Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The US Publishing Industry Shoots Itself in the Foot--Repeatedly (Advances, Part IV)

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part III

The topic of advances has come up on this blog before. Without a doubt, big advances sometimes pay off for the publisher—Special Topics in Calamity Physics, for example, seems to be doing quite well.

But all is not so well in a number of other cases. Holt paid debut novelist Jed Rubenfeld $800,000 for The Interpretation of Murder, gave away 10,000 advance-review copies, conducted a major publicity blitz, and did a first printing of 185,000 copies. The book was published almost six months ago, and, at last report, had moved about 26,000 copies. I calculate that Mr. Rubenfeld’s unearned portion of the $800,000 is roughly $732,400.

Gordon Dahlquist’s much-hyped Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was acquired by Bantam as part of a two-book deal for two million dollars. That’s—let’s say it again— $2,000,000. 120,000 copies were printed; so far, over almost seven months, sales have amounted to about 21,000 copies, which means so far the earned royalties are, say, about $55,000 of that $2 million.

Charles Frazier’s second novel Thirteen Moons (following his bestseller Cold Mountain) leveraged the author an $8 million advance from Random House (in an apparent attempt to live up to their name). Eight million dollars. That’s the highest advance ever paid for a novel. After almost five months of sales, the number of copies sold is 250-300,000, which would be an outstanding sales record had the first printing not run to 500,000 copies. Publisher’s Weekly estimates that to earn out the advance will take sales of a million copies in hardback plus two million copies in paperback.

Not all bad bets are accompanied by trumpeting of the advances paid. Random House (them again?) won’t say what they paid Mark Haddon (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) for his second novel, but they printed 200,000 hardbacks, and, in six months, have moved about 44,000. In a similar vein, see HarperCollins, who printed up 150,000 copies of Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, and moved about 20,000 in four months (though Book Scan figures claim only around 6,000 have been sold).

I’m not claiming these aren’t good books (as it turns out, I haven’t read a single one of them. I dislike having things shoved at me.) Nor am I claiming the publishers can't break even on one or two of these, via paperbacks or rights sales—though it does look to me as though the five deals quoted above might amount to a collective loss of, oh, maybe six or seven million dollars? Maybe more? (Remember that the investment wasn't just in the advances, but in huge print runs and expensive publicity campaigns.) But these figures do raise some interesting issues.

First, when publishers and agents contend that fiction is a tough business these days, don’t they ever ask themselves precisely why it is so tough? Might it have something to do with the immense risks of spending too much money upfront?

Second, why is there never any blowback for the agent? An author whose overpriced book tanks will have a hard time moving into the front row again, but how is it that editors continue to do business with agents who convince them to pay ridiculous prices for books? I know, I know, it’s an uncertain business—but a broker who convinces clients to buy stocks that crash soon finds that no one will deal with him. What magic spell prevents agents from being blackballed?

Third, for those who believe that publicity sells books and that a big push is what determines bestsellerdom and profits—take a look at the situation described here. The publishing houses were solidly behind every one of these novels, and the public responded with a resounding yawn.

I’m not complaining about people earning money. If Mr. Frazier earns $8 million, that's between him and the Internal Revenue Service. But giving him $8 million in the hopes that his book might make money for the company is not just absurd but unnecessary. He would have written the book for $4 million, or $2 million, or, probably, like most authors do (and like Mr. Frazier did with Cold Mountain) for no guarantees whatsoever.

Here's my theory: The editors calling the shots at the big US publishing houses are all in the pay of the US television industry. TV tried to kill the printed word for decades, with a great deal of success, but there was always a diehard core of readers who refused to be defeated. Finally the TV execs have come up with a plan--if the industry refuses to die, it must be induced to commit suicide.

Paranoid, you say? Perhaps. But it's the only theory I can find that's consistent with the facts.

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part III


Matt Curran said...

David, don’t underestimate the greed and stupidity of some writers too. It’s not just agents who drive these prices, it is sometimes the writers and writers’ expectations. It’s both disheartening and incredible that when you visit writing forums, there are still far too many writers who only write because they expect to get great piles of cash from it.

I’ve said this many times, I would rather have a small or no advance and a higher royalties percentage than get paid shit-loads of money for something I haven’t earned. There’s nothing suspicious in that – it’s just the way I am.
Afterall, I’m not paid in advance of my day-job – just at the end of each month. I agree, it’s all about earning. And it’s all about this industry being sensible – something that the publishing industry clearly isn’t.

No wonder the market is dying if there are idiots splashing out incomprehensible piles of money for what will be loss makers. It might be okay for the movie or TV business, but the publishing business is still quite ill, and will continue that way unless someone decides to stop it haemorrhaging cash.

David Isaak said...

Ah, greed and stupidity...you're probably right, Matt.

Though I must say I like my 'conspiracy' theory better. It has more narrative potential, don't you think? (On the other hand, I suppose neither the 'conspiracy' nor the 'greed and stupidity' theories really have the makings of a premise for a white-knuckle thriller, do they?)