Bad Times in the Book Biz

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.

Update: Sadly, No! reviews another stellar publishing accomplishment.

15 thoughts on “Bad Times in the Book Biz

  1. I suspect that Jenna Bush is giving J.K.Rowlings some stiff competition in the sales department with her lastest literary masterpiece —Anna’s Story. I wonder how much of a bath in advance money publishers took on that little give away to the darling child.

  2. My understanding is that Bill Clinton’s memoirs, for which Knopf paid $10 million, did slightly better


    AFP, July, 2004

    NEW YORK (AFP) — Sales of Bill Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” which among other things offers his version of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, have crossed the one-million mark, the publishers said.

    “This is an astonishing number for a work of non-fiction,” said Knopf Publishing Group President Sonny Mehta. “In just eight days, we have sold over a million copies.”

    Given the continuing demand from retailers, Knopf said it had gone back to press for a third printing of 325,000 copies, bringing the total number of copies in print up to 2.6 million.

  3. Probably the best news is that Coulter’s latest book is tanking. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person (she says with tongue in cheek).

  4. Re Bill Clinton’s book — I give walking tours in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and one of my stops happens to be in front of a Chinese-language bookstore. For about six months, every time I stopped there, just in the 10 minutes or so I was there giving that part of my tour, i would see at least one person, often two, coming out of this store with a Chinese language edition of Bill Clinton’s memoirs.

  5. I haven’t read Bill Clinton’s book because I can’t lift it.

    But I did click the Sadly, No! link and laughed for a good five minutes. The photo of the Hitler kitty is hilarious. I guess today is a day for light reading.

  6. Let’s hope Goldberg’s book goes down in flames. What excerpts I have seen is filled with hatred and lies. This is what the neocon revolution has wroght–hatred and lies.

  7. I’m so glad to hear the Coulter’s book is tanking. I just saw it yesterday in a mega-bookstore in Toronto. I wanted to put a warning on it with a post-it but refrained. Thanks for the good news.

  8. I’d like to know how Goldberg’s book is doing, whether he completely missed the market for his brand of hateful nonsense, as Rove and Coulter thankfully did recently.

    Side note: I looked at for Goldberg’s book a few months ago, and someone managed to hack the page – making a joke out of the book’s subtitle and posting a lot of derogatory comments – well before the book was even published. Inside job? Enquiring minds would like to know… The hacked page was up only for a brief time. Kudos to whoever did it.

  9. I don’t understand the publishing business paying advances, though I am not in the business. If you demand an advance, doesn’t that indicate you want to be paid if it tanks, as opposed to getting aa commission on each copy?

    Clint Eastwood, as an actor, made a fortune (from which he launched his own movie company, Malposo) by doing his last studio films for a ridiculously low up-front fees, but a decent percent of the gross, betting he could deliver hits. Few writers, actors or atheletes have that kind of integrity.

  10. Doug — the idea of an advance is that it’s supposed to give the author money to live on or to do research with while he writes the book. It’s an advance against royalties, which usually are some percent of net profits. So the author is paid nothing until (or if) the royalties exceed the advance. In the case of the mega-advances, it amounts to a purchase of the manuscript.. For the author, it’s a guarantee he gets paid something for his time even if the book doesn’t sell. Publishers sometimes put a clause in the contract that says they can get the advance back if the manuscript is unsatisfactory or if the book *really* tanks.

    What you have to remember with book publishing is that while the property — the copyright — usually belongs to the author, the publisher is the one who risks the money to publish the book and reaps most of the profits. As I said, most royalties are something like 10 to 15 percent of net profits. So the publisher usually makes more from an author’s work than the author does.

  11. Some part of Simon & Schuster will publish Rove’s book — possibly Mary Matalin’s imprint.

    (Matalin’s imprint, Threshold, did publish that million-dollar flop Mary Cheney book. More recently, though, it’s had a #1 bestseller by Glenn Beck.)

    And by the way, Knopf’s huge advance to Bill Clinton was for world rights. That was shrewd — Clinton is so well liked around the world that Knopf made a big percentage of the money back on global sales.

  12. I was under the impression that big advances for political books like Rove’s were more a way around political funding regulations than anything else.

    The advance is sometimes a way to throw a pile of money that isn’t technically a contribution. And in some cases, supporters buy a few crates of books in order to get cash to the campaign.

    Sometimes (for example, I think, the Clinton and Reagan books) the publisher is doing it for the face-value reason: because they expect to sell lots of books and make a profit.

  13. ‘Sadly No!’ is doing a wonderful job of ridiculing Jonah ‘the whale’ Golberg’s latest rant. I recommend everybody tune in; hilarious and deliciously to the point.

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