Authors’ advances: science fiction & fantasy vs literary fiction

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Authors Feel Pinch In Age of E-Books”. Now, I have seen other bloggers rip the original article full of holes, but for me, the premise of the original article wasn’t really the issue. What did make me sit up was the fact that, according to the WSJ article:

Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, a small independent publisher, now plans to publish the [literary fiction] book, offering Ms. Kaschock an advance of about $3,500..

…established publishers typically paid [US$50,000 to US$100,000 advances] in the past for debut literary fiction…

Now, my frame of reference is the science fiction/fantasy genre, for which Tobias Buckell conducted a survey several years ago. Buckell found that the median advance for first-time authors was $5,000. Yep, one-tenth, or one-twentieth, of the literary fiction advances mentioned above.

Assuming the WSJ piece is correct and literary fiction does, indeed, typically pay advances of US$50K-US$100K , this is an interesting fact. It makes me wonder why the discrepancy is so great: is literary fiction truly that lucrative to publish compared to speculative fiction? And it makes me wonder about the relative pay scales of other genres of writing.

Update: Tobias Buckell points out in the comments section:

… most agents/editors I know are laughing at that ‘lit fic usually gets paid XXX’ assertion. They’re cherry picking and mis remembering. Like everything else, lit fic has a range, from no-pay academic journal publishers, $1000 paying college presses, to authors who get paid big money.

Based on this, then, the $50K – $100K cited in the article does look to be inflated. Thanks, Tobias!