Publishers Gamble On Blockbuster Book Deals Multimillion-dollar book advances have been around for a long time, but can the publishing industry really afford to offer high-risk advances? And do Tina Fey and Kathy Griffin merit seven-figure deals?
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Publishers Gamble On Blockbuster Book Deals

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Publishers Gamble On Blockbuster Book Deals

Publishers Gamble On Blockbuster Book Deals

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But if you're more interested in writing the next great American novel, this next story is for you. It's about blockbuster book deals. Well-known politicians and big players in the business world regularly pull in seven-figure advances, and recently, comedians Tiny Fey, Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin have all signed eye-popping deals with Fey topping the list at close to $6 million.

But given the current economic climate, some inside the publishing industry have been questioning whether such big payouts really pay off.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: Carol Schneider, the head of public relations for the Random House Publishing Group, has been around long enough to remember when a six-figure book deal was a big deal. But she says, no one at Random House blinked when comedian Kathy Griffin reportedly got a $2 million deal with one of its imprints, Ballantine Books; quite the opposite in fact.

Ms. CAROL SCHNEIDER (Random House Publishing Group): Everyone was very excited. She has great name recognition, and she's young and has not done a book before, and she has a wonderful title, which is "Official Book Club Selection."

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Schneider says publishers need blockbuster books. So even in this economy, publishers are willing to spend money to make money.

Ms. SCHNEIDER: This is the lifeblood of our industry. This is what we do. And I think finding the next big hit can make your year. We're acquiring fewer books now, but I think there is an intense focus on the next big book; books that will drive readers into the stores, books that will support the rest of your list.

NEARY: Authors who earn the really big bucks, like John Grisham or James Patterson, are considered pretty close to a sure thing. They can deliver a book and an audience on a regular basis. Celebrity books are a bigger risk, and literary novels are the most unpredictable.

Well-known authors can tank at the bookstore, while unknowns can have an unexpected hit. That's what happened to Sara Gruen. Her novel "Water for Elephants" sold millions. So when it came time for her next book, the bidding went sky-high.

Mr. CHUCK ADAMS (Executive Editor, Algonquin Books): There was so much money thrown at her. This is life-changing money. This is you-won't-have-to-worry-for-a-very-long-time money.

NEARY: Executive editor Chuck Adams acquired "Water for Elephants" for Algonquin Books, but he had to drop out of the auction for her second book. Eventually, she got around $5 million in a two-book deal. Adams says book auctions can be very competitive, so the price often gets driven up in the heat of the moment.

Mr. ADAMS: You really want a book, and then you get into the auction, and you think, well maybe, okay, I've reached my top, but maybe if I just go a little bit higher. You know, if I'm in for a million, then what's wrong with $1,100,000. So you do that. And the next thing you know, you're going - and it just keeps escalating, and you get carried away, and finally you have to, like, slap yourself and say, what am I doing?

NEARY: Like Sara Gruen, Audrey Niffenegger was an unknown when her novel "The Time Traveler's Wife" was published. It became a best-seller, and Joseph Regal, the head of his own literary agency, just completed a deal for her next book.

Niffenegger reportedly got almost $5 million, a figure Regal neither confirms nor denies. And though he's clearly happy with the deal, he's critical of the way the system works these days.

Mr. JOSEPH REGAL (Literary Agent): It's great if you happen to reach a big audience, as Audrey Niffenegger has, but there are a lot of people being left out. And it's very frustrating if you sell literary fiction, as I do, and you have a novel that you really love, that you think is special, and you're met with, this is really great, but we don't think will sell any copies, because where are those voices of the future going to come from?

NEARY: Regal says when he started in the business 16 years ago, it was phenomenal for a book to sell three million copies. Now, a book like "The Da Vinci Code" can sell as many as 14 million in the U.S. alone. So everyone in publishing is hoping they can find the next "Da Vinci Code" or "Harry Potter" or "Twilight."

Mr. BOB MILLER (President and Publisher, HarperStudio): Finding a novel that you think might be the next brand-name novelist, the odds are pretty tough, but the gamble has gotten very high.

NEARY: Bob Miller is the president and publisher of HarperStudio.

Mr. MILLER: Out of every 20 of those that you make, you hope that one of them you'll be so right about that you'll make up for the other 19 that you weren't so right about, which is - you know, it's not necessarily the healthiest way to run a business.

NEARY: Publishing has been always a gamble, Miller says. No one really knows what will take off, and that's part of the fun. But he thinks these days, the stakes are getting too high, and publishers take all the risks. The writers get paid whether the book sells or not. So HarperStudio is experimenting with doing business in a different way. They publish two books a month with no advance higher than $100,000.

Mr. MILLER: Which, once upon a time, was a lot of money. But we'll pay anywhere from zero to $100,000. And to entice authors to do that with us, we offer them, instead of the traditional royalty, a 50-50 split of the profits on the book.

NEARY: Now, HarperStudio is owned by Harper Collins, which has many other imprints that are still making big deals. Even so, the HarperStudio experiment has caught the attention of the industry because publishing is in transition, and the high-risk, high-advance way of doing business is one of the things that may have to change.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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