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The New Literary Lottery

Good news for aspiring novelists: Advances for first-time authors have blown sky-high. The catch? If the book doesn’t sell, the fallout can kill your career.


Amy Koppelman had always wanted to be a writer, even after all those years she spent slogging away on a first novel in her closet—the only “office” space available in her cramped Upper West Side apartment. “It was the closest thing I had to ‘a room of one’s own,’ ” she says. She still wanted to be a writer even after she got turned down by Columbia’s prestigious master’s-of-fine-arts fiction program. Twice.

For seven years, she hunched over her manuscript, a tale of post-partum depression and infanticide. The work spanned the course of two pregnancies and several thousand nagging doubts. Even after Koppelman, now 33, finally made the cut at Columbia in 1998, the doubts would grow so thunderous that she considered giving up and opening a coffee shop.

During the darkest of those spells, she happened across a “Page Six” item in the Post concerning noise complaints in Cindy Crawford’s apartment building; it mentioned in passing that Koppelman’s idol, Joan Didion, served on the building’s board. Although she had never met Didion, Koppelman tracked down the handsome East Seventies prewar and left a copy of her manuscript with the doorman. Tucked in the package was a note, meekly asking Didion if she should just quit altogether. Three days later, Koppelman received a reply on solemn gray stationery that started, “Yes, you are a real writer . . . ” And so Koppelman pressed on. It was only when she tried to sell the book, however, that she learned what it means to be a “real writer” these days.

She began by mailing out dozens of sample chapters of the book she had come to title Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight—later changed to A Mouthful of Air. As the answers started to trickle back, Koppelman detected an unsettling trend. “All the big New York agents and publishing houses told me the same thing: ‘Look at the movies. You need a happy ending,’ ” she recalls. “I showed it to one big agent who agreed to read the first eighteen pages. She told me to stick it in a drawer, nobody cares about dead babies—and that was her being nice. I sent a copy to a friend who works in Hollywood. He said, ‘You don’t really want to get this published, right? Just write the next Bridget Jones’s Diary.’ ”

It was clear to Koppelman that publishers not only didn’t seem interested in a modest first novel but also showed no interest in the idea of developing a writer over time, who might, several books down the road, produce something really stellar. Instead, even from unknown writers, they seemed to want only blockbusters. Not fitting that category, Koppelman finally found a small, independent publisher called MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco that believed in building a writer’s career. A Mouthful of Air was published in April, and the New York Observer was quick to call it an “exquisitely dark debut novel.” It is only now that Koppelman can pause long enough to contemplate the bigger question: Was it all worth it?

“I got a $3,000 advance for the book,” she says. “I’m not even sure that covers the postage on the queries I sent out.”

In other words, of course it was.

For thousands of would-be novelists like Koppelman, the dream of living the New York writer’s life will never die, even if it nearly kills them to pursue it. But that doesn’t mean the nature of that pursuit is in any way constant. And as always, the goal of carving out a life of letters in the city—shared by thousands of Sarah Lawrence graduates, Starbucks baristas, and drop-out tax attorneys alike—is inextricably linked to the chilly realities of the publishing business. But rarely have the realities of the marketplace changed so jarringly as they have over the past five years. While the major publishing conglomerates continue to cut back on “midlist” authors, they’re increasingly willing to lavish astronomical sums on unknowns. So many, in fact, that since the late nineties, half a million dollars is de rigueur for a first novelist who’s perceived to have hot prospects.

And the recession that has caused sales of all but a few books to flat-line hasn’t slowed the run on mega-advances; if anything, the desperation to find the next Alice Sebold has only upped the ante. In the past two years, a steady stream of first-time authors have joined the club. Yale Law professor Stephen Carter may have made headlines when Knopf coughed up an astonishing $4 million for his first two novels, but he is by no means alone. Medical student Daniel Mason received $1.2 million for a two-book deal from Knopf on the strength of his manuscript for The Piano Tuner, which appeared last fall. Hari Kunzru, a former editor at Wired UK, received nearly $1 million for the U.S. rights to his first novel, The Impressionist; Khaled Hosseni, an Afghan-American, whose first book, The Kite Runner, concerns life under the Taliban, pulled in a substantial six-figure sum, as did Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who received $475,000 for The Dirty Girls Social Club, which took the former New Mexico reporter six days to write (yes, that’s $80,000 a day). Arthur Phillips, a Minnesota-bred Gen-Xer, earned a similar sum with his debut smash, Prague. And the youngest recipient of publishing’s new largesse, local poster boy Jonathan Safran Foer—a 26-year-old Princeton grad living in Jackson Heights—received a clean half-million from Houghton Mifflin (not to speak of a very quick $925,000 for the paperback rights) for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated.

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