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Are Advances Retreating?

September 09, 1990|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — Authors, agents and others in publishing received the news with befuddled amazement. Dell Publishing had signed best-selling thriller writer Ken Follett to write two books--for $12.3 million. Only a few days later, Jeffrey Archer, another popular British author, was garnering a reported $20 million for his next three books from Harper Collins.

So much for the persistent talk within the industry that advances are on their way down.

Starting early this year, word of declining advances began filtering through the industry. The suggestion was that advances had in many cases spiraled out of control. Authors walked away with hefty six- and sometimes even seven-figure advances on books that failed to return those figures. As in the stock market, publishing insiders said, a correction was in order.

In spite of the huge advances paid to Follett and Archer--as well as such mega-best-selling writers as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark and others--some people feel that the tightening did take place. Authors of "serious" books, they say, were the first to feel the squeeze.

"I can't prove it, but I will tell you that advances for serious books are down," said Tom Wallace, a literary agent here.

"Brand-name authors," said Wallace, can still command enormous fees for their works. "It's box office," he said. But by the same token, "It just seems to me that if you pay $10 million or $5 million for one book, you're going to have to pay proportionately that much less for a first novel, or a biography. Money is finite."

Talk about cutbacks may have been just that--talk, literary agent Georges Borchardt suggested. "It certainly helps to be Ken Follett or Jeffrey Archer, and if you are, you have already proven that the talk is nonsense." The massive sums paid to those two authors "already made liars out of all the people who were saying advances were down earlier in the year," he said.

"And if you talk about just us humans," Borchardt went on--writers whose names do not jump out of every grocery store, airport and hotel-lobby book rack in America--"the advances are not down. It really depends on the kind of book." From the point of view of advances negotiated by his firm, Borchardt said, "we are having our best year ever."

Nevertheless, Borchardt said, "because they have spent millions and millions on these others," publishers "are even more careful" about paying big money "for the good books than they were before. They say, 'My God, we have just given X millions to President Reagan, where are we going to cut back?' Which does not make any sense at all."

The multimillion-dollar advances given to big-name politicians, movie stars, television personalities and writers like Follett and Archer are "anything but lower," Jack Romanos, the president of Pocket Books, said.

"On the other hand, I think there are a large number of authors whose advances have either declined or have not changed" in recent contracts. Romanos would not name names, but said, "I know of a number of authors of our own whom we have acquired for either less money or the same money" than they had gotten for earlier books.

"For the most part, publishers are taking a much, much harder and more realistic look both at sales and royalty earnings of any author before they commit large dollars. You're seeing people paying excessive amounts for authors in direct relation to how badly they need a publicity program.

"In other words, if you don't have any major authors, you will pay more to get them from someone else. The smarter publishers saw this coming, and signed them up for multiple-book contracts."

Whether they are declining, rising or remaining the same, "advances by their very nature are not based on anything except for a gut instinct of some sort," Adrian Zackheim, executive editor and vice president of William Morrow, said. "There is always this element of speculativity."

Because "publisher are nervous," due largely to "general bad times in the economy," Zackheim said, "I would say that most publishers, and I include myself, are applying somewhat more stringent standards in signing books up. There is a little less of a tendency to pursue aggressively books that have potential, or are merely publishable."

For a publisher, said Zackheim, "the issue is trying to limit yourself to books about which you feel some sort of conviction--either commercial or artistic. You want to feel you could say, 'Well, I really thought that was wonderful,' or, 'Well, I really thought it would make a lot of money.' "

But the issue of how much a book is worth--that is, how large an advance it should merit--is always subject to question, agent Tom Wallace said. "Most agents know that books do not have a precise value. It really is a matter of who is the highest bidder."

Many authors today may wish those bids would go still higher. But as Borchardt pointed out, advances always have been a rather capricious commodity.

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