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The difference between publishing here and overseas

People new to publishing may not understand that getting a publishing deal here in Southern Africa is very different from getting a publishing deal in the United Kingdom or the United States. The main differences are agents and advances.

Overseas you need a literary agent

Nearly all overseas publishers of any size will not accept submissions directly from a writer. You will first need to find a literary agent. Most well-established literary agents will have websites where they will explain the types of books and writers that they represent and how they want writers to submit to them. Once an agent takes you on, the agent will now begin to send your manuscript to publishing houses. Literary agents get paid for the work they do from a percentage of their writers’ incomes, usually between 10-15 percent. The writer pays them nothing directly. This is an incentive for them to get the best deals for their writers.

In Southern Africa, in almost every case, publishers accept submissions directly from the writer; you do not need a literary agent. In fact, I have only heard of one literary agency in South Africa and I am not sure how successful they are.

A good literary agent has important connections within the industry. Her opinion is highly regarded by publishers so that when she says she has a good manuscript for them to look at, they jump for it. A literary agent will also sometimes guide you on how to improve a manuscript that is not quite ready, they will help negotiate better contracts, royalties and advances, and will sell translation and other rights.


In Southern Africa, writers rarely get advances.

If you have a publishing deal overseas, you will normally be paid an advance. This advance is based on the anticipated sales for the first year. It is an advance on royalties and needs to be paid back. In the first year, your royalty statement will show a negative balance. As your book sells and you earn royalties, this money will be deducted from your advance. You’ll not actually earn anything more from your book until the advance has been paid back. Quite often authors never manage to sell enough books to pay off their advance, but have no fear, publishers will not ask you to pay the money back from your pocket.  The only time a publisher will go after the author for repayment on an advance would be when the author does not fulfil her end of the contract, for example, not delivering the manuscript.

The advance is normally paid out

in three instalments: one third paid upon signing the contract, one third paid once the manuscript is delivered and accepted by the publisher, and the final third paid when the book comes out, that might be as long as two to three years after the signing of the contract.

Publishers in Southern Africa rarely pay advances. Instead when your book sells you will earn royalties on sales straight away. If your book is selling for P200, you should know that in most cases (nearly all in my experience) you will not be paid your 10% on the P200. The publisher has given the bookstore a discount, between 30-60 percent, and your royalties are calculated on the sale of the book after the discount. Most publishers in Southern Africa pay royalties once per year, a few twice a year. Normally accounts are closed three to four months before the payment of the royalties so that the statements can be prepared.

The royalty statement is a complicated and varied animal but at the very least it should have the number of books in stock (in the warehouse), the number of books sold in that period, the price the books were sold at, and the total earned. Advances may seem like a very good thing. At least it pushes the publisher to do what they claim to be able to do - sell your book, since also want to get their money back. For writers, though, sometimes advances can be a problem. If your book does not sell enough to pay back the advance, the publisher might be unwilling to publish your next book and since such information is public, it might affect your ability to find a different publisher too.

I might just mention that there is the one-off payment option as well. In this case you get neither an advance nor royalties. Instead the publisher will pay you a one-off payment to publish your book, usually paid when the manuscript is accepted and edits are finished. You will get paid nothing more. If the book goes on to sell 100,000 copies or 100 copies, it will mean nothing to your bank account, though quite a bit to the publisher’s. My personal feeling is that a writer should never take this option if they do not have to.

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