A publishing advance is an advance on your share of royalties & other income your book may potentially earn after publication.
When a book “earns out,” that means that your share of royalties & other income has reached the point where it equals your advance, & any further income will go to you – In other words, that’s when you’d start to get royalty checks.
In general, the size of an advance is tied to how well the publisher expects your book to sell – for example, a creator with a large readership who draws a commercial graphic novel will usually be paid a larger advance than someone who makes a niche book for a small audience. Other factors in the size of the advance can include the size of the imprint or the publisher, whether multiple editors competed to acquire the book, the age category & genre of the book, whether or not the author is represented by a literary agent, & whether the imprint specializes in graphic novels. Experienced graphic novel editors understand that cartoonists often rely on their advances to pay for living expenses while drawing their books, & this may also be a factor in the size of an advance particularly for books on aggressive schedules which don’t allow time for other work.
Most advances are paid in parts – for example, you may get half when your contract is signed (“on signing”) & half when you deliver the main body of work you’re responsible for. Your contract will specify the payment triggers for your advance, as well as outlining the income you’ll be due from royalties, sales of subrights like translation, & other factors. Note that depending on the publisher & the complexity of the deal, a significant amount of time may pass between when you accept an offer from a publisher & when the contract is ready for signing – often several months, & sometimes upwards of a year. As signing is the first payment trigger for nearly all advances, it’s a good idea to ask your agent &/or your editor how long your specific publisher usually takes to put contracts together, & plan your finances & your work schedule accordingly.
Definition provided to Litebox by the esteemed artist & comrade Alison Wilgus