January 30, 2012

Can James Franco be a bestseller?


It’s a small thing, but over and over again I’ve seen industry observers appear impressed that Amazon Publishing — recently renamedAmazon Publishing’s East Coast Group” — was able to acquire James Franco’s first novel, Actors Anonymous. The Times headlined the acquisition a “coup” and wrote that it was “one of the most high-profile acquisitions that Amazon Publishing has made.”

But there are reasons to be skeptical that Actors Anonymous will be a commercial success.

Franco’s first book, a collection of stories called Palo Alto, was reviewed negatively almost everywhere, and it has been far from a commercial hit for its publisher, Scribner. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. booksales but does not currently track ebook sales, the book sold just 16,000 copies in hardcover and 7,500 copies in paperback. Sales have also slowed significantly since the book was released in October 2010: last week, the book sold just 75 copies, according to Bookscan.

While certainly respectable figures for a debut collection of short stories, the modest numbers mean the advance for Palo Alto — almost sure to have been over six figures — likely hasn’t earned out. (That is, unless serial, audio, or significant foreign rights were included in Franco’s deal with Scribner and somehow made up the difference.)

Amazon Publishing plans to publish more than 100 books over the next few months, and the list of the company’s impressive acquisitions almost always includes Franco alongside actual mega-selling authors Tim Ferriss and Deepak Chopra.

According to at least one reliable critic—Slate‘s David Haglund—there’s reason to believe the new novel will be good, perhaps better than his story collection. But the book’s quality probably doesn’t matter all that much. Franco is a celebrity, and that’s likely the main attraction for Amazon — his fame will make the novel much easier to promote. As a publishing property, however, it’s far from a sure thing.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.