Sunday Salon: huge advances will continue

TSSbadge3 Via Books Inq. and one degree of separation, Dave Lull, I read an article in the Wall St Journal about how the big book publishers are still going to be paying massive advances for what they hope to be best sellers, even in this time of financial crisis, mess and general insecurity. Broadly speaking, Anita Elberse's persuasive argument goes like this: book publishers generate 80 per cent of their revenues from 20 per cent of their sales; a huge best seller (the main example given is Dewey, Vicki Myron's book about an orange tabby cat, now deceased, that lived in the library) repays the advance and more; if a publisher pays a lot for a book, it will also pay a great deal to market it and push it to success; and to stay ahead of the game, a publisher cannot afford to drop out of the auctions in which agents pitch their best books, as if they do, other publishers will snap up these titles and the best editors will follow.

This explains why, then, HarperCollins has just "sent comedian Sarah Silverman a contract of $2.5 million for her first book". Of course, the strategy does not work all or even most of the time. In my recent trips round the sales, all the Christmas celebrity books are half-price or less – Dawn French, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Jeremy Clarkson, Julie Walters, Barak Obama (;-) ), Paul McKenna and so on. Some of these are probably quite good, by people who have actually spent a few years having a career, are interesting people and have something to say as a result -  e.g. Julie Walters and Dawn French, and are not your usual Christmas rubbish celeb book by a nineteen year old model/wobblyhorserider/Big Brother runner-up/person famous for wearing clothes and marrying a footballer/person famous for being rude to other people. 

So, even though the "outrageous advance" strategy is clearly not always working, and not only that but is clearly working less often than it did before people no longer had as much money to buy fripperies such as ghost-written tat, it is still working often enough from the publishers' perspective for the practice to continue.

  

4 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: huge advances will continue

  1. Elberse wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review a while ago – she argues that Chris Anderson’s “long tail” idea is completely wrong. Anderson and others took issue with her economic analysis. I’m not sure what mainstream publishers will do, but they are high stakes gamblers. I suspect, though, that the numbers of high stakes bets may contract. I once interviewed publishers in new york and one told me the good thing about being part of a huge corporate conglomerate was that you had a lot of money available to buy high-stakes acquisitions. The downside was that if you made bad choices, you could take a company under in very short order.
    It still seems to me a completely mad way to publish books.

  2. I agree that it seems a mad way to publish books, but clearly the current market forces push it that way – unless the punters really do begin to see through them. I think Chris A would be first to say that his theory does not necessarily account for all mainstream economics, but at the same time there are companies making a lot of money out of the long tail (eg Amazon). There was a good spat about the long tail over Christmas in the UK press – someone criticised the theory as applied to music downloads, with no details. Chris A provided his usual well-argued and rational response. As someone “living the long tail” on the internet I am a big supporter – as probably so is anyone who is not hooked on mainstream tastes and fashions. I just hope there are plenty like me, keeping the long tail going😉

  3. It could be that the strategy, which I agree seems mad [Sarah Silverman $2.5 million], is in fact not working at all. We don’t find out that these companies are rushing lemming like into administration until the announcement is made.
    Let us all try and keep the long tail going in 2009.

  4. I gather Josiah Wedgewood is the latest, Norm. Such a pity. I lived in the Potteries for two years and learnt a lot about the family and the business plus (as was relatively standard in those times) the philanthrophy unknown among present-day employers. And a Darwin connection, to boot. A major local employer when I lived there – what will happen to all those people now? Long tail, live on!

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