Despite the verbiage we use in publishing about “selling a book,” an advance is what a publisher pays for your book. It is an advance against your future earnings. Which means the publisher will expect you to “pay it back.”
A wonderful reader reached out via email to ask,
Do I ever have to pay back an advance?
Say you can get me a nice 6-figure advance because you are great and everybody thinks the book is great too. And then we’re selling 50 copies. Now what?
Obviously, my author career has just imploded, but what about the money? Is there fine-print somewhere in the contract specifying “with an advance of x you better sell ‘y’ copies, or else…”?
I’m going to answer this backward if you don’t mind.
Believe it or not, your author career has definitely not imploded. You might have stalled out and are in need of a jump start, but you aren’t considered totaled just yet. The surprising thing about publishing is how resilient great authors can actually be. If you wrote a 6-figure book because you’re great and everyone thinks the book is great well then you still remain great. Now you need to write another great book. Of course, you might not get paid 6-figures the second time around, but you could earn that in royalties.
So what about that nice 6-figure advance toward which you only earned $50? Don’t cancel your trip to Paris just yet. That money is yours to keep.
Contractually, no author should ever be bound to pay back an advance outside of royalties. This is something your agent will ensure when she negotiates the contract. Now, there are contingencies. Not delivering the book, the book being deemed unacceptable, or a legal matter that prohibits publication, could all require repayment of the advance. But, should everything move forward as expected, and as is typical, you will not be required, solely for lack of sales, to return the money.