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.