This is one of those deflating moments you never really think about when you're in the honeymoon stage of book publishing-- you know, the time between when you sign the contract and the first month or so after the book comes out. Those months are so full of possibilities. Then, there you are five years later with an unearned-out advance and a statement showing that you've managed to lose money in the last 6 months.
How, you ask? Simple: the number of returns exceed the number of sales.
"Returns" doesn't mean that a customer returned the book. It means that the book was sitting around on the bookstore shelf and someone who works in the bookstore finally decided it was just taking up space there and probably would never sell, so they get to return it to the publisher for full credit at any time. I guess some of those stores have been hanging onto the book for the full five years. Nice of them, really.
Anyway, there does come a point-- maybe after the first two or three royalty cycles-- where you pretty well figure out whether you're ever going to earn out. If so, then the countdown begins. You think to yourself, "Cool! I just have $340 to go before I start getting royalty checks." And you predict when that'll happen, and you fantasize about how big the check might be and for how many years you'll get to sit back and collect on the title. But if you realize it's never going to earn out, then it just feels mean for them to keep sending you statements. It's like a quarterly or biannual reminder of your failure. By about the fifth statement, you just want to say, "Okay, I get the point already! Quit rubbing it in."
"Earn out" days are always glorious, even when the checks aren't very big, because they represent the potential for lots more checks. I should probably knock on wood before I say this, but none of my books are out of print yet. Nonfiction has a longer shelf life than fiction, in most cases. So some of them have been earning modest royalties for me for several years.
But alas, today. Today the mail just taunted me, showing me that not only would I never earn out on this particular title, but that I had managed to go backward instead of forward, "owing" the publisher more money than last time. (I put "owing" in quotation marks because you don't actually pay back the publisher if the title doesn't sell enough to cover the advance. But they do show you in each statement how far you have to go to "pay back" the advance before you begin getting additional payments.)
Luckily, I accidentally sold a reprint yesterday, which cushioned the blow somewhat. Reprints are the other great bonus in a writer's life. You don't have to actually do anything except send the article out again (or, in this case, not even that-- the editor contacted me instead of the other way around), and presto: a free check. Cool, huh?