Boom or Bust? The Big Advances

Sheelagh Cullinan, a graduate of the MA Publishing class 2006/07 at The London College of Communication and who now works in Children's Marketing and Publicity at Simon and Schuster, looks at author advances.

When I first set out to look at the current trend of excessive author advances for my MA Publishing dissertation at the London College of Communication, I like many others assumed celebrity autobiographies were on the way out and excessive author advances along with them. However after six months reading, interviewing and analysing, the outcome was very different.

The excessive author advances regularly quoted in the media today certainly do not reflect the publishing industry’s history of advances. In the UK consumer publishing industry today, excessive author advances are intrinsically linked with celebrity-affiliated books. This is a playground where the small, independent publisher is rarely to be found. According to a publisher from Penguin, the main reason they are prepared to pay a large amount for a title they believe will do well is “to drive turnover … a company as big as Penguin simply cannot survive on a diet of small books.”

Despite the ever-growing appetite for celebrity in the UK, headlines in the national press declared the demise of the celeb book. Following The Independent’s prediction ‘that the absurdly steep cost of some of this autumn’s celebrity yarns will far exceed the probable revenues’, The London Lite reveled in the opportunity to declare ‘Overpriced lives of the stars flop in bookshops.’ Yet the success of Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter was enough to convince publishers that although their titles may have flopped, they could have had Peter Kay. A number-crunching publisher from Hodder showed me exactly why these titles prove so tempting. He worked out that as ‘Peter Kay sold in excess of 800,000 copies. If this was at a RRP of £20 at a 50% discount, this would still make approximately £9million net, so there is always the temptation there.’

Mouth-watering author advances quoted in the press include £2m for David Beckham’s My Side, £5m for Wayne Rooney’s multiple book deal and £1.7m for Julie Walters’ autobiography. However, for aspiring authors, the huge figures regularly quoted in the press remain the stuff of fantasy. During an ALCS (Author’s Licensing & Collecting Society) debate, ‘a survey of 25,000 authors was unveiled to show the average author earns £16,531 a year, compared to the UK national average wage of around £23,000.’ The market place is increasingly competitive with more and more new titles being published every year (well over 200,000 in the UK alone), alongside increased competition in the retail sector due to the entry of supermarkets and e-tailers to the retail sector.

It is highly unlikely that a first time author will receive a very large advance, albeit if the talent is there then the possibility of receiving a substantial advance is still there. Zadie Smith, author of Whitbread First Novel 2000 winner White Teeth and On Beauty received a £100,000 two-book contract on the basis of 100 pages. Another success story is Jenny Colgan who snapped up a cool £200,000 a two-book as a first time author with Amanda’s Wedding. However, these figures are clearly in a different league from those quoted for celebrity titles.

The media has played a central role in sparking the debate of author advances. Aspiring authors who are dazzled by the massive figures quoted must remember how often articles tend to ignore the intricacies of a million dollar book deal, as the media are primarily concerned with dramatic, eye-catching headlines such as ‘HarperSport kicks off with £5m Wayne Rooney deal …’. Details such as the number of books signed in the deal, territorial rights, serialisation rights and royalty rates tend to receive much less attention than the actual amount rumoured to have been paid in advance. Obviously the reliability of these figures is also suspect as this depends on the reliability of the source.

In the current climate, publishers must offer many incentives such as heavy discounting, massive marketing spends and often flat fees to the retailers in order to obtain a prime slot within the shop. This happens across the board, from the specialist chains such as Waterstone’s and Borders to the supermarkets, particularly Tesco and Asda. Here the publishing house finds itself in a catch-22 situation. It cannot possibly have the marketing spend needed to do obtain a prime spot for every title it takes on, yet if a substantial marketing spend is not put behind a title, its chances of success are dramatically decreased unless it is short-listed for an award.

Unless there is a shift in the current structure of the industry, the excessive author advance figures we see quoted in the press are here to stay. The main implication of this being, as stated by Andrew Lownie, literary agent is that, ‘supermarkets are only interested in a very narrow range of books.’ This means that the market will continue to be dictated by Tesco, Asda, Waterstone’s and Borders ensuring only a very limited number of titles with large marketing spend behind them will succeed. Inevitably in the case of Tesco and Asda these will be titles they feel will appeal to their shoppers and tend towards mass-market fiction, TV tie-ins and celebrity associated titles. Only titles with the potential to obtain prime slots within these stores will appeal to the big publishers and this will result in the large publishers continuing their constant bidding against each other.

Currently they only realistically potential contender is online. Although the Internet held just 12% of total UK retail book sales in 2006, this was in comparison to 0.3% in 1998. Online offers everything the supermarkets do in terms of convenience but it also offers the maximum selection available. If online was to overtake other retailers in the industry this could have the potential to affect excessive advances as publishers would not rely as heavily on meeting the demands and tastes of the supermarket and chain head-buyers. But in an increasingly competitive industry where agents must skillfully negotiate publishers to create competition and retail is dictated by a select number of buyers, the future of excessive author advances remains in the balance.