will send you. For this assistance, I offer you ...

#43 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 01:52 PM:

500 Billion Dollars

Sigh. Gremlins changed the tag after I previewed it, I swear.

#44 ::: Jack ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 04:52 PM:

The writer concerned has now commented on the Writer Beware blog, confirming that most of the story, as reported, is nonsense.

A flat in the right part of Surrey could easily sell for more than the £310k that the new house cost: it wouldn't be impossible to get double that for a good flat in a good location, even in this troubled market.

As for POD reviews, I've just started doing that, but with a proviso: I'm not going to complete books that are full of errors, but I am going to name every book I look at. (I wonder if I'll read anything right through to the end. Or if anyone will be brave enough to submit to me. Fingers crossed.)

#45 ::: Josh Millard ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 06:39 PM:

Note that a £310,000 advance isn't required for this story to be true

The way I heard it, AuthorHouse just narrowly outbid Garamond Press. Belbo is mildly, jovially furious about the whole thing.

#46 ::: Doug Faunt ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2008, 07:31 PM:

It made it to As It Happens on the CBC today.

AuthorHouse was specifically mentioned in the outro of the story.

Here: http://www.cbc.ca/radioshows/AS_IT_HAPPENS/20080812.shtml

#47 ::: Ray Girvan ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2008, 03:49 PM:

Finally, direct confirmation of the situation from Lorna Page's publicist (and daughter-in-law) Cate Allen: see The 93 year-old and the big advance.... by Chris Vallance at BBC Radio 4's iPM blog.

Cate tells me that instead of receiving an advance, they paid a small sum to have the novel published, as is usually the case with self-publishing. They chose AuthorHouse because Cate is herself published there. They are hopeful that the book will make money, and that this will enable Lorna to help her elderly friends, but it is early days.

Cate also told me that some media reports "just made up facts".

As for what she has been doing to correct errors in coverage, Cate says she now makes it clear to journalists how the story has been misreported, and she's encouraged Lorna to go online herself to set the record straight.

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