Stephanie Danler’s publishing story is the stuff of industry lore. While working as a waitress, she served Peter Gethers, a senior vice-president at Penguin Random House, and let it slip that she had just finished her novel. After delivering his typical response to such hint-dropping that Danler should have her agent send the manuscript in, Gethers read her debut Sweetbitter and it quickly sold as part of a high 6 figure 2 book deal.
The story of Danler’s rags to riches sale has been well documented, including in a piece by the New York Times, and altogether has created a nifty narrative for the novel to be sold upon when it finally hits shelves. It’s also part of a growing number of eye-catchingly high advances for novelists, both debut and established. Emma Cline cashed in with a $2m 3 book deal on the strength of her Manson family inspired debut, St Martin’s Press forked out an unprecedented 8 figure advance for 2 new books by erotica author Sylvia Day, while Lena Dunham’s $3.7m advance for her essay collection inspired an almost equal amount of think-pieces.
The publishing industry is not in the greatest of health right now, with mergers, Amazon wars and lawsuits a-plenty to keep the drama alive as sales dwindle across most categories. A 6, 7 or even 8 figure advance is a story unto itself these days, with the implication being that such a risky investment means someone knows something the average reader doesn’t. Putting that much money into a product, particularly when profits are on the wane, must means a hit is guaranteed, surely? Of course, that’s seldom how it works.
Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling and Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season were both hailed as the Next Big Thing, based mostly on their huge advances as well as comparisons to other popular series. Unfortunately, both have proven to be commercial disappointments, with not even the promise of upcoming movie adaptations able to raise excitement levels (indeed, the cover of The Queen of the Tearling advertised Emma Watson’s planned film very explicitly).
It’s hard to come to the conclusion that the market may no longer be predicated on trends and fads because in many ways it never really was. As I’m so fond of saying, true trends and Next Big Things can only be born organically, never through forced publisher hype. Potential readers will eventually drown out marketing talk but they’re more likely to listen to their friends or reviewers they trust on such issues. Remember that time shortly after the Twilight trend where publishers claimed mermaids were the next big thing?
With this unsureness in the air, coupled with dwindling sales and continuing economic struggles, it can be harder to get people to spend more money on a new release in those first few crucial weeks. It may not take the same amount of sales as it used to in order to call oneself a New York Times best-seller but that badge of honour is quickly becoming a necessity for success. The long-term slow burner just can’t be supported by the current system in the same way it used to be. Even relying on established names is no longer the guarantee of sales it used to be, with celebrity autobiography sales down 4% from the previous year in the UK, according to Nielsen. There are exceptions, such as Zoe Sugg’s now controversial best-selling novel, but that’s what they are: exceptions.
When big money is put on the table for the next hot new thing, there is a real danger that the money will be all that people talk about. It was nigh on impossible to distinguish the supposed appeal of The Bone Season in the myriad of articles written about it beyond its high fetching price and the forced claims of the next J.K. Rowling. That creates problems in and of itself if the book fails to live up to lofty expectations, not to mention lost costs. The success of one hyped debut novel, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, was considered such a sure thing that the publishers put down a $2m advance for a 2 book deal in 2005, only for the novel to sell a disappointing 22,000 copies of a 120,000 run. The sequel was released with almost negative fanfare. Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain fame received a staggering $8m advance for his sophomore effort Thirteen Moons, which barely managed to sell half of its 750,000 initial print run.
It is a brave, foolish or psychic publisher that puts that many zeroes at the end of an advance cheque these days. Perhaps the continued cultivation of the rags-to-riches debut author narrative will yield some profitable results in the coming years, although don’t be too surprised if you see articles like this one reappearing.