Friday, October 20, 2006

Authors Earning Back Advances

Westvillageidiot left a comment the other day that a publisher was taking a risk on publishing Donna Leon and Fred Vargas in this country.  I countered by saying I didn’t think it was a risk to publish authors who had written 26 books between them.  Westvillageidiot wrote that Neither author has earned back her respective advances from previous English-language publishers.

Perhaps that was because the authors had been paid too much to start with.  Or none of those publishers had done anything to help the books along.  I say this with first hand knowledge.  Some part of that has happened to me three times.

In 1977 I published a book called Some Unknown Person. It was the first adult novel I wrote.  Putnam published it in hardcover and Bantam bought it for paper back.  They paid me an almost mid six figures.  That’s a lot of money now but it was an incredible amount of money then.

Putnam took out a full page ad (opposite the table of contents) in  the NYTBR.  What a thrill that was. Between that and the Bantam sale I was riding high.  But guess what?  Nothing happened.  When Bantam brought out the book they made the cover look like a modern slut novel.  It was all in pink and it had a young girl with long blonde hair doing what?  Nothing. This was a book that was set between 1901 and 1931.* 

No one knew the book existed.  I had already made back my five figure advance from Putnam so that was not a problem.  But there was no way that the money from Bantam was ever going to be made back.  First, of all, it was way too much money to pay me for that novel.  And secondly, the comany abandoned the book.  You’d think having paid that much money they’d want to get behind it.  You’d think.  But you’d be wrong.

And then it happened again with other publishing houses.  When you’re offered a lot of money (the next two times the amount was nothing like the first) you’re not going to say “No thanks.  I’d prefer you to give me less so I can be sure to earn it back and then you’ll want to continue to publish me.”  At least, I would never say that and I doubt that any author would. 

Of course I didn’t earn back either time. And the third time nothing was done to let anybody know that the books existed.   Was I dropped.  Naturally.   

I’m not suggesting that publishers offer authors impossibly low advances but doesn’t there have to be something in between?  Most writers I know are happy to be published.  They want a decent advance but don’t expect an insane amount.  Giving authors, who aren’t stars, six figure advances is destructive for both parties.

But if they do they should be willing to back it up.  How?  At least a small ad somewhere to let the public know the book exists.  I know that publishers say ads don’t help but I don’t believe that.  One small ad, I say.

I’m sure anyone reading this in the business is thinking that I’ve cut my throat.  Once again.  What do you think, Miss Snark?  Do I qualify for Nitwit of the day?

 *The second time the paperback of Some Unkown Person was published by Carroll & Graf the cover was much, much better.  And the cover of the HC from Putnam was wonderful.

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