The Literator: Inside Publishing

Beginners' luck

Does size count? We are talking advances here. The year is not yet a quarter done and the list of authors whose first novels have been sold for the proverbial "good six figures" is growing apace. The most recent recipient of a publisher's largesse is 20-year-old Richard Mason, whose first two novels last week went to Tom Weldon at Michael Joseph for a cool pounds 250,000. Publication of the first, The Drowning People has to be carefully scheduled for the Easter vacation because it is assumed that Craig Raine, his Oxford tutor, would not take kindly to time out for promotion work.

Mason is not the youngest young novelist to hit it rich: a couple of years back, Jenn Crowell, 17, and then still at high school in Virginia, saw her debut, Necessary Madness fought over by publishers in Britain and America. Most critics agreed that Crowell lived up to the hype.

Such high-price acquisitions also carry with them a high risk for, if the book fails, the publisher loses money and an author's career is a failure before it's begun. However creative the accounting, a pounds 250,000 book needs to sell a great many copies if anyone is to make any money. As with houses prices, an author and his book are, broadly speaking, worth whatever a literary agent on 10 per cent decides they're worth and, if the market is currently overheating part of the problem is a publishers' desire to have some of what a rival house is doing so well with. Thus, back in January, Random House paid pounds 270,000 for Come Together, a collaborative novel by Emlyn Rees and Josie Lloyd largely on the grounds that it could be summed up as "Bridget Jones meets Nick Hornby at a party given by the cast of This Life". Derivative or what?

Time will tell. In the meantime, we can see whether Irish author Cathy Kelly's Headline debut with Woman to Woman, due next month, emulates the success of her Penguin compatriot, Marian Keyes (both deals were for more than pounds 250,000) and whether Robert Mawson's The Lazarus Child (cost: pounds 420,000), due from Bantam Press in May, lives up to the hype - not to mention the size of their advances.

Stuart Proffitt - An Apology

In the Literator (2 March) we reported a number of critical suggestions about Stuart Proffitt, until recently Publisher of HarperCollins' Trade Division, which we now acknowledge are untrue. It was suggested that Stuart Proffitt "had to be placated with a similar title" after Malcolm Edwards was given additional management responsibilities, whereas in fact Mr Proffitt neither demanded nor received any new title as a result of Malcolm Edwards' change of duties. Far from objecting to the promotion of Nick Sayers as we reported, Mr Proffitt had vigorously and wholeheartedly argued for it. We apologise unreservedly to Mr Proffitt and to his friends.