On advances, publicity, and small press publishing

A major book deal doesn’t guarantee a bestseller. But it does — as in the case of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games — ensure that critics will crack the spine. Once you’re over that hurdle, reviews, or at least hottness appraisals, are nearly guaranteed. And when the chatter spreads, people pick up the book.

In the major houses, an author’s advance determines the marketing budget. So, beyond the $1 million it shelled out for Sacred Games, HarperCollins paid $300k to promote the novel. Charles Frazier’s $8.25 million deal for Thirteen Moons also had publicists working overtime earlier this year.

And what of the debut novelist who settles for $15k upfront? I’ll let you work it out.

Increasingly, even established writers like Kurt Vonnegut are looking beyond big-name publishers. They’re signing small press deals that guarantee heightened publicity and higher royalties; in return the authors accept drastically reduced advances. Jeffrey Trachtenberg reports:

[T]hese writers have been promised that their latest works will be promoted more substantially to readers in stores, online and in the newspapers. The authors also receive a higher-than-normal royalty rate and have a bigger say in how and where their books are marketed.

Mr. Morrell, a thriller writer, turned down a six-figure advance from his New York publishing house to join Vanguard Press, a small venture owned by Perseus Books Group that promised to rekindle his career. Women’s fiction writer Eileen Goudge, also publishing a book through Vanguard, says she also would have received a large advance had she stayed with her former publisher. Science-fiction writer Greg Bear, one of the genre’s most honored authors, in May is also publishing one book, “Quantico,” with Vanguard. And Vanguard isn’t alone: Stephen King published the novel “The Colorado Kid” through Hard Case Crime, where advances are less than $5,000, and Mr. Vonnegut published his latest book, “A Man Without a Country,” through Seven Stories Press, which pays advances starting at $1,000.

At a time when bookstores nationwide are inundated with new books, authors taking these deals in effect are gambling that they can attract back their core readers who may have lost track of them while wooing a new generation of readers.

Melville House, Akashic Books, and Soho Press, three excellent small presses, get a nod in Trachtenberg’s article.

Image of Sacred Games launch (above) taken from Ultrabrown.


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