Sunday, July 25, 2010

One for the Greed … err … Money

Cha-ching, babies. Cha-ching!

Victorian-Age authors had nothing to gain, it seemed, from getting their masterpieces published – save for recognition, perhaps. Classics that would endure for ages usually came without hefty advances or staggering royalties, at least for the author if not for the estate he left behind.

That was the age of the classics, though; when words on the page meant more than the pocketbook. We understand that literary greats such as Herman Melville, Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jules Verne, and even James Joyce had their bouts with poverty even after their works were sold. Later, after these immortals shuffled off this mortal coil, some savvy financial investor bought up the rights from authors’ heirs and made a killing (right, Saul Zaentz, formerly snapping up Tolkien Enterprises?), sniffing out a money-maker in the new Age of Green. And when I say “Green,” folks, I don’t mean our pipedream of an eco-friendly society.

The first actual blockbuster, in my most humble opinion, was Peter Benchley’s Jaws. During the late 60’s through the 70s, there were other great bestsellers raking in the dough, heralding the new voice of literary reason: CASH FOR THE WRITTEN WORD. Heck, just look at Arthur Hailey, Jacqueline Suzanne (whose pseudonym is actually a conglomeration of industry professionals), Sydney Sheldon, and James A. Michener (well, at least Michener won the Pulitzer). These were not authors; they were institutions. Corporations. Somewhere between the first sentences of their novels and where some publishing house accounting department cut a whopping advance check, the novel ceased to be anything truly literary. At least, not in the intention of just being literary; the novel had somehow become a gadget – a product of industry – made to be sold en masse and distributed for the whim of the self-absorbed, buying public.

Nowadays, there is an esoteric roulette wheel that doles out hefty advances to novels. There doesn’t seem to be any sanity to the method. In my previous post, I described how one librarian gained a HUGE advance for the story about a homeless cat. The roulette wheel is obviously in Las Vegas, spun by Sinatra’s Lady Luck. It appears that, through some whim of the Gods, a small white ball plinks and plunks to fall on any author's number, garnering her a high six-figures. One such lucky first-time author was Steve Alten, author of the shark novel, MEG. At one time facing unemployment and a family to feed, he was granted seven-figures in a bidding war supported by his then agent, Ken Atchity of AEI.

Now, don’t get me wrong, children. I mean, if I had that lucky number, I’d forget too why I began writing at the tender age of seven, and shout out “BITCH, the bacon’s done come home!” Yet, even now, though I work for a meager salary, and still search for my first book deal for ANY amount of advance, I chafe when I realize that authors such as Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum novels, and the immortal Stephen King throw their respective publishers against the wall and demand millions and zillions of dollars to continue producing their literary works for their imprints. This has nothing to do with an advance one gains for presenting a new work – no! This is the age of the corporation and, therefore, when these authors demand money, it’s to keep them tethered to a contract for POSSIBLE future bestsellers and works that may or may not arrive. We’re all mortal, are we not?

But are these contemporary authors worth it? Are they worth the hype and the cash? They do have one helluva fanbase, certainly. Yet, while Ms. Evanovich demands a staggering $50m from St. Martin’s Press to stay put, Mr. King only tried to extort $18m from Viking. They turned him down; you’d think that Ms. Evanovich would see what was headed her way when she held a gun on her own publisher.

So, have we become more cash than substance these days? In the world of literary lawyers and contracts and channels of misdirected cash, I wonder …

… I wonder what Herman Melville would’ve done with $50 million.



  1. Melville would possibly have written another book as indecipherable as Moby Dick. Or maybe he'd have bought a whaling fleet. R

  2. As I said in the FB thread, I thought the purpose of the advance was to provide funds for the author to promote his/her work and produce the next novel.
    Royalties, on the other hand, are based on copies sold, and I don't begrudge a good author a penny of those.

  3. Stephen King I've heard of (and read, and liked). Janet Evanovich? No clue.

  4. I voted on the survey. However, this is quite a difficult topic to make a decision on. While I think some authors are getting over-the-top advances, I kind of think that some of them have earned their keep, having toiled their way up the ranks.
    When faced with the kind of money you've mentioned though, I think it's preposterous!