The million-dollar man

Douglas Kennedy has joined the elite band of novelists whose work commands big bucks in the US. No one is more surprised than he. By Paul Mungo
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The Independent Online
You can be forgiven for not having heard of Douglas Kennedy. Until last year this 42-year-old American was just another London-based jobbing hack, albeit with three travel books and one novel to his credit. Then last July he delivered the manuscript of The Big Picture, a thriller about a man fleeing a murder and his own past, to his New York agent. For reasons even Kennedy seems at a loss to understand, the book caught fire, culminating in a bidding war between three of America's most powerful publishing companies. When the dust had settled, The Big Picture had been acquired by Hyperion, a Disney subsidiary, for more than $1.1m for North American rights alone - which makes it a "million-dollar novel", an elite of books that dominate the best-seller lists. Last Wednesday in America 300,000 copies were shipped to bookshops across the country. This week a $750,000 publicity campaign for the novel and its author breaks across the States; in May The Big Picture will be published here.

The New York drama began on 11 July last year - Kennedy remembers the date - when his wife, Grace, rang him on his mobile. "Get to a phone, get to a phone," she shouted. "Call New York." Kennedy's mobile wasn't able to make international calls - "I was worried about the cost," he remembers now - and by the time he got to a pay phone his agent had left her office. It wasn't until late that night that he discovered that Hyperion had set the floor of the auction for The Big Picture at half a million dollars (which means, simply, that he was guaranteed a minimum of $500,000).

The auction itself took place five days later. Kennedy was at home in London; his New York agent fielded the bids from the publishers. "I tried to have as normal a day as possible," Kennedy says. "That morning, I finished writing a piece for GQ. Then I went out and played tennis. I knew the auction was starting at 10am New York time - 3pm here. At 3.30pm the phone rang: it was up to $550,000. At 4pm, it was $600,000. At that point I thought I'd go and get my hair cut."

When he returned to his house it had reached $650,000. "I said to Grace, 'Don't we need some shopping? I'll go to Sainsbury's.' " Later, during dinner, he rushed to the phone and held up eight fingers for Grace to see: $800,000. "It broke $1m at about 11pm our time. And then next day Hyperion topped the last bid to make it $1.1m."

It must have been an amazing day. "It was fantastic," Kennedy agrees dreamily. "Every writer should have a day like that." And success has a way of compounding success: the film rights to The Dead Heart, Kennedy's first novel, had already been sold to Britain's Scala Productions in 1995; the completed movie will be released this autumn. The Big Picture has been sold to Fox 2000 (part of Twentieth Century Fox) and is in development; Hyperion has bought the publishing rights to The Dead Heart for the States; and, most important, they have also bought the North American rights to Kennedy's third novel, called The Job, after seeing about 100 pages. For the latter, they're paying another $1.1m.

All this amounts to a staggering amount of money. Aside from what Kennedy is getting for his writing, there will be vast amounts spent on promotion and film production, particularly if Fox goes ahead with The Big Picture. This constitutes a Kennedy industry - perhaps not quite at the same level as the Grisham industry, but still on the same lines.

If the American marketing campaign is anything to go by, we will all soon have heard of Kennedy. In the States, The Big Picture is being touted in everything: newspapers, billboards, cinemas, even commuter and subway trains. Prior to its publication, key reviewers and buyers were bombarded with advance manuscripts and promotional geegaws, including disposable cameras emblazoned "THE BIG PICTURE". All this means The Big Picture is A Big Book - which may be defined as a book which has cost its publishers so much that they have to spend a near-equivalent amount hyping it.

The Big Picture, in America, is being pitched as Kennedy's debut novel (his real debut novel, The Dead Heart, was never published there), which makes that $1.1m advance all the more startling. "It was a very confident price to pay," says his New York agent, Wendy Weil - and one presumes that "very confident price" is in this case a euphemism for "helluvalot". "Hyperion is convinced that this is a novel the public will buy in large numbers, and that Douglas is somebody they can develop, and someone they can rely on to produce intelligent psychological thrillers in the future." Probably inevitably, Kennedy is being mentioned as "the new John Grisham".

Kennedy himself is less blase about his success than his American agent, but he has that happy look of a man who has just won the lottery, and while the comparison is invidious - Kennedy did, after all, do more than simply pick six numbers - the words he uses to describe his reaction to his good fortune are not much more descriptive than a lottery winner's. "Well, as you can imagine, I was just a little startled," he says. "I was numb really." He chuckles: "I was gobsmacked. It was sort of hard to take in. On one level I was thrilled, but on another I was wondering, is this some sort of hallucinogenic flashback? You know other people who this happens to: when it happens to you, you think, 'Holy Christ'. When it sank in, though, I figured I could get used to the idea."

Kennedy's biggest publishing sale prior to the Hyperion deal was to Little Brown, for the British rights to The Big Picture. He got pounds 50,000. Still, it beat the pounds 11,000 he got for UK rights from Little Brown for his first novel. "I was very happy with the pounds 50,000 advance," he says. "It was very good money, and I really like Little Brown. It was a big jump from the first book ... but little did we know." He shrugs.

It could all fall apart, of course: The Big Picture (the book) could fail to sell; The Dead Heart (the movie) could tank; the hype could fall apart. It doesn't seem likely: there is too much riding on Kennedy's success now for failure to be contemplated.

"Are you pleased?" I ask. "It's very nice," he agrees.

"Can you expand on that a bit?" He laughs. "It's very, very nice," he says. "No, make that, 'it's very, very nice'"n