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Big-League Payday

Debut novels are big business again. But what are publishers shelling out for?

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Poor, lucky Henry Skrimshander: The rangy, corn-fed hero of The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s debut novel, is a freakishly gifted shortstop who tries to take a brainy Wisconsin liberal-arts college to the top of Division III baseball. But come senior year, the scouts arrive on campus promising bonuses of up to $600,000—enough pressure to make any champion choke. Will Henry survive the commodification of his talent?

His creator is doing nicely so far. Harbach was, until March 2010, an under­employed freelancer whose biggest job, co-editing the journal n+1, was unpaid. He’d recently been laid off from a gig copy-­editing for McKinsey, the consulting firm, when, after nine long years, Harbach ­finally decided his first novel was ready for the market. The market agreed: Little, Brown beat seven other bidders and paid $650,000 for it.

Harbach, 35, isn’t the only novelist who’s made six figures for a well-hyped debut due out this fall, but he may be the only one to have written an article critiquing the very system responsible for his payday. In “MFA vs. NYC,” which ran in last fall’s n+1, Harbach argued that literary culture has split along two tracks: one dominated by timid writers teaching MFA students in the heartland, the other a New York–based scrum of hyperambitious would-be Great American Novelists fighting over publishers’ kitchen scraps. The first is secure but cloistered, the second unfair and unsustainable. “The rich get richer,” he wrote of the New Yorkers, “and the rest live on hope and copy-editing.”

High, speculative advances have been every literary neophyte’s dream since the early seventies, when Richard Bach’s ­Jonathan Livingston Seagull broke the million-dollar fiction barrier—but also every veteran’s lament. Money is often wasted on unproven talent, the perennial complaint goes, and a payday that fails to earn out is like a subprime mortgage, a drain on an overleveraged system. In the wake of the 2008 crash, publishers seemed finally to be learning that lesson. Advances over $500,000 for debut fiction—at least those reported to the site Publishers Lunch—plummeted from thirteen in 2008 to three the following year.

But a funny thing happened on the way to austerity: growth. Book-publishing revenue is up almost 6 percent since 2008, and the monster advances are back, too—seven for first novels in the past year. “They’re coming back in a big way,” says Eric Simonoff, an agent at William Morris who sold a debut for more than $1 million in February. It may be that overspending isn’t such a luxury after all but a publicity pre­requisite, the only marketing gesture anyone believes anymore. HarperCollins’s Jonathan Burnham, who bid in the Harbach auction, often makes news by dropping seven figures on debuts, like Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which posted disappointing sales, and S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, which was more of a success. Burnham acknowledges the power of “measured overpaying”—“if it’s the right fit for the list, and it makes the right statement,” he says. “It creates a sort of sense of destiny, and in most cases, that’s a huge advantage. It becomes a source of gossip and excitement in the trade. Everyone’s twittering away about it—in the old-fashioned sense of twitter.”

The question, though, is what kind of literary writing emerges on the other side. “However naturally large the NYC novelist’s imagination,” Harbach wrote in that n+1 essay, “it is shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be re-created in a review.” Harbach seems to have taken that lesson to heart: One editor who read the book says it “obviously went for the Franzen vote.”

Of course, that’s not a bad constituency. “I wish more writers wrote in a major key,” says Jonathan Karp, publisher of Simon & Schuster. “Why anyone would write a novel and not want everyone to read it is a mystery to me.” As for the big advances, he says, “when publishers swing for the fences, I think that’s admirable. Does anyone want publishers to bunt?”

The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach.
little brown, September.


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