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The New Literary Lottery


The magnitude of Safran Foer’s advance, combined with his tender age, drew so much attention it served to demonstrate to publishers just how powerful a marketing tool the advance itself could be. The larger the advance, the louder the publisher’s declaration that this is the book the house is gambling on this season. The marketplace has become a literary lottery, not just for the authors but for the publishing houses too. A modest advance, which used to signal the intention to invest in a long-term relationship, now indicates lack of commitment. As one senior editor at a major house says: “The hardest thing to do is to buy a book for no money. The money is a function of enthusiasm. If there’s no enthusiasm, why bother?”

The book that really changed publishers’ minds about the commercial potential of literary fiction, and in particular the possibilities of first novels, was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Published by Grove/Atlantic in 1997, this Civil War tale was a groundbreaking success—a serious book that held its own on the Wal-Mart shelves, selling an incredible 1.5 million copies in hardback and following up with another 1.3 million in paperback. It was one of the biggest debuts in publishing history. The cry from every publisher in town was “Get me the new Charles Frazier!”

Suddenly, literary fiction was no longer thought of as a high-prestige but low-profit venture in an industry largely propelled by cookbooks, self-help tomes, and pulpy thrillers. Of course, literary authors like Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and John Updike were guaranteed generators of revenue, but they had built their reputations over a course of years. What had changed was publishing’s embrace of the unknown.

Last year, a record fifteen debut novels shipped more than 100,000 copies each. The most notable of these, of course, is Sebold’s The Lovely Bones—a surprising novel whose narrator is a murdered girl—which has sold more than 2 million copies in hardback and last week logged its fifty-third week on the New York Times best-seller list.

Even if the crossover smash was still the exception, such books encouraged the idea that any promising young nobody might be transformed into a very big somebody with the right promotion, and ironically, a big-enough advance could help serve as that promotion. The problem was, with everyone swinging for the fences, publishers could no longer afford to have much patience for young writers who show only warning-track power. “It’s the ‘blockbuster’ mentality applied to literature,” says New York literary agent Jody Hotchkiss. “The middle is falling out, but the financial upside is far, far greater. It’s exactly what’s happening in Hollywood right now.”

But what’s good for the author’s bank account—and the publisher’s—in the short term is not necessarily best for his career in the long term. “At Doubleday, we believe in investing in a career,” insists Bill Thomas, editor-in-chief of Random House’s Doubleday Broadway group. “That gets harder to do with the money that’s being thrown around these days. It’s closing your eyes and praying. And that can hurt the writer.”

Jonathan Burnham, president of Miramax Books, who startled the publishing world last fall by forking out $625,000 for a novel called Bergdorf Blondes by Vogue editor Plum Sykes, concurs. “There’s no doubt that publishers will be prepared to overpay for a major new literary voice,” he says. “But a big advance puts a huge pressure on the novel to succeed. This peculiar marketplace entrance-performance is something that everybody has to do now. William Faulkner didn’t go around and meet ten publishers, who then participated in a heated auction that was publicized by Keith Kelly in the Post the next day.”

Another publisher is even more blunt: “The writer has got two or three years to make the money back. If he doesn’t, that big advance might be the last nickel he ever earns in the book business.” So maybe it’s no longer publish or perish; now it’s also possible to publish and perish. The time-honored tradition of a novelist’s serving an apprenticeship through his early thirties is waning quickly, says Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, who gave the world Frazier’s Cold Mountain six years ago.

“It used to be that you had pretty modest expectations for a first novel, and the idea was to get the writer in print and the writer would be allowed to develop,” Entrekin explains. He points to John Irving, who was shepherded by the industry through a number of promising but uncommercial early novels (who remembers Setting Free the Bears or The 158-Pound Marriage?) before bursting onto the airport newsstand with The World According to Garp. “That experience has been turned on its head. All publishers are looking for fresh new voices. It’s great if you have a positive sales record, but it’s better to have no sales record than a poor one.

Consequently, it’s easier to go out with an unknown writer than it is with a second or third book from a writer who hasn’t done very well.”

As Daniel Mason’s agent, Christy Fletcher, puts it: “It’s like credit. It’s better to have no credit than bad credit.”

One writer who wound up almost buried by a book-industry jackpot is Lori Lansens, an unpublished novelist from rural Chatham, Ontario, who four years ago found herself in the midtown Sheraton, the subject of a fierce bidding war among seven major New York houses. At that point, Lansens, now 40, thought she had already given up her career in the arts, having quit acting after fifteen years (the highlight: a scene opposite Al Pacino in Sea of Love that was later cut). Although she neither studied literature nor attended any writing programs, Lansens decided to attempt a novel—eventually titled Rush Home Road—chronicling the relationship between a black grandmother in an Ontario trailer park and the abandoned white girl she adopts. The writing went surprisingly fast—the first draft took her about a year. “I had read in some book that five to ten thousand dollars would be an average advance on a good book,” Lansens recalls. “And that was if, as was my dream, it was published at all. My husband and I were seriously talking about self-publishing.”

It never came to that. Unsolicited, Lansens sent her manuscript to a Toronto-based literary agent, who quickly sold the Canadian rights. Almost instantly, the big New York houses were squaring off over the world rights. “The deal happened within a day,” Lansens says. “I was meeting my agent at another publisher’s office in midtown Manhattan, and she stopped me at the door and said, ‘We can’t go in there. We have to talk.’ ” Little, Brown, the agent said, had made a preemptive offer: $500,000, for two books. “I was amazed,” Lansens says. “I was unknown.”

The euphoria didn’t last long. “It was a wonderful story, beautifully written, but they could hardly get the book reviewed, even with that advance,” recalls Jody Hotchkiss, Lansens’s New York film agent. “The book came out, had a beautiful half-page ad in the New York Times Book Review, which is very expensive, but essentially disappeared. She couldn’t get reviewed in the Times daily, which is still the Holy Grail. So now she’s on contract for this second book, and she’s due $250,000. But believe me, Little, Brown is sitting there saying, ‘Whoa, we better hope we can pull a rabbit out of a hat.’”

Lansens felt the pressure as she scrambled to find a suitably marketable topic for her second book. “After this big deal happened, I guess we did all have expectations,” she says. “It was frustrating, because nobody could really answer why.”

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