Business profile: Ian Owens, manager Waterstones Argyll Street
Turning an unprofitable sto...
In depth: New Adult
If last year’s erotic...
You might think you’r...
In depth: consolidation
Scale. That is the buzzword...
Business profile: Sharjah Children's Reading Festival
Broadcasting Arabic talent ...
Author advances: it's good for some . . .
01.01.70 | Katie Allen
If you look over The Bookseller's coverage of rights deals three or four years ago, the phrase "seven figures" pops up time and time again: HarperCollins splashing out on début children's author Derek Landy for a three-book deal; speculation that the "substantial" sum Pan Macmillan paid to Rolling Stone guitarist Ronnie Wood tops the £1m mark; fellow Stone Keith Richards is the subject of a "frenzied auction"; Sir Bobby Charlton's three-book autobiography goes to Headline; Time Warner snaps up Rupert Everett's memoirs for a reported £1m. The list goes on and on.
So as we enter this time of recession, combined with uncertainty about the viability of retailers and distribution channels, surely publishers are becoming more cautious and risk-averse. Does all this mean the death knell for the eye-popping author advance?
Well, not necessarily. There are fewer massive deals, and a downward decline of advances in general, but it could be argued that has been the case for the past two years, even before the recession bit.
Yet strangely, authors at the very top of the pile may buck the downward trend. "It depends on what kind of author or book you are talking about," says Catherine Clarke of the Felicity Bryan Literary Agency. "Publishers are being more circumspect, but at the same time they are looking more and more at authors with a clear track record of success. For the big names, for the big brands, we may even see increases."
"The big-name authors will still get some big auctions," agrees Viking editorial director Joel Rickett. "But there is a reluctance for publishers to overpay. The days of the over-hyped auction are over."
A look at some deals over the past year suggests Clarke and Rickett may not be wrong. Early in 2008, HC UK and William Morrow felt secure enough in Andrew Gross' track record as one of James Patterson's co-authors, and the success of his own The Blue Zone, to sign him up to a seven-figure six-book deal. HC UK m.d. Amanda Ridout's reasoning about the signing perhaps sums up what kind of commercial entities publishers are clamouring for in a difficult climate: "Our vision is to develop him fast as a global brand and this long-term deal means we can plan an effective strategy to make him one of the biggest names in thriller writing over the next five years."
Of all the big deals announced over the past few months there have been few noticeable gambles, barring perhaps Hodder & Stoughton's seven- figure, three-book deal with actor and comedian Simon Pegg, the first book of which is a memoir due this Christmas. The "Shaun of the Dead" star does have My Booky Wook break-out potential and will be starring in a big-budget Hollywood "Star Trek" remake, yet he remains a cult figure.
John Murray m.d. Roland Philips believes there is "a new realism" and focus amongst the trade, both from publishers and agents. "People realise the [book] market is not going to expand any more," he says. "It expanded and expanded and I think people think that's it. Advances will come down accordingly. But I never really subscribed to the view that because you paid a massive advance you put all your attentions toward that book. If you pay a big advance it is because you absolutely believe in the book and its possibilities, and that will still be the case."
With this new realism it is clear that publishers are taking a more pragmatic approach. As yet there has not been a wholesale slashing of the number of titles published, but publishers say that each book is being more heavily scrutinised, having to justify its place on a list.
"While we are justifiably confident about the coming year, I don't think we should be naïvely bullish," says Simon & Schuster publishing director Suzanne Baboneau. "It is a fine line to tread. On the one hand we need to continue to take risks, but the market itself will be more conservative. It may be easier to say no to a book that we might have said yes to a few years ago."
The general feeling from publishers and agents is that midlist is becoming more and more difficult to sell. Retailers will be ever more cautious about what is at the front of shop, and a title that is not from a top celebrity, big hitter author, an obvious three-for-two or "Richard & Judy" book club candidate may be squeezed out.
"It will be very, very hard for agents to sell middling prospects," says Rickett. He foresees a sort of two-tier system, with publishers happy to pick up books on the cheap for low to middle-five figures, and content enough to spend above £250,000 for a title that has the potential to deliver massive sales. The mid-range £50,000 to £250,000 zone, however, is "a dangerous area".
Certain genres seem to be weathering the storm. Many are predicting that escapism, particularly crime novels will be solid, less risk-averse bets. "As things get tougher I think we will look for some sort of nostalgia and some thrills or comfort or warmth," says Orion deputy publishing director Kate Mills. "It is interesting, though, that what has been clear in the past year or so is that, in terms of auctions, crime and thrillers are the hot properties. With crime, there is a sense that you can still get a big hitter, which I think Linwood Barclay proves."
David Shelley, publishing director at Sphere, points to the current Nielsen BookScan top 20 which is dominated by Stephenie Meyer, Harlan Coben and Jesse Kellerman. "You acquire a book because it is well written. But I think the current bestsellers show where people's minds are at in terms of reading more escapist books like horror and crime."
At the other end of the spectrum, hot acquisitional properties are serious non-fiction books that deal head on with the economy and politics. The Obama effect has seen a shedload of books about the new president. Other Obama spin-offs are less obvious; Viking snapping up Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 take on Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Team of Rivals, for example. Never published in the UK, Viking bought the book after Obama lauded it on his campaign and is speeding it through for a February release.
The recession may make grim daily reading in the newspapers, but publishers such as Penguin Press and Little, Brown are banking that people will buy more in-depth serious tomes such as Fool's Gold, Gillian Tett's look at the credit meltdown.
A casualty in a market with a premium on big books that fit comfortably in the supermarkets and front of store at Waterstone's is literary fiction ("a difficult prospect in the best of times", notes Felicity Bryan's Clarke). "Richard & Judy" continue to keep the market open to a certain brand of novels; and Sadie Jones' follow-up to The Outcast which was snapped up by Chatto & Windus for six figures is a recent example. But finding that magic elixir of intelligent, readable and commercial literary fiction is tricky indeed.
If publishers are focusing energies on familiar brand authors and specific genres, an obvious talking point is what long-term effects will this have on the trade. The safe haven of older, established authors might ensure sales for the next few years, but perhaps not five or 10 years down the road. Some writers need to be nurtured. Long gone are the days where a publisher could wait five or six books for an author to break, such as Orion did with Ian Rankin. But will a publisher even be able to hold its nerve for two or three books, or take a punt on a promising literary début?
Orion's Mills insists that publishers must continue to invest in authors, now more than ever. She says the climate has been helped by agents understanding the pressures publishers are under: "I have to say I think there has been some very sensible agenting in terms of ongoing author careers. Everyone knows things are tough and people have been reasonable."
And while the economic downturn seems grim at the moment, there is light at the end of the tunnel. "Publishers know that recessions are cyclical," says Clarke. "When you come out of it, you need to be in a strong position and the only way you can do that is to continue to invest in authors. Most publishers worth their salt are going to have that mix of big brands along with upcoming authors they can nurture."