I just read something that shocked me silly. In a recent column (November 6) by Publishers Weekly Editor-in-Chief, Sara Nelson, titled "Even the Sky's Not the Limit," Nelson noted that, during a mere few of weeks' time, quite a number of super, gigantic, blockbuster deals had been cut with bestselling authors, all in the $1-$5 million range. And even stranger, she wrote, these sums no longer seem to warrant any notice or industry ink. She quoted an unnamed editor as saying, "…These days, $1 million is the point of entry. It's as if $1 million is the new $250K." Advance inflation to megalopolous authors, they predict, will continue.
Obviously, this is good news for the handful of authors expected to write the next blockbuster hits, even if they don't actually accomplish that task. But it's not good news for most authors who fall in the midlist category, for whom $1 million isn't the point of entry in negotiations, and where most mystery authors can be found. And it's not good news for readers, either.
Why? Because as Nelson also notes, to earn back a $1 million advance, a book must sell at least that many copies. Yet only a tiny percentage of the books published in this country will even break the 100,000 copy mark, not to mention a million, or anything approaching it. That means that most of the books garnering those giant advances will lose substantial sums for their publishers.
How do they make up those losses? Easy. They cut out a whole lotta books with smaller print runs. Those are often the books that we, in the mystery world, like to read. They also eliminate backlist. But mystery sales of current titles depend on backlist titles staying print. Readers often won't read a series if they can't start with the first.
Sadly, publishing keeps emulating Hollywood's love affair with the blockbuster. And it isn't benefiting readers any more than viewers. It's the reason why "small" movies, films that make us think and feel, that deal with complex issues, can't be made anymore, and why shoot-em-ups geared to teenage boys fill most of the screens in today's theaters. Now, increasingly, we're seeing the equivalent move in publishing.
Why? Probably because publishers, like movie-makers, realize if they can pick winners, they'll make more money publishing fewer titles with large print runs, than taking chances on many more books with smaller runs. The trouble is — they can't pick winners. Not every time. Not nearly. Nelson notes that the super-funded and super-touted often tank, because bestsellerdom isn't guaranteed every time a publisher throws money at a high concept. And she reminds publishers of how many interesting, smaller titles, not expected to do that well, have soared to the top of the bestseller lists because readers saw more in those books than their publishers did.
It's unfortunate that publishers don't appreciate that they can reach the same end with the smaller profits made by many more smaller books, especially mystery franchises, which have been steady earners for them for generations. Maybe they simply don't know where most of their money comes from.
While cautioning publishers against the blockbuster frenzy, Nelson still ends her column on an upbeat note: "The good news: If publishers decide to keep spending more and more on bigger books, they may have to publish fewer. But why should it be the smaller books that go? In publishing, after all, sometimes you get what you don't pay for."
Maybe so. But I'm cynical enough to believe it will be increasing numbers of smaller books that'll get the ax. That in their lust for fast profits and easy success, publishers won't get what the do pay for. And neither will we.