Arts: Struggling author attracts pounds 2m for debut novel

Louise Hancock
Thursday 16 October 1997 23:02

An English author has set a new record in publishing this week at Frankfurt Book Fair.

Louise Hancock looks at the current trend towards big money advances for debut novels.

A struggling English author is set to receive at least pounds 2m for his debut novel. The Lazarus Child by Robert Mawson, a former pilot and advertising copywriter, tells the story of an English couple's attempt to bring their daughter out of a coma.

His literary agent, Christopher Little, is confident that the manuscript, touted as another huge success along the lines of The Horse Whisperer, will secure the author a fortune.

"I haven't had time to tot them all up, but he will make easily pounds 2m from book rights and advances alone," said Mr Little.

The British publisher, Transworld, are reputed to have paid pounds 420,000 for the rights in this country. International publishers have also been keen to secure the rights to the novel, with Bantam in the US reported to be willing to pay nearly pounds 1m for exclusive rights.

Literary interest in the manuscript, finished only two weeks ago, was instantaneous. Mr Mawson's agent submitted it to nine publishers in this country. The first replies began arriving the same afternoon. One representative went so far as to camp on the agent's doorstep the very next day.

In Frankfurt, where the world's biggest book fair is currently taking place, auctions are going on to secure the international rights.

Mr Mawson's success, which follows a lifelong desire to write a bestseller, gives hope to thousands of aspiring authors. His first attempt, A Ship called Hope, was a failure.

But his agent claims he knew the latest book would be a success from the beginning. "I thought we were really, really on to something big. It is very rare that you have a book that appeals to different nationalities with equal excitement," he said.

The financial windfall came at an opportune time for the struggling writer. He had given up his job and moved to a small cottage in France to write a novel, but was facing financial ruin.

Now he will receive several million pounds in book advances. But the incredible success of Nicholas Evans' debut novel The Horse Whisperer, currently being filmed by Robert Redford, suggests he could make far more.

Mr Hill was coy about the possibility of The Lazarus Child following a similar path, but he did admit: "Film rights are buzzing too but nothing is settled yet."

The Lazarus Child follows a string of debut novels which have made their authors instant millionaires.

Last year, The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy, a 42-year-old London-based journalist, became America's first "million-dollar novel" when three of America's most powerful publishing companies fought for the North American rights.

In the same year, Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, received world wide advances totalling over pounds 1m.

But the potential film deal is even more lucrative. The last couple of years have seen a staggering number of record breaking deals as film producers seeks to turn bestselling books into equally successful films.

John Grisham is the best known member of this "multi-million club". He recently signed an $8m deal for his book The Runaway Jury, tipped to be match his previous blockbusters, The Client and The Firm.

But British authors are not far behind. Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer was the first to break into this exclusive market. His novel was the focus of a fierce bidding war, eventually won by Robert Redford for pounds 2m: at the time, it was only half-finished.

Perhaps even more astounding was the case of Philip Kerr from Wimbledon, west London. His first attempt at fiction, Gridiron, about a building which takes revenge on its occupants, merited a $1m advance.

On the strength of this, Tom Cruise paid pounds 1m for a 10-page summary of his next book. The author was quoted as saying; "Now I've just got to start writing it."

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