Where is My Money?

By Steve Laube

Before I became a literary agent I had no idea how much energy this profession spent being a “collections agent.” Recently someone asked us the following questions (use the green button to the right to ask your question!):

What do you do, as an agent, when a publisher does not pay advances on royalties on time as per their legal contract?

What if a publisher is consistently late (months) saying they have cash flow problems and will pay when they can? Shouldn’t authors be able to count on getting paid the amount and on the date stated in their contract?

Is this common and is there anything that can be done or said regarding what seems to be a breach of contract?

This is an excellent series of questions. The full non-answer is “It depends.” Generally publishers are very good about making the payments according to contracted schedules. The above situation is much more dire and is a good reason to have an agent who knows how and who to talk to inside the publishing house. There are ways to approach the situation that gets results, just remember, “Don’t Burn a Bridge.”

However, there are a few possible reasons that authors should keep in mind before getting impatient with a tardy paycheck.

It’s in the Mail

Many contracts give the publisher 30 days to make a payment. And some will take all 30 days to generate the check. Note that some organizations write checks on Fridays. And if they missed their post office cut off, the check won’t be mailed till the next Monday. Then it depends on the speed of the mail service in your area. There have literally been times too many to count where a client has called me impatiently awaiting their check…and the check arrived the next day. Please remember to consider holidays and mail travel times when marking your calendar.

Your Work is Not Yet Finished

Most contracts have a second advance payment due on the acceptance of a completed manuscript. The key word is “acceptance.” The is not the same as “delivery” of the manuscript. Instead it means the editor has to run the manuscript through its paces to determine that it is indeed the book you promised to write. A few publishers will not declare a book “acceptable” until the entire editorial process has been complete and the book is ready to send to the typesetters. This can be months after the book was originally delivered. (I recall one situation where a manuscript was delivered in April and the “acceptance” money did not arrive until November.

Why is this? Because the publisher should be able to know that what you have written is sellable. There is a famous 1996 case where Random House sued actress and author Joan Collins. The publisher attempted to make her pay back her $1.3 million advance alleging that the manuscripts she had delivered for two books were unpublishable. Collins won, and kept her money, because the original contract only said that the manuscript should be ‘complete’ – not satisfactory. Her agent had somehow convinced the publisher to allow that language in the contract! I can guarantee that mistake would not be repeated today….

Click to view a clip from the actual Joan Collins trial.
And here is a PDF of the actual Joan Collins contract.

The Editor Forgot to do the Paperwork

In my early days as an editor I was terrible about this. Since I was the one who would declare a manuscript “acceptable” it was up to me to generate the payment request. There were a few times where I simply forgot. I finally got smart and delegated the task. Once a book was past a certain point in the editorial process, our managing editor would create the paperwork and I would sign off. Problem solved. But because of that experience I keep tabs on this for our clients. A gentle nudge is usually sufficient to get things rolling.

Your Publisher May be Cash Poor

For some publishers (usually much smaller ones), cash flow trouble is a reality. Back in the heat of the economic crunch in 2009 a publisher wrote to tell me they did not have the money to pay an “on signing” payment. They had been hit by huge returns and the banks were not extending credit back then. (Read this blog post about returns and their negative affect on the economics of publishing.) The author and I appreciated being told and the humble way in which the news was given. The money did arrive within 30 days, tardy but it was all there. Fortunately that was a temporary thing and has not happened again.

If you are concerned, talk to your agent. In my opinion it is your agent’s job to pursue collections. And to pursue it in way that keep things professional and courteous.
Did this answer your question?

8 Responses to Where is My Money?

  1. Judith Robl February 27, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    Patience is a virtue, but never pray for it. All God will give you is an opportunity to exercise your patience muscle.

    Thank you for pointing out that we (authors, especially novices) sometimes do not understand all the ins and outs that go into paying us.

    My publisher accounts for my books twice a year. But I’ve had to explain time and again to friends and family, that I will only have sales information every six months. They keep wanting to know how my book is selling.

    I’m not about to bother the publisher to ask for sales figures on a monthly basis. They have better things to do, including evaluate my next proposal.

  2. gina welborn February 27, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Oh. Well, I hadn’t really thought to much about the payment process after a manuscript had been turned in. Nice info to know, though.

  3. Andrea February 27, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Another excellent article. Thanks, Steve.

  4. Mary Hampton February 27, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    This very point is one of the main things I address when someone asks why they need an agent. I’ve had some ‘collections’ experiences beyond the ones you described that even took my agent nearly two years to get rectified. I’m not sure it would have ever been resolved without one. My agent more than ‘earned his keep’ with that one transaction alone.

    Although we writers watch the mailbox for a check nearly as soon as our manuscript is sent, we don’t usually want to be the ones to deal with things when the money issues get sticky. I’ve been glad to have someone in my corner that I can call when things go sideways.

  5. Martha Rogers February 27, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    In looking back over payments I’ve received, I realized it is taking 30 to 40 days for payment after a book is released. So now I will be patient and wait for that time to pass. Thanks for the article, Steve. So glad y’all I’m on your team.

  6. Carrie Daws February 27, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Very interesting article. I love getting a glimpse into the “other side” of writing and your posts are reliably informative. Thanks for the insight!

  7. Lindsay Harrel February 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Great information! I wouldn’t have thought about this, but it’s definitely great to know.

  8. Peter DeHaan February 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Collections is never a fun task. It would be nice to live in a world where everyone paid what they were supposed to and did so when they were supposed to.

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