We don't talk a lot about the publishing business here, largely because there are already blogs that cover that beat so well. But there was a feature in Friday's Wall Street Journal that is asking for a discussion only because the article the reporter was trying to write is a huge part of the story he was trying to cover.
The headline was Anatomy of a Thriller and the article was about the very early hype for a debut suspense novel, Child 44 by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, which will be published next May by Grand Central. The piece briefly deals with the content of the novel (which is about the hunt for a Soviet serial killer at the dawn of the Cold War), calling it "cleverly plotted, packed with chilling psychological drama and densely researched." That sounds great and I'd like to read more, but most of the piece is taken up with speculation about whether the book can possibly make back its million dollar US advance.
You see this story often. At a time when most US newspapers have made severe cuts to their review coverage, the American media still covers the business of publishing with some gusto. Always, the favorite angle of these articles is whether a gamble on this author or that one will pay off.*
And that's funny.
It's funny because although competition for review inches is fierce, one way a publisher can guarantee wide reviews and, better yet, capture coveted outside-the-book-section coverage in entertainment sections and business sections and in general interest magazines like Time and Newsweek is to give a first-time author a million dollars.
Which is not to say that million-dollar advances are always undeserved or the result of cynical strategizing among editors and marketing staff. In fact, they are almost always the result of auctions--competition between houses for a particular manuscript. But all of this media hand-wringing about whether or not a book is worth such a huge advance is not just objective speculation because once the advance is promised that money immediately becomes a marketing tool intended to generate media hand-wringing about whether or not the book is worth such a huge advance.
The publisher is willing to write that check in part because they know the Wall Street Journal will run a story wondering if they're crazy for writing it.
Publishers often employ the marketing strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't think anyone really believes for instance, that an expensive ad in USA Today or in the NYTBR can generate enough sales of that particular book to justify the ad's cost. But publishers take out those ads for two reasons (two that I know--there might be more). First of all, they advertise in order to subsidize book coverage. The reason book sections are disappearing in the US is that they can't support themselves financially. Publishers advertise in the New York Times Book Review because the continuing existence of the NYTBR is extremely important to them, more important than making back that investment on a particular book.
The second reason is the hope that if you treat a book like you believe it will be a bestseller, if you invest in a book as if you are certain it will be a blockbuster, it will become one. This sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't but it's probably as good a strategy as any. A couple years ago I suggested that you could accomplish pretty much the same thing by holding a press conference with a suitcase full of money and declaring, "We are so confident that Sean Chercover's book is going to be a bestseller, we're going to set a million dollars on fire." You'd get a million bucks worth of coverage for your cinders, I guarantee you.
From this perspective a huge advance actually makes more sense than an ad campaign (at least with respect to a particular book) because if it works it doesn't cost the publisher a dime. Unlike the cost of advertising, every penny advanced to the author would be pennies they'd have to pay him in royalties anyway if they'd given a small advance and the book turned into a big hit.
So it's really not quite the outrageous gamble the Wall Street Journal says it is, as long as the Wall Street Journal keeps printing stories about what an outrageous gamble it is.
But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. To make the point about what's at stake for Grand Central the reporter, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, says:
It's especially difficult to crack the thriller genre. The field is so crowded that retailers and publishers prefer to focus on brand-name authors and seldom make big bets on first time authors.
He repeats the claim in a sidebar and includes a vague supporting quote from a publishing executive about there being "too many good writers out there already" (I'll take that as a compliment, thanks). It's an assertion that sounds factual because it has its own internal logic, but is it really true? It's difficult to get a book published in any genre, but the reason there are so many people writing thrillers is that there are so many people buying them, which means you need to publish more thrillers and so on. Is it any more difficult to sell your debut thriller than it is to sell your literary novel? Or your historical fiction? James Patterson's diabolical and mostly successful attempts to corner the bestseller market notwithstanding, it looks like each year there are more thrillers by more authors, not fewer.
MJ Rose must have statistics on this, yeah?
* Even as I write this, I notice that this piece is categorized by the WSJ as a "Hollywood" story, apparently because Ridley Scott has optioned the film rights to Child 44. That would seem to be odd given that the money involved in the film option, at least until the movie is actually made, would be a shallow pocket of worn nickels compared to the publishing deals, but I guess movie talk is sexy in a way that book talk is not.
JUST ADDED: Time magazine's Top 10 Crime Stories of 2007.