Why authors need convertible debt

At the end of a recent blogpost, I had referred to a piece by Matthew Yglesias where he refers to author advances as “convertible debt”.

 An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone other than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what’s called convertible debt in corporate finance circles — a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.

While I agreed with Yglesias’s piece when I had first read it (around the time it was published), I’m not so sure I agree with it now. As I approache the “home stretch” with the first draft of my first book (it’s a popular economics book on liquidity and market design), I’m plunged in self-doubt every time I sit down to write it.

The problem with writing a book is that the author needs to work for months together without any feedback whatsoever. It is occasionally possible for the author to take feedback from a few family members and friends. While such feedback is sometimes useful, the problem is that the people providing the feedback represent only a very tiny fraction of the book’s overall client base (I hope lots of people will read my book once it gets published).

So there is always a reasonable chance that months of effort might result in an absolute dud, implying zero returns. It is also mildly probable, of course, that these months of efforts might result in a blockbuster, but while you are producing it you have no clue which way it will turn out.

This can create serious motivation issues, and on the occasional bad day at work you might be tempted to abandon the project altogether and get back to doing something more predictable. You can have some internal deadlines but they need not be binding (like I’d set the deadline to finish my first draft as the day I went for my vacation to al-Andalus. However I’ve already reneged on that and given myself a further fifteen days). Unless there is extremely strong internal motivation, it is hard to sustain your effort.

This is where convertible debt, in the form of a publisher’s advance, can help. On the upside, the advance will guarantee you some returns (however meagre) from the project. On the downside, the advance from the publisher comes with a deadline, which acts as a Damocles’s sword to ensure you are motivated and finish your book on time.

As a first time author however, whose only published work so far has been 2000 odd posts on this blog and a 100 odd articles for Mint, I didn’t give myself too good a chance of snagging convertible debt, and so I soldier on, hoping my book turns out well.

Soon, once I finish the draft, I hope to start taking the book to publishers. If any of you has leads on who to approach, do let me know. It’s a non-fiction (popular economics) book with an Indian core but written for a global audience. For now I’m ruling out self-publication, since I’m looking at this book as providing me far more than royalty revenues and can do with some publisher validation.

Also, that might help me get some convertible debt for my next book!

One thought on “Why authors need convertible debt”

  1. So you know, I used to be an editor, and it didn’t always work as that much of a motivator heh. But having an editor at early stages is great for helping focus the writing and all. Anyway, happy to connect you with four publishers. Longtime fan of your writing 🙂

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