July 20, 2012

The state of the million-dollar book deal


What does it take to land a million dollar book deal lately? Well, so far in 2012 there’s been the case of the celebrity memoir (Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother), the notorious inside story (Amanda Knox), and the dramatic newsmaker (Greg Smith, the guy who quit working at Goldman Sachs with his infamous op-ed).

With fiction, it gets slightly more complicated. Of course, there’s typically a bidding war for a follow up novel after a major bestselling success. Matthew Pearl’s move to Penguin Press for his next historical thriller called The Bookaneer and Neil Gaiman’s recent deal for five children’s books fall into that category.

But the most romantic seven-figure book deals—what Publishers Marketplace calls a “major deal” in their insider publisher code to indicate the amount of money involved—are debut novels.

To get to the million-dollar mark for debut fiction this year, it apparently helps to have a female teenage protagonist. In February, Riverhead bought 30-year-old Washington University writing professor Anton DiSclafani’s first novel called The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls. The book is about a 16-year-old named Thea Atwell during the Great Depression who is sent to an equestrian boarding school in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. And just out in hardcover is The Age of Miracles by 32-year-old Karen Thompson Walker, who worked on the coming-of-age story for about an hour each morning before going to her editorial job at Simon and Schuster. That is, until she received a million-dollar advance from Random House. Deals like these often hinge on editor-agent relationships and the lengths an editor or publisher is willing to go to build a particular list. Women in their late 20s and early 30s appear to be scoring the top deals lately. In line with that trend, this month Little, Brown bought the US rights to 27-year-old Australia native Hannah Kent’s debut historical novel Burial Rites, about a woman who is beheaded in Iceland in the 1820s.

Seven-figure advances might also be pointing the way to some shifts in traditional book publishing. Amanda Hocking, the 28-year-old who was rejected by more than 50 literary agents, went on to self-publish her books online before getting exhausted from the demands of her success. She signed a multi-million dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press so they could help with the editing and administrative details. Enterprising and (and often wealthy) self-published business authors who can convince agents and publishers that they can sell enough copies of the books are doing the same thing.

Another sign of a new publishing model is the million-dollar advance Pantheon paid for Mark Z. Danielewski’s serial novel called The Familiar, which will release a new installment every three months starting in 2014.

While some argue that a high advance corresponds to the amount of support a big-six publisher will give a book, which in turn results in sales, there are numerous cautionary tales.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.