One of my favorite observations about publishing is that, often, while people are complaining that business is quiet or dead or that they haven't read anything interesting in a long time, these same people are quietly bidding on and buying big-ticket items.
In the last couple of post-Frankfurt weeks, for example, there have been a handful of major deals, including $1 million-ish for English rights to Jonathan Littell's novel about the Holocaust; $1.2 million to Jonathan Safran Foer's little brother Joshua for a book about memory; and, stunningly, $5+ million for two new novels from Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen. With the exception of the Littell—which got quite a bit of ink, including here—these books were quietly shopped and even their enormous price tags went relatively unremarked.
Say, what? Since when is $1 million an unremarkable sum within publishing or, for that matter, without? "These things seem to go in waves, and always upward," quipped one editor who was not the ultimate buyer of any of these projects. "At one point, everything seemed to cost $200K. Then it was $320K. These days, $1 million is the point of entry. It's as if $1 million is the new $250K."
The executives at the houses that bought these books—HarperCollins, Penguin Press and Spiegel & Grau, respectively—hardly need me to do their P&Ls for them. They know that only a tiny portion of the books published in this country—some studies say 500 a year (when we publish close to 200,000)—ever break the 100,000-copy mark. Likewise, they already know that to earn back their first million, they have to sell at least that many copies. (Foreign rights, of course, can make back some decent cash for a house, but not every book has Clintonian high-priced "legs" in overseas markets.) And yet, this advance inflation continues. What's more, some see it as a publishing philosophy: Better to spend "big" on potentially big books, and to pass on anything not "likely" to sell beyond 30,000 copies.
While I can certainly understand getting carried away about a book you love, and believing that enthusiasm begets marketing budget dollars begets rep support begets bookseller passion begets—bingo!—bestsellerdom (even though we all know, intellectually, that it's not that simple), this overspending is worrisome and worth discussing again. And again: it's bad for a) writers who might suddenly, understandably, become terrifically "blocked"; and b) for editors—the many, many, many smart and aggressive and passionate editors—whose taste runs toward the "smaller" book, that if purchased reasonably, can actually make a difference (and money) at 25,000 copies. Besides, who really knows what will sell? Bestseller lists are loaded with books that even the most optimistic publisher could never have predicted would become the blockbusters they did—think Marley and Me or The Lovely Bones or, for that matter, Water for Elephants.
The good news: If publishers decide to keep spending more and more on bigger books, they may have to publish fewer. But why should it be the smaller books that go? In publishing, after all, sometimes you get what you don't pay for.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson