There was an article in New York Magazine recently, called "The End," which recapped all the industry problems bemoaned by everyone who works in publishing. I shouldn't say "all" the industry problems, because I think the low salaries weren't mentioned anywhere, but what I enjoyed most about the piece was the list of "Notorious Book Flops of Recent Years." Boy is that a lot of money that ended up in the pockets of authors and agents:
Books Gone Bust
Lots and lots of books haven’t earned out their publishers’ advances, but a hallowed few have attained the status of legendary flop, the kind of object lesson in the dangers of literary hyperventilation that too many presses still ignore. Here are the most notorious of the past few years and what they’ve cost their publishers—assuming that published accounts of their closely guarded (embarrassing) advances are accurate, that BookScan accounts for two-thirds of total sales, and that one book sold earns out about $4.50 of the advance.
THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS
by Gordon Dahlquist (Bantam; August 2006)
Suspense with literary ambitions is catnip to acquiring editors, but this one proved too long and muddled for most thriller fans. Better luck with the next novel. Advance $2 million in a two-book deal
Initial Print Run 120,000
Copies Sold (per BookScan) 22,000
Advance Unrecouped $851,500 for the first book
by Charles Frazier (Random House; October 2006)
Publishers salivated at auction over the follow-up to debut smash Cold Mountain. The winner, Random head Ann Godoff, gambled against the sophomore curse—and lost.
Advance $8 million
Initial Print Run 750,000
Copies Sold (per BookScan) 368,000
Advance Unrecouped $5.5 million
by Vikram Chandra (Harper; January 2007)
A big “statement” buy for Jonathan Burnham, who’d recently arrived from Miramax Books. More literary than suspenseful, it was close to brilliant but 928 pages long.
Advance $1 million
Initial Print Run 200,000
Copies Sold (per BookScan) 51,000
Advance Unrecouped $655,750
BRIGHT SHINY MORNING
by James Frey (Harper; May 2008)
Both an economic and a moral gamble—that the famous liar could be rehabilitated through bona fide fiction. Critics were mixed; readers spoke as one.
Advance $1.5 million
Initial Print Run 300,000
Copies Sold (per BookScan) 65,000 in hardcover
Advance Unrecouped $1.06 million
That is over $8 million in unrecouped advances on those 4 books alone, which by my calculations should be enough to pay a year's salary for about 270 entry level editorial assistants...