Between Blockbuster and Obscurity…

In General on March 13, 2009 at 1:13 am

At the Zoetrope Writer’s Workshop, where I’ve been a member since 1999, an interested publishing thread came up in light of the reported deal that author Audrey Niffenegger received a $4.5 million dollar advance for her second book. First of all, anyone who’s read her debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife, knows what a talented writer she is. Second, since I interviewed Pat Walsh, her editor at MacAdam/Cage long ago for an article in The Writer, I know that the money they offered her (reportedly about $100,000) was not the highest offer on her book. But she took it because of the attention she was going to get from working with a small publisher and because it felt right to her. In the long run, her success (over 4 million sales worldwide) did her publisher as much good as it did her career.

Here’s the question: Is $4.5 million dollars too high of an advance? Does it put too much pressure on the writer, take monies away from the smaller authors who will never see even a fraction of that much money, and does it warp the already twisted model of pay-up-front publishing, which often works against authors who don’t earn out their advances?

You’d be surprised by people’s thoughts. In general any writer is usually happy to hear of a big advance for a writer–it gives us hope. Athletes and celebrities get figures like that all the time, why not those people who enter our psyches and hearts and provide us with understanding into our complex human experience? But some cringe at the thought that one big advance is, in essence, stealing money out of the mouths of midlist and debut authors. In other words, how many new authors could you buy for Audrey’s advance?

Some believe that the blockbuster mode of publishing is the next corroded wave of the future (the future being here already), and that it’s unavoidable–you’re either a hit, or you’re not…

I’d love to hear your opinions!

  1. I think 4.5 million is a wonderful advance and I feel happy for her. Her TTT’sWife is one of my favorite books. Pressure or not: I guess 4.5 million can be a good muse and trigger creativity in an amazing way. I would be motivated.

  2. Personally, I wouldn’t want $4.5 million dollars worth of pressure hanging over my head and yet how is any author going to turn that down? The blockbuster mentality may be unavoidable at this point, but it makes me sad. Too many excellent writers will never get their due because of it.

  3. Things in her favor are: She’s already written the book, and of course the sales of TTW…I personally do feel that it would be nice to see a bigger majority of writers get paid than a small minority of blockbusters, but I’m not a publisher!

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. Niffenegger’s certainly talented enough to be worth $4.5 million, and, yes, writers should be valued as much or even more than movie stars or other celebrities. But, the blockbuster mentality is damaging or can be damaging to debut or midlist writers — the midlist seems to hardly exist. Look at how the blockbuster mentality affects movies now. Quieter less publicly exposed films like Slumdog Millionaire or Milk, either have to generate “word-of-mouth” buzz or attract an established actor such as Sean Penn to even become part of the greater buzz.

    At the same time, smaller publishers get a chance to debut writers, and perhaps get more attention when a new writer, like Niffenegger, suddenly explodes into bestsellerdom.

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