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Can Legacy Publishing Still Afford Its “Top Guns”?

by Marta Tandori (writer), suburbs of Toronto, Canada, March 05, 2014

Is there a limit to the fat legacy lottery purses, even for such superstars of the publishing world like Stephen King, James Patterson et al?

Joe Konrath recently described legacy publishing as a “carny game” or, at the very least, a lottery where hundreds of thousands of authors play the game and only a select few of them “win” at it. He then rationalized his statement by saying that hard work (and a variety of other factors) could influence an author’s odds of success in legacy publishing which is why it paid to work hard but even then, there were no guarantees.

Those authors who “win” the legacy publishing lottery can go on to win what Konrath describes as a “fat legacy publishing purse”. He cites J.K. Rowling as a legacy lottery billionaire, with some of the richest purses, like those given to James Patterson, as being “almost obscene”; a fair analogy and certainly one that should also include the likes of Stephen King and the late Tom Clancy.

But is there a limit to the fat legacy lottery purses, even for such superstars of the publishing world like Stephen King, James Patterson et al? Back in 1997, that certainly seemed to be the case when scaremeister King abandoned Viking, his publisher of 18 years, and was shopping around his new 1,000 page manuscript entitled, BAG OF BONES. While a handful of top-tier New York-based publishing houses were quickly cobbling together proposals to land the King of Scare, some executives were privately saying that dibs on the superstar author would be a test of the industry’s resolve to rein in astronomical advances in what was forecast as a bleak sales climate – so much so that even another best seller from King would almost certainly lose money in a conventional publishing deal, given the frightening asking price of more than 17 million dollars for BAG OF BONES.

Publishers were also weighing in on whether such a sizable advance could have been better spent spreading such a sum among up-and-coming authors rather than using it for a brand name whose net sales circa 1996-1997 had levelled off at just over a million. Although King’s work has been a staple on the best-sellers lists since THE DEAD ZONE was published in 1979, even best-sellerhood had become a relative concept with many of King’s books having reached the best-seller lists but having spent less time on them than in the past. “It’s pretty impossible to make money at that level,” Paul Fedorko, the publisher at William Morrow had remarked. At the time, it was trying to piece together a proposal that would include deals with other divisions of Morrow’s parent, the Hearst Corporation. “But if you put something else together, then it’s worthwhile to be in business with Stephen King.”

Back in August of 1997, Penguin Putnam had announced a complex new deal with the late Clancy that included a partnership to develop online games as well as the publication of two novels. While Penguin Putnam officials had declined to reveal the total costs associated with the Clancy deal, publishing executives estimated at the time that Clancy could earn more than 20 million dollars for each book – and that did not include his potential earnings from the online ventures.

Twenty million dollars for each book - certainly an impressive chunk of change – and that was just for each book. Now fast forward to 2014 and a world of publishing made even more competitive by the indie mid-lister consistently selling his or her books for a modest $4.99, $3.99, $2.99 or less – and without benefit of a fat legacy publishing advance. Arguably, the “something else” that publishers in 1997 hung their hats on can be as far-reaching today as the respective parties’ imaginations. However, notwithstanding the potentially lucrative “something elses”, one wonders whether those massive “top gun” advances are still feasible, or even justified, in today’s tough publishing climate.

About the Writer

If you need someone to count to ten in seven languages or are lost and all you've got is a map, then I'm definitely your gal but if you need something assembled and all you've got is an Allen wrench and a set of instructions, then we're both in trouble!
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3 comments on Can Legacy Publishing Still Afford Its “Top Guns”?

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By Randy Mitchell on March 06, 2014 at 10:00 am

These astronomical figures being attained by the "superstars" of the literary world are incredible. Can the big houses continue to afford them? Well, like any other stream of business it's all about risk vs. reward and revenue generation. If they can pay, say King, millions yet make a couple of million in the process, sure. He's worth it. Unfortunately, for authors like you and I wishing to be picked up by a huge press, those millions given to well-known brands are closing the doors to unknown writers keeping us from being discovered. Publishing is in a state of flux right now, and is only willing to spend their money on sure bets. However, all it would take would be dismal sales of one of their superstars books to cause them to re-think their investments.

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By Marta Tandori on March 06, 2014 at 12:37 pm

I think that book sales, even for the superstar authors are already on the decline. It's the other areas, the "something elses" portion of the deals that likely prove to be lucrative in the overall deal. In the case of Clancy, his military books successfully crossed over to the video game arena. I think that in the case of Clancy, the art of the deal - and certainly the all-around profitably - lay in that. The deals with the superstar writers are a bit like the movie deals today. The actual foreign and domestic box office revenues from movies have dropped dramatically. It seems like even the much-advertised movie blockbusters seem to disappear after less than a month. However, DVD sales and licensing arrangements with both online suppliers like Netflix et al. seem to be where the profitability lies for movie studios which keep them churning out the movies and paying the actors their lucrative salaries.

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By Randy Mitchell on March 06, 2014 at 07:08 pm

I agree, Marta. If an author generates sales outside of print, then that definitely tips the equation in their favor. No matter what though, it'd be great to be one!

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