Karl Rove is having a hard time selling his memoirs. He’d been hoping for a $3 million advance, but apparently publishers are balking. Poor baby.
I remember when Simon and Schuster paid $8.5 million for Ronald Reagan’s personal memoirs. This was shortly after the Gipper had left office but before his Alzheimer’s had been announced. After the announcement, some of us in the book production department of an S&S subsidiary got out our calculators and guesstimated what an initial print run would cost S&S, how much of a markup such a book could bear, and how many copies would have to be sold to earn back the $8.5 million.
And there was no way those numbers would crunch. The suits in the penthouse office should have asked us worker bees about this before they made the advance offer.
By the time the book was published everyone knew about the Alzheimer’s and figured Reagan couldn’t have written much. Fewer than 20,000 copies were sold, probably mostly to libraries.
My understanding is that Bill Clinton’s memoirs, for which Knopf paid $10 million, did slightly better but still didn’t come close to earning what Knopf paid for it.
[Update: I am corrected; Clinton’s book did a lot better.]
Big, splashy publishing extravaganzas like the memoirs of a former politician or a big business executive like GE’s Jack Welch tend to generate more buzz than sales. When I was working in the book publishing industry, news stories of some mega-million book advance tended to be followed by memos to the staff about wage freezes. This is not to say such books are always disasters. Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, published in the 1980s, was a mega-best seller. But Iacocca was the exception, not the rule.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf received an advance of more than $5 million from Bertlesmann; Gen. Colin Powell got $6.5 million from Newhouse, Former O.J. pall Paula Barbieri got $3.5 million from Time Warner. Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin Putnam wrote off at least $100 million in unearned advances in 1996.
–Bookselling This Week, October 6, 1997.
Large advances for books that flopped: Journey to Justice by Johnnie Cochran, Ballantine paid a reported $3.5 million; Behind the Oval Office by Dick Morris, Random House paid an estimated $2.5 million; Leading with my Chin by Jay Leno, HarperCollins paid a reported $4 million.
–The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 1997.
The fact is, most of the time such books are a pile of self-serving bullshit. Readers know this. Rove himself is a pile of self-serving bullshit, and the snake oil he sold America — President George W. Bush — isn’t selling any more. He probably could have gotten a fat advance four years ago. Not now. Even the suits in the penthouse offices, idiots though they may be, have figured out that Rove’s career as Boy Genius is over.