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Huge advances obviously aren’t part of the story of most debut literary novelists—but to many people’s surprise, they also aren’t part of the story of how most blockbuster authors began.
Most people know the story about Stephen King getting the call telling him they’d just sold Carrie for $400,000. Woo-hoo! Overnight success, right? (Well, disregarding the previous three novels he couldn’t publish.)
What people forget is that the call was from King’s editor (not his agent, mind you) to tell him about the paperback rights sale (which Doubleday split 50:50 with him, just the same way that MNW splits subsidiary rights with their clients). But King’s original advance was a whopping $2,500 (that’s about $8,600 in today’s money)—small enough that he kept his high-school teaching job, and he and his wife continued to worry about how to make ends meet. I seriously doubt that Doubleday really pushed Carrie harder because they had $2,500 invested in King’s advance; the $2,500 was more in the nature of a courtesy than a major financial commitment.
After being turned down by dozens of other publishers, John Grisham’s agent sold his first novel (A Time To Kill) to tiny start-up Wynwood Press, reportedly for a $15,000 advance. $15,000? Not bad for a first novel, no matter what the press might have you believe. (By way of comparison, JK Rowling got about $6,000 for the first Harry Potter.) Unfortunately, Wynwood had little distribution, and Grisham eventually bought up copies and sold them from the back of his car to try and get the book to readers. (Hence the legend that he self-published his first book, which is nonsense.)
For Wynwood, $15,000 was a huge investment, so I’m sure they ‘pushed’ with everything they had. Problem is, they didn’t have much with which to push. Do you suppose Grisham would rather have had that $15,000 advance from Wynwood, or, say, a $5,000 advance from Doubleday? (Or even [gasp] a $0 advance from Doubleday?)
(I’m sure someone will say, given the benefit of hindsight, that Grisham should simply have put away A Time To Kill and gone on to get publishers worked up about his bestseller The Firm. The problem with this logic is that Grisham had no real reason to believe The Firm would be a breakout. A scout got hold of a bootleg copy of the manuscript and began hawking it around Hollywood, managed to stir up some heat about a book the scout didn’t even have legal rights to, and suddenly Hollywood wanted it—even before the book had been sold. Grisham himself categorizes this as a very lucky fluke.)
In the 1990s HarperCollins wrote off $270 million in unearned advances and excess inventory. These big advances and extra books weren’t the result of fat payments to deserving unknown literary novelists. They didn’t go to discovering the next King, Grisham, or Rowling, either. They went to established ‘name’ authors who didn’t have the audience appeal the publisher assumed, and to overhyped debut authors who generally dropped from sight after the first overadvertised, overfunded, book hit the stores.
I don’t think this is good for the industry. I don’t think it’s good for most authors—neither for those paid large sums for books that didn’t earn out nor for those whose books were neglected because of the urgency of recouping someone else’s big advance. In the long run I don’t think it’s good for the reading public. Big advances reduce diversity and make for risk-averse publishers.
There is a tendency to speak as though the only stake publishers have in a book is the author’s advance, and that, lacking a big advance, they have no particular reason to try and recoup any money. This may be true of e-publishers, and of presses where Print-On-Demand is the central production technology, and I would indeed steer clear of e-publishers and POD presses that don’t offer a significant advance, because they literally have almost nothing invested in your book.
But publishers who print books with traditional offset technology and try and sell them through traditional channels are sinking quite a bit of money into each book. Doubleday’s real commitment to King’s Carrie was an initial print run of 30,000 copies—not the $2,500 advance.
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