Book Advances

MICHAEL MEYER has a piece in the Sunday NY Times book review section entitled “About That Book Advance …“. While it logically has the perspective of an author, it does point out some of the issues associated with the predominant model in current trade publishing.

One part that I think doesn’t quite compute is the following: “In 1971, for example, Viking sold paperback rights to “The Day of the Jackal” to Bantam for 36 times the $10,000 hardcover advance it had paid its author, Frederick Forsyth. “Agents realized that they should be the ones holding auctions for their authors and get advances more in line with the anticipated total value of their books,” Georges Borchardt, who brokered the hardcover rights, said in an interview.”

The implication of this statement, followed by the quote (from the author’s own agent), is that Forsyth should have received an advance that predicted the future $360,000 deal. I have two problems with that statement. The first is that due to the success of the paperback and subsequent movies, we can rest assured that Mr. Forsyth received what my kids would call a “ginormous” advance for his next book. This is what happens when authors and publishers work together toward success. The reward cycle works for both parties as success breeds success and everyone is happy. To look back on that first advance and imply it was small or less than sufficient, is not only ignoring the circumstances of that particular situation, it is also implying that success was obvious at the time, and therefore the author should have been better compensated.

The implication of the paperback deal as “36 times the advance paid for the hardcover” here is that Viking made a killing and Forsyth only received a paltry $10k. However, Forsyth, like all authors, clearly had a contract that included a subsidiary rights clause that would have given him at least 50% of the paperback rights sold by Viking. This means he would have been paid his share of the paperback deal shortly after Viking received it. Perhaps this article could have detailed that small tidbit of important information.

I believe this cuts to the core of what is problematic about so much of the business of publishing. Risk is becoming solely owned by publishers who have been negotiated into untenable positions at both ends of the spectrum. We have increasing risk in signing new titles and we have increasing risk in selling them. At some point, something must give, like pressure built up between two continental plates. Ebooks put additional pressure on the situation as does audio rights and any other new form of income generation. No matter how speculative or nascent these arena’s are, there will be an insistence that they be paid for – in advance – even if that isn’t how the publish gets paid (see Why Ebooks Must Fail).

I posited some thoughts on the issue of royalties and advances back in 2007 on the OUP blog – check it out here: I would love to hear your feedback on both the Meyer’s piece and my thoughts.

So it turns out that at just about the same time I was writing this, so was my pal Mike Shatzkin. Check out his far more thorough – and perhaps balanced, review of the very same Meyer piece at his blog, The Shatzkin Files.

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