For a business that is almost synonymous with poor-mouthing, publishing sure throws its money around. In the last couple of months, various houses have agreed to pay $7 million to Warren Buffett (or more accurately, his female Boswell); $8+ million to Alan Greenspan; over $10 million (exact figure unavailable and varies from source to source) to evangelist Joel Osteen; and a measly (relative to the above) $2 million for two books from fiction writer and Pulitzer Prize—winner Jhumpa Lahiri.
It's enough to make a newbie think all the talk about how publishing is shrinking is just so much blather. How can an industry that routinely claims it's too poor to sponsor publicity tours, give book parties and pay for co-op for books they already own, come up, so often, with that kind of scratch?
The short answer is that, in fact, publishing can't help itself. Competition for books is fierce, sometimes too fierce, and publishers often get more caught up in the desire to wrest some tome from their enemy than in actually publishing the book. "The more I want this the more it's worth" replaces the more sober "How many books will I realistically sell?" Like besotted teenagers, they think their love will conquer all—even their faulty math.
And sometimes, of course, it does. I remember a lot of hand-wringing about paying more than $1 million to a relatively unknown New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell, for what became The Tipping Point, and we all know what happened to it, and to his next book Blink (over one million copies sold last year). All too often, however, big bucks does not equal big sales, especially when the writer is a first-timer, and not even, really, a writer. Conservatively speaking, Penguin and Free Press have to sell almost a million copies each of the Greenspan and the Osteen, respectively, to break even, and in the case of Greenspan, particularly, that sounds to me like an awful lot of books about the Fed. And never mind that Penguin bought all rights to the former chairman's ideas—there are plenty who question whether he'll play in Peoria, let alone Paris.
So I worry about these inflated prices, and not just because news of them (for which PW is partly responsible) makes "lesser" writers—who get 10, 20 or 50K advances and are the vast, vast majority of working authors—consider the window ledge. I worry because I think big advances are a set-up, both for the understandably grateful writers who get them and the editors who offer them. To me, advance inflation suggests a kind of Hollywoodization of the book business, a kind of bankability scorecard that most book people would say, at least publicly, that they abhor. But one to which they are unfortunately, increasingly, susceptible.
Sure, paying high advances gets news of the books into the columns and the TV shows, but I have yet to see evidence that it guarantees the books will end up where we most want them to go: into the hands of retail-paying readers everywhere.
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