Are big book advances a blessing or a curse?

A clutch of debut novelists has recently been wooed with million-pound offers

Epic novels are having a moment – and so, it seems, are the epic advances to go with them. Last week, it was announced that City on Fire, a 900-page debut novel set in New York in the 1970s by American writer Garth Risk Hallberg, had won a US advance of around $2m after a two-day bidding war. At least 10 publishers offered to stump up more than $1m for a book that is, according to its triumphant editor, Diana Miller at publishers Knopf, "off the charts in its ambition and powers of observation".

It's also pretty off the charts for a debut advance (the average being anything from £10,000), although it surely helped that film producer Scott Rudin had snapped up the film rights before the auction began. But according to Richard Beswick, the publishing director at Little Brown, part of the mega-conglomerate Hachette, huge advances for first-time novelists can be as much a curse as a blessing. "If a book like City on Fire flops that can hang over you for the rest of your writing career," he says. "Of course, paying out huge advances is a massive gamble for publishers, but sometimes they can't resist it, reckoning that it's more likely to pay a dividend than making a series of small ones."

At this year's London Book Fair, it was definitely the first-time authors who were setting the city on fire. Matthew Thomas, a 38-year-old American high-school teacher, sold the rights for his 700-page sprawling Irish-American saga, We Are Not Ourselves, for $1m in the US and for a six-figure sum here. A punt from the publishers maybe, but since, like Donna Tartt (who reportedly received an advanced of around £1m for The Goldfinch), Thomas spent a decade writing his novel, his hourly rate could hardly be called extortionate. But then he was never, he has said, doing it for the cash.

Elizabeth is Missing, a debut by Londoner and former book binder Emma Healey, 28, about an 81-year-old with dementia, was also at the centre of a big auction and, after a fierce nine-way battle, sold for six-figure sum. Meanwhile, no fewer than 11 publishers tussled for The Miniaturist by actress and former Oxford student Jessie Burton, after her agent Juliet Mushens, at The Agency Group, pulled off a six-figure deal in the UK for it – having saved the manuscript from a slush pile. But will these high-risk first timers ever earn their advances back? Only if the books turn out to be any good and sell well, since the authors have no previous form and hype only goes so far. Even JK Rowling, who had one of the most carefully orchestrated PR campaigns of all time last year for the launch of The Casual Vacancy, had disappointing sales and mixed reviews.

Jonny Geller, the agent at Curtis Brown renowned for winning his writers big advances, points out that books make money in the unlikeliest ways. Sometimes it's from library sales, sometimes it's a serial deal. "Publishing is a gamble. It's all about hedging bets, but then no one pretends it's otherwise. But it's easier for a publisher to make a splash about a book and a sale than it is to publish a small book well."

A safer bet that publishers will always splurge on is the super-celeb memoir, for which the public has an insatiable appetite. According to Geller, it is a straightforward business with simple maths. The whopper in recent times was Tony Blair's My Journey, published in 2010, for which he was paid £4.6m – and it went straight to the top of the bestseller lists, outselling on its first day of publication both David Beckham and Russell Brand's autobiographies. Other big spends of the past few years include Eric Clapton (£2.5m), Jack Welch (£4.5m) – the American CEO of General Electric, believe it or not, and Frank Skinner (£750,000).

This year, as the frenzied lead-up to Christmas gets underway, publishers are putting their money on a team of sporting celebs, with David Beckham (the illustrated version), Harry Redknapp, Andy Murray, Mo Farah, Mike Tyson, Usain Bolt and Sir Alex Ferguson slugging it out on the pitch. But this is no team sport – and the winner by a mile so far is Sir Alex, who received a £2m advance for his snappily titled My Autobiography. It's been shifting 100,000 copies a week since its release three weeks ago. "It's usually after Christmas that the publishers do their sums, but I imagine Ferguson will have paid out handsomely already," says Beswick.

So there we have it. Come the New Year, some publishers will be celebrating their fortunes, while others will be licking their wounds. But one imagines, not for long. And, says Geller, "epic advances will carry on so long as there is more than one publisher in the room!"

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own