As if by magic, the First Emperor of China rears his ugly head again only a few days later, with the word from my publishers that he’s finally earned out his advance. This is a cause for great celebration for an author — it means that a book is performing in a manner which the publisher is liable to find satisfactory, and is now, at least in theory, a little income-generating machine that can be left to perpetually whirr away in the corner and occasionally spurt out coins.

Opinions are divided about advances. One acquaintance of mine is always despondent when a book of his earns back its advance. He regards it as a sign that he wasn’t paid enough in the first place, and that he should have held out for more money. For my part, I regard an advance as a two-way contract, in which a publisher’s faith in a book’s potential is borne out by a sum paid over before the book has even started to earn any money… i.e. “an advance”. The clues are all there in the name… If it does well, everybody wins. If it doesn’t, well, someone overestimated the book’s (or the author’s) likely appeal.

The first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, if I remember rightly, earned back its advance in a terrifyingly swift six weeks. For books that don’t quite fly off the shelves so fast, three or four years seems to be a reasonable time. My First Emperor book was published in 2006, so it’s done very nicely: with a hardback, a paperback, a dozen foreign editions, and as a cherry on the cake, an edition published in Chinese. My publishers, my agent, and I are entirely baffled why the Chinese would actually want to read what I have to say about him, but their money’s as good as anyone else’s.

The Terracotta Army exhibition helped, as did the opera in New York and the attention I got a year later from the Empress Wu, with some territories buying Wu and coming back for the First Emperor later on. But now, since the advance is all paid off, if there are any future sales of foreign editions (COME ON, NORWAY! WHAT’S KEEPING YOU?), then it’s all gravy. Now all I need is a hundred people to buy a copy, every day, for the rest of my life, and I can retire….

I said it was an income-generating machine; I didn’t say it was a *big* income.

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