The recent news that Janet Evanovich had asked for a $50 million advance on her next four books really brought out the claws on a lot of writers. When I hear writers rooting for a publisher rather than an author, I know I’m hearing envy.
It’s human nature to envy those who have more than we do, and nothing is going to change that. A lot of writers will never be satisfied, even when their books get rave reviews and sell well, because they can always point to someone else who has more. A bigger print run, better sales, more advertising effort by a publisher, more personal attention from an editor. The highest advance of your career? It looks like precious little compared to $50 million.
Maybe that competitiveness is what spurs some authors on, making them work hard to write better books that will sell more copies and bring them higher incomes. But it can also make them bitter and snarky.
Sometimes the things people say veer away from normal, understandable envy and plunge off the cliff into absurdity. For example, after news of Evanovich’s $50 million demand broke, I heard variations on this sentiment over and over: “If publishers didn’t have to pay big advances to greedy superstars, they would publish more midlist writers.”
You think so? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention to developments in the publishing world during the last, oh, two decades. Big publishers are looking for big writers who will bring in big profits. That’s just the way it is. We can bitch about it all we like, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that Janet Evanovich’s move from St. Martin’s (which apparently didn’t meet her terms) to Bantam Dell means that St. Martin’s will suddenly start signing “smaller” writers left and right and pay them the advance money they wouldn’t give Evanovich.
Big publishers still sign unknown writers, but they usually give them small advances and a limited time to break out and start justifying their places on the production schedule. Few careers are nurtured the way they once were. A writer whose books don’t make money won’t be around long. And that isn’t Janet Evanovich’s fault, or James Patterson’s, or John Grisham’s.
Another puzzling statement I hear a lot from aspiring or less successful writers is, “All the bestselling books are trash. I refuse to read them.”
Really? I don’t think Scott Turow’s Innocent is garbage. I don’t think Kathryn Stockett’s magnificent novel The Help (on hardcover bestseller lists for more than 70 weeks now) could be called trash by anyone with a brain. Tana Franch's Faithful Place is a superb novel. And even if they don’t enjoy the writing of Evanovich, Patterson, et al, other writers might learn something from those authors about pacing, entertaining an audience, and marketing. The writers who consistently make the top of the betseller lists are consummate professionals, and they’re certainly doing something right.
It bothers me, too, that writers who know better don’t acknowledge that “$50 million advance” doesn’t mean the publisher is going to empty its coffers and hand over that much in a lump sum, never to see it again. I have no earthly idea what Janet Evanovich’s contract terms are, but advances of any size are usually paid out in stages, not all at once, for the very reason that publishers have to manage cash flow.
An advance is just that: an advance against expected earnings. No publisher will lose money by giving a writer of Janet Evanovich’s stature a large advance. They’ll make it back, and plenty more. Yes, publishers sometimes pay exorbitant advances for “sure bestsellers” that flop, and I suspect those situations are even more painful for the authors than the publishers because their credibility as writers has been critically damaged. Writers who have never been offered big advances tend to greet news of these flops with self-satisfied glee. But why? How does someone else’s failure and humiliation validate them?
I hear a lot of concern about the future of a shaky industry that spends money unwisely, but I don’t know any writer who would turn down a big advance for the good of the industry if it were offered.
One more point, one that others have made but which bears repeating: Janet Evanovich is a woman writer, and few of that species are in a position to ask for such a staggering amount of money from a publisher. Whether she got the exact figure she wanted or not, her hard work and her legion of readers put her in a position to be taken seriously – even though she’s a woman – when she asked for it. And I think that's worth noting with admiration.