Publishing Myths: The Millon-dollar Deal

For a writer, the publishing industry can sometimes seem unknowable or even unreal, with fairy tales of million-dollar deals, and agents who live in ivory towers. In this first instalment of a new publishing-myth-busting blog series, we look at the truth about deals of six-, seven-, and even eight-figures.

Do these major deals happen in publishing? Yes. But how often? And who gets that kind of money?

Big money publishing deals routinely make the trade news, but are in fact exceptions to the rule: most advances are less than $50K, and on average across categories, audiences, and formats, likely closer to $10K, particularly for debut authors. So who does get paid the legendary big bucks?

Celebrities: Politicians, performers, and popes have all seen massive advances against royalties on book deals in recent history. In 2017, the Obamas did a joint deal for their memoirs with Penguin Random House to the tune of $65+ million. Bruce Sprinsteen’s Born to Run garnered $10 million, the largest advance ever given to a musician for their memoirs (Simon & Schuster, 2016). In the same year, Simon & Schuster also invested $9 million in Amy Schumer’s essay collection The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. And back in 1996, Pope Jean Paul II’s memoirs Crossing the Threshold of Hope received an $8.5 million advance from Knopf (which they’ve earned back several times over). There are also celebrity-author deals of note: the reported $150 million for 17-books that James Patterson signed with Hachette back in 2009; or J.K. Rowing’s adult work The Casual Vacancy, which is rumoured to have sold for anywhere from $2-8 million.

Along with celebrities-as-authors and celebrity-authors are other experts, influencers, and similarly of-the-moment content creators with massive platforms and strong brand recognition. These predominantly non-fiction projects from names like YouTube’s Dude Perfect, Netflix’s smash-hit documentary subject Joe Exotic the “Tiger King”, and the latest trending Real Housewife, capitalize on built-in audiences, allowing publishers to spend small fortunes on their advances. Digital health platform and app Noom cleared seven-figures this year for a forthcoming book on their weight management program and a companion cookbook, and Gina Homolka’s next two Skinnytaste brand cookbooks, as well as Marie Kondo’s latest, both collected six-figures.

Blockbusters: Like celebrity books, previous or projected “blockbusters” also come with an assured success reflected in publisher payouts. Such projects would include the next instalment from a bestselling author, someone who has a dazzling track record of sales, and made lists like the NYTimes and L.A. Times—the Stephen King’s, George R.R. Martin’s, Janet Evanovich’s, and Rick Riordan’s of the world. You might also achieve blockbuster status with a Netflix adaptation, or celebrity book club pick. For example, Emiko Jean’s adult debut tentatively entitled Mika In Real Life received a six-figure advance after her debut YA novel Tokyo Ever After (Flatiron Books, 2021) was chosen for Reese’s Book Club (with a sequel forthcoming). Blockbusters might also include big award-winners and critically-acclaimed work, but usually only when there are significant sales numbers attached.

Genre: You’ll notice on the fiction side, the same genres keep popping up in these sought-after deals, namely thriller, romance, historical, science fiction or fantasy. The readership in these genres has proven to be loyal, and voracious. Again, it’s about the market, and a publisher’s sense of how many books they can sell.

Series extensions: Just like a publisher might offer a pot of gold for a celebrity author or blockbuster book, there’s the popular series that can be extended for near-guaranteed profits. Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes to mind (now on No. 11), or Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters franchise, with the seemingly endless spin-off titles and TV/film incarnations. You may also find a “break out” author with a hefty deal, like Cherie Dimaline’s next two books in her Marrow Thieves trilogy, which sold for six-figures each in Canada (Penguin Teen), and the US (Abrams Children’s).

Multiple-book deals: More often than not, the biggest advances cover more than one book—from two and up. So all that money isn’t just for a single work, and is also usually signed and licensed by multiple publishers internationally, either for co-publication or as foriegn rights and translation.

The rarest form of the “big deal” is literary fiction, not surprisingly. And even rarer, debut literary fiction. Lit Hub does a good round-up of seven-figure advances in this space over the decade from 2008-2018.

For a final bit of perspective, at the time of writing this, Publishers Marketplace lists approximately 11K deals across all categories and territories so far in 2021, and only 2%—at best—of those are six-figures plus. These major deals really are “unicorn” status in publishing—mythic, elusive, and extremely rare.

Having realistic expectations of the money involved in publishing is essential to your success as a writer. To outfit yourself with knowledge of the business side of the industry, attend a workshop or consult with us!

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