Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Could profit sharing trump advances for rights sales?

Publisher Robert Miller, who left Hyperion to start HarperStudio earlier this year, has an intriguing post on his blog reflecting on a dinner he had at Frankfurt where it was generally agreed that Little, Brown’s $5-6 million advance or comedian Tina Fey’s as yet-entirely unwritten book was "pretty remarkable" -- which I read to mean "a mistake."

For those not familiar with Fey, she’s a former head writer for the US sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, the star and head writer of a moderately popular sitcom called 30 Rock – about a TV show much like Saturday Night Live – and has risen to A-list status only recently with her dead-on impersonation of John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

In fact, one of the joys of being in Frankfurt was a week without seeing nor hearing Palin on TV…

Miller implies of course, the big advance requires that the publisher – in the case Little, Brown – be overzealous in selling rights to foreign publishers. Some books, like Bill Clinton’s biography My Life (still among the highest advances ever – at $15 million), earn back on foreign rights sales well before a book ever appears in stores. I’m not sure anyone abroad is much aware of Fey, and surely not enough to help pay back some of that advance.

Of course, Little, Brown has done very well with comedic books from cult celebrities, such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and David Sedaris. Fey fits that mold and, provided the book is right, could be a bestseller.

What Miller wonders is whether the system can change to the benefit of both domestic and foreign publishers. He writes: “We may not be able to reduce stratospheric author advances, but can't we call a time-out with each other? What if buying and selling rights to other countries consisted completely of co-publishing or profit-sharing instead? Without the issue of money being offered up front, we could instead focus on choosing the most sympatico publisher for the book in each location.”

But I wonder one thing right up front? Doesn’t this really start somewhat earlier, with the agent and publisher in the US? I wonder how often the agent chooses the most simpatico publisher -- especially in an auction situation, such as the one that Fey’s book was in (Miller points out that he dined at Zum Storch with two other editors who had bid on the book) and so much money is involved?

1 comment:

Bob Miller said...

Unfortunately, agents and authors almost always go with the highest advance offer, no matter what the beauty contest process has been up to that point. That can be frustrating for publishers, but it's hard to blame them, since there isn't much of a difference betweeen publishers anymore--everyone publishes a little of everything--so the only distinguishing difference between offers becomes the money.