Do Million Dollar Debut Authors Help or Hurt Publishing?

Million Bucks

Point One: Book publishing, like the entertainment industry at large, relies on a few breakout successes to overcompensate for the projects which don’t succeed. Point two: We as humans are wired for “narratives” in our lives-thus we seek opinions which confirm our pre-conceived notions, rather than being challenged.

For book publishers and authors, nothing beats a “rags to riches” narrative, given the struggles of pretty much every author who has a book, many who may live in poverty or low-income conditions, who see their work come to life via publisher. They watch the book become a hit, get rich, and stand tall as the next wave of eager beavers send in their manuscripts, in the hopes that their book might be the Next Bit Thing (NBT). The desire to stand on top of the mountain and shout to everyone behind you “yes, you can do it. See me? See me? I did it and perhaps it could be you.” Whether that desire is eager optimism to help fellow authors or a cynical ploy to sell “services” or “advice” to wannabes, depends on the author.

The desire to find the next breakout story drives publisher to seek the NBT. The problem is, it’s not really clear why some books do phenomenally well and others don’t. If it were, publishers and agents would only accept authors with a 95% chance of that book hitting the bestseller’s list. (Subscribe to my blog for a future post on this 95 percent confidence interval and what it means). But since determining those books is difficult without market research (which I don’t see them do for most books), they are left to what we used to call in grammar school “educated guesswork” or “guesstimates”.

The Wall Street Journal had a recent article about the “millionaire debutantes”- authors who got $1 million or more for their first book. This is like the legendary City of Gold or Shangri-La for authors, since it’s so rare to ever hear of an author receiving an advance this big. Or is it?

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a former marketing copywriter in Los Angeles, dreamed for years of becoming a novelist but never had any illusions about earning a living from it. Her goal in writing her first novel, “The Nest,” which she tackled in her early 50s, was merely to finish it.

In a whirlwind week as publishers read the manuscript last December, HarperCollins’s Ecco editorial director Megan Lynch made a pre-emptive offer to publish the novel for at least $1 million. “I never imagined people would respond that way in a million years,” said Ms. Sweeney, 55. The book, about four adult siblings whose anticipated inheritance has all but evaporated because of one brother’s bad behavior, is scheduled to be published next March.

Literary fiction, long critically revered but poorly remunerated, is generating bigger and bigger bets by publishers. Thanks to a spate of recent runaway hits such as “The Goldfinch” in 2013 and “All the Light We Cannot See” last year, publishers are increasingly willing to pony up enormous advances to secure potential blockbusters.

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads have contributed to a culture in which everyone reads—and tells their friends about—the same handful of books a year. It’s increasingly a winner-take-all economy, publishing executives say.As a result, publishers are competing for debut literary talent with the same kind of frenzied auction bidding once reserved for promising debut thrillers or romance novels. “If they feel they have the next Norman Mailer on their hands, they’re going have to pay for that shot,” literary agent Luke Janklow said. “It’s usually the result of a little bit of crowd hysteria in the submission.”

“They’re basically betting on the book establishing itself as an important book in the canon,” Jane Friedman, co-founder of e-book publisher Open Road Media and former CEO of HarperCollins said of Knopf’s deal for “City on Fire.” “You’re betting that this is going to be the most-read book of the year.”

The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations. “You can pin all your hopes and dreams and fantasies on a debut novel,” said Eric Simonoff, an agent known for negotiating seven-figure advances.

Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said.

“It’s not that they’re betting on the wrong writer, it’s that the bet’s too big,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher at the independent house Grove Atlantic, who noted that Grove can’t afford seven-figure advances.

Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel. “That is a scarlet letter that you don’t get out from under,” Mr. Janklow said.

Indeed, million-dollar investments in debuts often don’t pan out, publishers and other industry experts say.

Read that quote by Eric Simonoff again and scratch your head. Is that how a business should operate? Committing millions of dollars to unproven projects because you could project your fantasies onto them?

Authors, unlike musicians or actors, are generally not public figures and rarely have the extroversion needed to build a massive social media or TV following to sell books. Whose fault that is you can argue all day. But the point is, you don’t see any reality TV shows featuring the writer’s life or asking aspiring writers to read their best flash fiction on-air for judges. Just imagine if publishers took most of that over-sized advance and instead committed it to marketing their books. Might they not sell more, especially of the ‘midlisters’?

The whole point of an advance is to provide authors with a source of income for their writing while they waited for their books to sell and collect royalties.But how can you justify handing one author a million bucks, probably 20 years’ of pre-tax pay for their job, when other authors barely get enough to pay their mortgage or rent? Or get nothing at all? Especially when who gets what is based on guesswork and not data.

The bottom line is, in an age where Amazon and self-published authors are taking market share from the traditional publishers of all sizes, the last thing the Big Five need is to spend millions on “guesstimates” of which books will succeed, enriching a tiny, tiny number of lucky authors while leaving the 99.999% out to dry, and focus on marketing the titles they already have. Then they might not need to rely so much on blockbuster titles.




4 thoughts on “Do Million Dollar Debut Authors Help or Hurt Publishing?

  1. Sam, I’d like to see some numbers. How many seven-figure advances to first-time novelists actually occur in a year? Compared to the 95% confidence level you mentioned that I think drives most Big-5 contracts? It seems reasonable to take a chance on an unknown when you have money in the bank from a Grisham or a Coben or a DeMille in your stable. Sales you can count on. But a publisher can’t stay pat with the tried and true, because these authors won’t be around forever, and there has to be an ongoing search for new talent to take their places. But I do agree that the seven-figure contracts could better be spent by spreading it among other newbies for marketing. Then, when their first novels take off, and the grass might appear greener associated with another publisher, that’s when the heavy, stay-with-us contracts would be in order.


  2. John, as always, great point. My intent here was to analyze the article. According to Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-hour work week, fewer than 6% of known advances received $100k or more, and that includes previously published authors. That number has likely declined,but we will never know the exact number because most deals are not publicly reported. So let’s say 5% of deals get $100k or more.

    Based on what the quoted agents are saying, the problem with the 7-figures (and you know I would love to get a million bucks!) is that the likelihood of a book earning that back is low for an unknown author. Yes, Grisham and Roberts can command that, and they have reason to ask for a bigger advance. But with an unknown, especially without any algorithms or data metrics, it seems as though they are arbitrarily guessing what will be a big hit. Yes, there are authors who get big debut advances who go on to earn them. But they are much fewer than the number who will sell well but not meet the lofty numbers normally given for a million-dollar advance. Debut authors who are not celebrities would benefit more with a smaller advance and more spent on marketing and distributing their books. And yes, most of the millionaire debuters should get 6 figures instead, and put more money aside for marketing all their books and promoting reading for all ages. That would bring in new readers and allow more books to get exposure, relying less heavily on a few bestsellers to carry the weight.

    In conclusion, I’m not saying no debut author should get 7 figures. But I would like to see more proof of analysis showing that author’s book is likely to succeed, and not guesswork. Because if they guess wrong too many times, that creates a negative ripple effect for the other published authors.


  3. I’m sure the publishers would not want to PUBLISH those stats re how many times their gambles paid off. Might affect their credibility in choosing talent! Highlight the rags-to-riches (author) and not mention the riches-to-rags miscalculation (publisher). It’s always a risk, but when you’re playing with other people’s money, they can take that chance. I wouldn’t mind if they took a chance with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It all comes back to changing their business model to make sure they remain profitable and don’t encourage authors who are likely to be big earners from self-publishing. Even smaller publishers like yours are going to have to continue to offer value to authors so they don’t decide to get publishing services from freelancers.


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