Mark Terry

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Does Stephen King Get Author Envy?

December 12, 2006
I got a case of Author Envy yesterday. I was having a conversation of sorts with an author friend and we got to obliquely discussing book advances and it seemed that his book advance for his first novel was somewhere in the range of 10 times to--who knows?--50 times larger than mine.

Now, I've read his book and it's a fine book, but is it 10 to 50 times better than mine?

I doubt it.

This might be natural but it's not healthy and it's not helpful. If ever there is a reminder that the publishing business is capricious (at best) it's this sort of thing.

I'm reminded of the first time I met Joe Konrath, at Magna cum Murder, a couple years ago. He and I and I think Libby Fisher Hellmann were chatting and we congratulated him on his six-figure 3-book deal and Joe modestly shrugged and said, "It's all luck. I think the book before 'Whiskey Sour' is a better book."

Some of this is undoubtedly false modestly on Joe's part. And yet, he's right. As much as I have enjoyed his three books to-date and I can see the hook, etc., do the books really stand out in the marketplace so much more than so many other books published regularly? Well, somebody at Hyperion thought so.

A few years back I read an interview with Stephen King and the reporter made some comment to him about sharing the bestseller lists with Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwall. King rather hurriedly pointed out that they both sold more books than he did. (Neglecting, perhaps, that he was selling 3 or 4 books a year, but I don't think that was the point).

When I interviewed Harlan Coben a few years back he commented to me that his books sold better in Europe than they did in the U.S., but that he had received a sort of chagrined phone call from his agent, saying his last book was selling better than the book before, but it had only hit #5 on the French bestseller list. "Who's above it?" asked Harlan, and was told the top four spots were taken by all four of Dan Brown's books ("The Da Vinci Code," "Digital Fortress," "Angels & Demons," and whatever the hell the other book is). Harlan jokingly said he called up Dan (they both went to Amherst) and gave him a hard time ("... now you've gone too far, Dan..."). Harlan's a really, really nice guy and he said this lightly and with good humor, but still... did even for a moment Harlan think, "Dammit, why not me?"

I read a blog post of Tess Gerritsen's lately where she commented that she was one of those authors getting seven figure advances.

In this case, I'm not sure I feel Author Envy. I just feel envy, and my thought when I read that was, "That would be pretty cool, wouldn't it?" But that's so far outside my realistic expectations at the moment that it's hard for me to get too wound up about it.

When I was unpublished I was always reading about one author or another getting big advances or movie deals and thinking, "Why not me? That can happen. Yeah, it'll happen."

Hell, one of the things that first motivated my trying to write a novel was an essay by Stephen King where he mentions he got a $2500 hardcover advance for "Carrie" back in 1972, but they sold the paperback rights to New American Library for $400,000. [And sadly enough, 34 years later, a hell of a lot of authors are happy to get $2500 advances].

Like I said, I think this kind of thinking is normal, but even worse than being unhealthy, I think it's unhelpful. Earlier I commented wondering if the size of my friend's advance was an indicator of the "worth" of his book versus my advance's indicator of the "worth" of my book. But the truth is, there is no correlation between advance size and book quality.

The advance size is a combination of things, but one of those things is a prediction of how many copies your publisher believes they can sell. Also, advance size can be influenced by a number of things--if a publisher says to themself, "Let's really push this book, put it at the front of our catalogue, feature it in our newsletter, tell our sales people it's our top pick and they really need to push it, let's pay co-op money to get front table and end cap placement and let's make sure we take out a small ad in USA Today," then by god, that advance is probably going to be a little bit bigger.


Well, presumably if they thought all that stuff, they liked the book and felt it had a chance of doing well in the marketplace. That is probably because they felt it stands out in some way (if it's a first novel) or the writer has some sort of track record. Let's face it, there are a lot of PI novels, cozies and police procedurals, and it can be a little hard for a publisher to find one that's going to break out of the pack. So if you've written something they think will stand above the crowd, it'll get a little push.

I also think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a publisher gives a bigger advance, they're pretty much obligated to push the book, because if they don't, it almost guarantees it won't take off. (In my opinion). Publishers have certainly had the experience of a book being published that they pushed and threw money at that didn't take off and earn back the advance. They've also certainly had books that they just published without fanfare, a sales push or any particular attention, that took off for one reason or another. But a significantly larger number of books do well because the publisher wants them to than those "just books" that are ignored by the publisher (the literary equivalent of cannon fodder) do.

All of which is a long and winding way of saying that you need to do your best work, concentrate on the work, do what you can for sales, and not get too caught up in what's going on in your fellow scribbler's financial backyard.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Great post. I think the differences between books become wildly exaggerated. Even if a bestseller is, indeed, a bit better than a book that sells far less, the bestseller status causes people to perceive the gap between one book and other as being far larger than it actually is. I guess there is a tendency to believe that something succeeded because it deserved to. The degree of success is taken as a measure of quality.

I'm sure we all suffer author envy, and probably with good reason :) It's not so much the money -- though that would be nice as a practical matter -- but I think we all want to get some respect for our efforts. The publishing industry is pretty much like most industries today in that it doesn't respect the people who work for it.

During the past couple years, as the randomness of the publishing process realy began to sink in for me, I've changed my writing approach quite a bit. That is to say, I decided that there is little point in constantly trying to shape one's work to suit publishers when, in fact, it is pretty much a lottery anyway. Mary and I wrote a book last year that hasn't sold, but at least it is exactly what we wanted to write. If we had written something to fit some perceived publishing requirement we probably wouldn't have sold that either and we would've hated totally wasting our time. The current Byzantine mystery is also, precisely what we want. It goes totally against the grain of the sort of action/suspense type of books that are wanted these days and is much more a classical, low key, mystery. We hope Poisoned Pen Press will publish it. I'm certain no one else would. Heck, I like thrillers but I am just not well suited to writing them.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Luckily, I like action adventure thrillers and am suited to write them, but I take the point. Actually, all too well. That's probably worthy of a separate post, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that tastes are cyclical in the publishing industry. For instance, since The Da Vinci COde, there's been a plethora of thrillers featuring historical "aspects" to the mysteries, centuries-long cover-ups, etc. It won't last. IN fact, it's lasted longer than I expected it to, but I bet in five years no one will want them except by those who got weeded out by the rather brutal publishing/book buying process.

And it's very, very hard, if not impossible, for a writer to say, "Hey, these are hot right now, I'll write one."

Partly because "hot books" were bought 18 to 24 months before they come out and by the time your "follow-the-leader hot book" is written and marketed to the publishing industry, it would be amazing if it were still a hot topic.

Crazy biz.

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I knew a painter once -- a friend of my dad's -- who was technically brilliant. He did well with commercial art. I even saw one of his paintings in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. But he wanted to hit it big in the fine arts, in the New York gallery world. So for most of his life he'd take trips into New York and educate himself about what was going on in the galleries and then return to the sticks and work feverishly on the newest trend. But, of course, while he was perusing the stuff in the galleries, artists were already working on the next trend in their studios and by the time his efforts were finished they were old hat.

I think my writing palette (to continue in art terms) is a bit limited. There are things I feel I can do well and other things, not so well. Although I can enjoy a thriller I don't think my skill set would enable me to write one, even if it might make sense from the publishing world's point of view. I mean, I love Mikey Spillane but I couldn't see myself being able to write something like that.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'm like you, Eric, although I think I like thrillers well, I'm not sure I write things like straight mysteries all that well. My strengths are pace and action, which is fine, it's fun to write. I seem to run into trouble when I do things more character-oriented, like the medical thriller.

I have a suspicion that few writers are really all that versatile--Stephen King seems to be; Lawrence Block seems to be. But I suspect many of us have our strengths and find our publishing/commercial success by working on projects that showcase our strengths.

Which is not to suggest we can't learn and work on expanding our, er, pallette and eventually find success in slightly different endeavors, but I think it's worthwhile after a point to be aware of what you do well and what you don't do as well.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous BMACK said...


I just bought your book at lunch. I hope that makes you feel a little bit better... You got some of my $. Don't spend it all in one place.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks! Hope you enjoy it. Where'd you buy it?

12:14 PM  
Blogger BMACK said...

I bought it at a Borders in the suburbs of Chicago. It was in the mystery section. Yes I was looking for it. No, I do not usually read a ton of military action type thrillers. As an unpublished writer myself , I read your blog. Actually, I live in the general vacinity of JA Konrath and I read a local author-type article, checked out his blog, then saw your comments, checked your blog out etc. Reading Konrath's blog and living in the same area, I have a cold-sweat fear that he'll tap me on the shoulder while I'm browsing and "handsell" me his book, which I must say is very creepy (and I worked in a chain-type book store- employees DO NOT sell your books for you. Maybe a recommendation card that nobody pays attention to. They are booksellers like Taco Bell employees are taco-sellers.). Ok, I'll stop there- but that's how you sold a book.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Cool. And if Joe does tap you on the shoulder, hit him up for a drink. He's a pretty good guy and not nearly as aggressive (usually) in person as he sometimes appears to be on his blog.

Again, hope you enjoy Pitchfork.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I do think alot of it is luck, the skill of your agent and what mood the publishers are in when they get the book in their hands. Everything factors in.
I don't feel envy when I hear of the deals I feel the possiblities!
If they can do it then someday....

3:09 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I also found you through Konrath's blog. I read one of your posts and got curious and followed the trail here. And thats how I bought your book.
Blogging is the network of the Zero's. Now I even pull up this blog before Konraths (shhhh don't tell joe!)

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