EVERY book published these days has to come with a story to attract fickle readers' attention: 'International Bestseller' flashed across the front cover, or, "Soon to be a major motion picture". Now, in a market which has increasingly come to resemble the Premiership, the advance which a publisher has paid for a book has become an integral part of the story.
Once, advances were cloaked in secrecy, whispered about in the trade papers only, but now publishers are queuing up to tell us just how much they paid for their latest new find, particularly if they can say the magic words "substantial six-figure sum." But what lies behind the headlines of a big advance? Is it a carefully calibrated sales forecast that will bring the publisher and author untold riches, or a mad gamble of the kind you would normally only see in Las Vegas? And what exactly are publishers paying all that money for?
The latest deal to make the headlines is that of newcomer Matt Hilton, plucked from obscurity as a bobby in Cumbria, England, to secure a whopping £800,000 advance on the strength of his crime novel, Dead Man's Dust. This advance attracted plenty of media interest, and came with the usual good story: Hilton's agent, Luigi Bonomi of LBA, admitted that the novel had been rescued from the slush pile -- the rather undignified name for unsolicited manuscripts -- by his wife.
While admitting to a degree of surprise at the level to which the advance rose, Luigi Bonomi is bullish and feels that there were sound economics at the bottom of the deal. "It's been a long time since the British market has come across a British writer who writes very commercially like this. They don't come along every day. If you can make it work, the revenue stream is very high for a publisher. Crime and thrillers are going through big popularity at the moment. Sales for people like Martina Cole, Lee Child and John Connolly are huge. The view from the publisher was that Matt Hilton had the potential to achieve their sales."
When you examine the benefits of publishing a bestselling writer, you begin to get the picture. According to Bonomi: "The revenue stream is so high for a successful thriller. Martina Cole accounts for something like 15-20pc" (of her publisher's revenue).
And what's more, Hilton was able to deliver a number of titles quickly for this fast-paced market. Sue Fletcher, publishing director at Hodder & Stoughton, who was responsible for acquiring Matt Hilton says, "At Hodder, we buy authors, not individual titles. So an author who is likely to be able to sustain their creative output is more valuable. This was a significant factor in the Dead Man's Dust deal -- that Matt had many story ideas, all featuring the same fabulous, central character, and was able to write two novels per year."
And before you get too excited, this advance -- which will have to be recouped -- was for a total of five novels, which if Hilton takes off, will look very good and profitable for his publisher.
So far, so good. But where's the catch? As Luigi Bonomi suggests, "the problem is that it's all or nothing. The mid list is dead, and therefore publishers have to take huge risks. But the potential revenue is huge or nothing. That's the gamble."
One mitigating factor is that at the top end of the market, the advances paid can be eye-watering. Sheila Crowley is a director of London literary agency AP Watt. She posits that one factor in the departure of blockbuster writer James Patterson from his publisher Headline to Random House, may have been the cost of keeping him: "Headline had hugely increased Patterson's sales. However, I understand that where his sales were huge, because of a combination of the advance and the marketing, that he contributed greatly to the top line but not to the bottom line."
And when you factor in supermarkets and behemoths like Amazon, who demand very deep discounts from publishers in order to sell their books, surely the maths simply don't add up? This is what Sheila Crowley refers to as the "cost of making a book a bestseller". She explains: "The most hyped book at the moment is the new James Bond. At WH Smith at Heathrow Airport it's the deal of the week at half price. Marian Keyes (This Charming Man) was half price in a lot of accounts in the week of publication and went straight to number one. There's an obsession to make bestsellers. The retailer wants their market share, the publisher wants the slots on the list and the way they do it is by literally just giving away everything."
But it also can't be ignored that retailers are reflecting what their customers want. Nowadays, readers are much less likely to see books as a high-end item for which they are prepared to pay. But they want good value in books.
Publisher Sue Fletcher makes the point that "high discounts -- not only to supermarkets -- make profitable publishing very challenging, but of course large retailers can also shift high volumes," which is the key. So the moral is, pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap, but only for key titles which would be guaranteed big sales in any case. Hence the domination of the market by a handful of mega-selling authors.
Is it any wonder that when a talented author with lots of ideas, who can write quickly comes along, that publishers get excited? And when the gamble pays off, the rewards can be fantastic. Sheila Crowley cites the success of her popular fiction client Tasmina Perry, whose novel Daddy's Girls was a Sunday Times' top-ten bestseller last year. "I was reading it and thought "gosh", because I grew up with Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran, and Tasmina is writing a 21st-century blockbuster."
At a time when chick-lit has left the stage, new genres, or the reinvention of old ones, are hugely sought-after. Crowley continues: "She has started a whole new generation, which is brilliant, but the saleability has to be there as well, and she has proved it".
But what happens when the gamble doesn't pay off? A recent survey in the Bookseller magazine, looking at the publishing success of books for which large advances had been paid at the London Book Fair made for chilling reading. While the rumoured seven figures in total paid for Kate Mosse's Labyrinth look like good business, with sales now over one million copies, other writers have been less fortunate, with sorry tales of six- or seven-figure advances resulting in sales of 14,000 or less.
As Sue Fletcher points out: "When we have confidence in an author's popular appeal, we keep trying. Sometimes we can analyse the reasons for disappointment (poor jacket; unfortunate timing etc) so hope to correct that next time. But sometimes, we do have to accept that the connection between writer and reader hasn't been made." And, she astutely adds, "That does not actually depend on the size of the advance..."
But if you've paid a lot of money, the agony must be all the greater. With publishers increasingly relying on a handful of mega-selling authors, taking gambles on writers who can go from hero to zero overnight, it seems there's never been a better, or worse, time to be a writer, depending on how you look at it.
But Sheila Crowley, for one, is positive, citing the "sleeper" bestsellers that became hits with little or no "hype", helped by enthusiastic readers and the likes of the Barry's Tea book club, such as our own John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or Anne Enright's The Gathering, or the slow build for new bestseller by Jodi Picoult and her issue-based novels, which seem to capture the zeitgeist.
As Sheila Crowley says, "advances are one issue. Really good stories will win out."