The book royalties racket

Like many academic writers, I make hardly any money on my books and write them mainly for the intellectual satisfaction they give me. The world of huge advances that are paid for books by politicians and celebrities occupy a totally different publishing world and is something that I have no knowledge of. I have long been curious as to what purpose such advances serve. What happens to people who get huge advances? Are the author’s royalties kept by the publisher until they have reached the amount of the advance? What happens if the book does not sell enough copies to justify the advance?

These questions came to my mind when I read this story about New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s book.

In all, Cuomo has made $783,000 from HarperCollins for his book. The book sold 3,200 copies since it was published in the fall of 2014, according to tracking company NPD BookScan.

That works out to royalty payments to Cuomo of $245 per book.

Asked about the timing of the payments to Cuomo, a HarperCollins spokeswoman said the company does not comment on financial matters involving its book deals.

Cuomo’s government spokesman declined to say how many copies of the book have been sold.

“This payment was contractual and per the agreement with the publisher,’’ Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said of the book income in 2015.

The Wall Street Journal, which like HarperCollins is owned by News Corp., in 2014 – under the headline “Betting Big on Cuomo’s Memoir” – first reported that the publisher was having an initial print run of 200,000 copies of the Cuomo book.

Usually royalties run to about 10% of the sale price. So how did Cuomo get such a huge royalty check when he sold so few books? The whole thing is shrouded in secrecy.

There is something hugely fishy about these big book deals, especially those to politicians for their memoirs, since I cannot imagine that the market for them is that large. This article hints that book royalties are part of some kind of way to bribe politicians.

A spokesperson from HarperCollins said the publisher does not “comment on financial matters relating to our books.” News Corp. did not respond to IBT requests for comment.

News Corp., in the meantime, was registered as a lobbying client as recently as December 2016, according to the New York State government lobbying database. The mass media company, created and headed by Executive Chairman and former CEO Rupert Murdoch, has a long history of lobbying Cuomo’s office for the passage of bills beneficial to its businesses, as previously reported by IBT.


  1. CJO says

    Yes, advances are against future royalties. I f the book doesn’t “earn out” which is the term used in publishing, well, it’s a contract, and that’s the risk that the publisher took to sign the book. Giant advances are usually a function of highly sought after memoirs or the next manuscript from a sure-fire author of past best sellers.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I think the case being made is that there’s another category of author to whom giant advances are paid…

    …and the existence of that category leads one to suspect graft.

  3. Dunc says

    A lot of political memoires (and other similar books) apparently get bought in bulk by PACs and the like, and then given away for free. Most never actually get read.

  4. says

    Well, Mano, these folks are in a different world from us academic authors. If I recall correctly, I received an advance of a few thousand dollars on my first engineering text circa 1990. That was against future royalties. My major issue with standard book contracts is the loss of copyright. The author is simply treated as a “hired gun”. I lost all control over when (and if) there would be new editions, whether the title was sold to another publisher (it was, with a new edition), and any number of other items. Consequently, this was my first and last title to go through a traditional publisher. Thanks to the Intertubes, my subsequent texts have all been self-published and are offered free through the major OER sites (,, etc.). I use a Creative Commons non-commercial, share-alike with attribution license. I receive no royalties, of course, but I prefer to think of the creative flexibility and control as dividends that are greater than any royalty. I have also been fortunate that my college has supported my efforts (I’m currently on sabbatical finishing up a text on semiconductors).

    Of course, I’m not a politician and am not in a position of influence to be bribed, nor rich enough to create a “vanity book” so my experience is probably a little different than theirs.

  5. Mano Singham says


    That is interesting. I have been exploring the self-publishing model as well. Does your college treat the self-published book as valid scholarship towards promotion?

  6. says

    Yes, but…

    I’ve sent you an email with all of the details so as not to clog up your blog. Nobody wants to flog a blog clog.

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