Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Bombs

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.

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

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...


Anonymous said...

Makes me want to write a book. Heck, I'd be ecstatic with 1/10th the advance of most of those books. Any topics I should use? :)

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I know so little about the economics of publishing -- do these figures mean that the publishers don't get the advance back from the author? Isn't the idea that it is an advance on sales -- and, thus if the sales don't happen, the advance is owed back by the author?

Anonymous said...

My question is what's the timeframe of sales that establish the recouped advance numbers?

Selling books is a business so if you're paying someone to produce a product than you intend to market and sell, you have to establish an estimated breakeven timeframe. Curious on how publishing does this.

Peachy said...

I heard once that well known authors get their names above the title, while lesser known people are below the title. Any truth to that?

Madame X said...

@ philosophy factory-- no, the publisher doesn't get to take the money back!

@ anon 5:27-- I think publishers usually do a P&L that projects at least 2 years worth of sales, but I think they probably hope to recoup the advance within a year. I'm not deeply involved in that kind of financial stuff, but I'll try to find out more for a future post!

@ peachy-- there is no hard & fast rule about where the author name appears vs. the title, but yes, if the author is well known, their name will be emphasized by size and position on the cover to make sure their fans notice who the book is by!