2014 is shaping up to be an incredible year for some debut authors. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, Random House paid $1 million and $2 million, respectively, to acquire Imbolo Mbue’s debut The Longings of Jende Jonga and Emma Cline’s The Girls. Also at Frankfurt, University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Psychology Amy Lee Duckworth sold her first book Grit: Passion, Perseverance and the Science of Success to Scribner. Duckworth’s book is said to be based on the TED talk she gave last year entitled “The Key to Success? Grit.” Around the same time in early October, and about 3891 miles away, 2014 graduate of the New School’s MFA program Stephanie Danler scored a two book deal from A.A. Knopf. She pitched an agent she was serving at a French restaurant called Buvette in Manhattan’s West Village, and the rest is history.
Well, the beginning is history–and acts as a great marketing tool PR in advance of the book. What happens when the books actually hit the market could determine if these writers will have longevity.
Emily Gould famously sold her memoir for $200,000 in 2008. When her sales did not meet expectations, she had a difficult time selling her next book. Earlier this year, writer Maureen Callahan reported Gould had sold a new novel called Friendship for $30,000. A 2003 feature in New York Magazine cautions against banking on this “literary lottery” as an indication of the writers who will have staying power.
Writer Alex Williams points to the six- and seven-figure advances debut authors snapped up in the aftermath of Alice Sebold’s New York Times bestseller The Lovely Bones, said to have sold close to three million copies:
- Yale Law professor Stephen Carter — $4 million two-book deal.
- Medical Student Daniel Mason — $1.2 million two-book deal “on the strength of his manuscript for The Piano Turner.”
- Former Wired UK editor Hari Kunzru — nearly $1 million for the U.S. rights to his first novel The Impressionist.
- Former New Mexico reporter Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez — $475,000 for The Dirty Girls Social Club, a book that took her six days to write.
- Then 26-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer — $500,000 for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated plus $925,000 for the paperback rights.
Williams wrote, “The magnitude of Safran Foer’s advance, combined with his tender age, drew so much attention it served to demonstrate to publishers just how powerful a marketing tool the advance itself could be. The larger the advance, the louder the publisher’s declaration that this is the book the house is gambling on this season. The marketplace has become a literary lottery, not just for the authors but for the publishing houses too. A modest advance, which used to signal the intention to invest in a long-term relationship, now indicates lack of commitment.”
For those authors who can’t get a PR-worthy advance, the marketing can come by landing a literary prize or fellowship, or buying a spot on the bestseller list. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that many authors hire book marketing companies like ResultSource to buy enough copies of their book to make the title a bestseller. “Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value,” ResultSource was quoted as saying in the piece. Publisher John Wiley & Sons admitted to recommending ResultSource to their business book authors.
These tactics are not unlike those employed by recording artists and music industry labels. “Payola” — the illegal practice of record labels paying TV and radio stations to play their artists’ songs — has been going on since the days of Dick Clark and likely before then. In 2001, Salon.com did a piece exposing labels’ use of “indie” brokers to get their artists’ tracks played on the radio. A 2009 piece in The Guardian suggested payola is the basis of internet radio.
Meanwhile, artists are seeking fresher ways to capture the finicky and finite attention spans of our day, whether it’s dropping secret albums like Beyonce did, “gifting” iTunes subscribers like U2 did, or collaborating with unexpected artists, again, like Beyonce did when she sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk. The collaboration boosted Adichie’s book sales, and led to the publication, in text form, of her talk We Should All Be Feminists.
For writers, what’s clear is that their stories can’t be limited to what’s between the covers of their books. Whether we’re talking a book that was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign or some other crowd-funding source like Goldsmiths Prize shortlistee Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, or the story is attached to format i.e. online serial versus traditional print, there needs to be a hook that will inspire the press to cover the book. At the end of the day, it’s about getting share in the attention span of the reader. Once that happens, the marketing yields, finally, mercifully, to the merit of the story.