Before we begin, I need to lay my cards on the table: I received a six-figure book advance for Relativity. Since I’ll be discussing capitalism in this essay, this is something I need to be candid about. And since I’m being candid (and the publishing industry generally isn’t candid about money—unless the money is so mind-boggling that the advance becomes a publicity point in itself) what I actually received was six book advances from six different publishers: one of them six-figures, plus five advances which added up to six-figures too.
My motivation in revealing this information isn’t attention seeking (it wasn’t so much money it required a press release), or to boast or show off (money is an unreliable measuring stick), or even to set the scene to later convince you of the hidden torment receiving six-figure book advances wages on the purity of a writer’s soul. I don’t need to tell you the exact amount I got, or how much of it went to my agent or tax departments, or explain away my advance à la Emily Gould; that’s all irrelevant. But book advances are relevant to this story because of how they affected my overall state of mind in the year my book was released.
I’d be the biggest jerk alive if I started this paragraph saying something like this: despite all this money, for some reason I was still terribly miserable! Nope. Money in the bank is great. When my novel went on submission almost two years ago and these offers started unfolding, I was shocked, and then ecstatic, and then so relieved. After several years of abysmally paid (or unpaid) arts admin roles, part-time jobs in bookshops, freelance invoice chasing, publication hustling and pitching fatigue, I was just scraping by. Get a real job, the world tells artists, then models economic systems around exploiting and devaluing them. This I’d accepted. Like most young writers, I lived with a stressful level of uncertainty in my life, often not knowing what my next job would be, or when I’d get paid, or if all the time I’d invested in my manuscript would ever yield even a small return. The book advances I received took many uncertainties off the table, at least for now. Money doesn’t buy happiness, sure—but it does buy time and freedom, space to breathe, some security. These things aren’t essential to novel writing, but it’s far easier to write when you have them.
Psychologically, the overall net effect of all this is positive. But this is a numbers game, even though a writer’s currency is words. Book advances are always placing a bet: the higher the amount, the greater the risk. Gambling brings other uncertainties to the table. When everyone is playing a game of chance, nobody knows what’s going to happen next. With the possibility of profit comes the risk of loss. Both author and publisher have something to gain when a book is successful, but when the stakes are raised they also have something to lose.
From the moment your manuscript is accepted for publication, its mutation into a book begins. It ceases to be your precious collection of words towards which you’ve developed an irrational attachment—it becomes a product. This is kind of obvious, but the industrial complex of book-as-product didn’t click inside my head until several months after Relativity was released. Whenever I looked at that turquoise rectangular prism of bound paper and ink, that had a barcode, that retailed for AUD$32.99, I only saw my precious collection of words. I couldn’t see Relativity as what it really was: a thing.
Behold the first optical illusion.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #30 – subscribe and we’ll post you a copy immediately, or you can pick one up from our network of stockists. You can also read the piece online in full as part of the digital version of our magazine.
Antonia Hayes is an Australian writer who lives in San Francisco. She is the author of the novel Relativity and a book of essays, A Universe of One’s Own (forthcoming from Penguin Australia).