Monday, March 08, 2004

The art of the deal 

Jonathan Haewood for the Independent on Sunday puzzled over the trend of hyping a book deal to excess, only for the truth to bring things crashing down. Look at Helen Oyeyemi; 18 years old, a first-time novelist, gets a 400,000 pound deal? Or does she? Turns out reports were off by a factor of 10. And this is nothing new, as the same thing happened with Hari Kunzru (reported: 1 M, real: 100 K). And then there's the fact that some agents think that getting a huge advance means total victory:

The very term "advance" is a bit of a misnomer. Technically, it is an advance on predicted royalties, but in fact, only a third is received on signing; another third on delivery; a sixth on publication and the balance on paperback publication, by which time it is more of a retrospective fee.

Nonetheless, an advance is at least guaranteed income. The late super-agent, Giles Gordon, was known to proclaim that he'd failed in his job if a client of his earned a cent in royalties. With this in mind, he secured a staggering £1.4m advance for Vikram Seth's family memoir, Two Lives, due from Little, Brown in 2005.

Not surprisingly, the publishers aren't thrilled with this concept in the least:

Many publishers simply cannot afford this kind of money. Toby Mundy of Atlantic Books dispenses the occasional five-figure sum, but he believes that all first-time novelists should earn royalties: "Everyone comes away happy. The book trade's happy because they exceeded expectations; the house is happy because there's no unearned advance, and the author's happy."

The thing that advances do is immediately announce to the world that author X, or X's book, is now Very Important, that people should Take Notice. So if it never actually earns out in the end? Big whoop. That huge advance allowed for a bigger marketing campaign, more hype, and more importantly, greater attention paid to said author by his or her publisher. Instead of being ignored, the author is practically babysat from beginning to end. But it seems that advances are, to put it mildly, a wee bit out of control. Are some books worth the astronomical sum? Well, as long as they keep selling, sure. But the vast majority of books don't do anything of the sort--by that I mean, sell enough to justify the cost. But everyone--agents, authors, publishers--want to be seen as Very Important, so they'll keep on perpetuating this crazy vicious cycle.

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