Tuesday, May 05, 2009

One More Boston Moment

I don't mean to become hyper-focused on the local - not that there is anything wrong with that - but here's what happened: I had to leave my apartment early this morning so I did not get to read the Boston Globe, as I usually do. (Yes, I'm one of the mere 300k + who still have a home subscription to this paper.) So I missed something pretty big on the front page.

Yes, the Globe put this article about 29 year old debut novelist Rief Larsen, who is now preparing for the publication of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. Front page. Admittedly, Larsen's from the Boston area and the Globe loves hometown kids, but he's in Brooklyn now, like every other under 40 novelist, right? But it's quite amazing to see this coverage on the front page.

Though the point of the article is the cleverness of this book, with all the marginalia involved - "exploded hyper-text" - it also has quite a bit on the money involved in this publishing deal, as well.
In addition to selling US rights to Penguin Press in last year's bidding war, Larsen's agent, Denise Shannon, has secured separate deals - with separate advances - with publishers in two dozen other countries. Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter, reported that Penguin advanced Larsen roughly $900,000; Penguin will only confirm the advance was in the high six figures.

"I thought it was a unique, very highly original debut novel of a new voice," says Penguin president Ann Godoff. "He really was the auteur of this book with all of its moving parts and pieces. The uniqueness of that made me very excited to edit it and publish it."

Boston literary agent John Taylor Williams is surprised Penguin's advance was for US rights only. "That would have been in the top 10 percent of deals if it were a world deal," says Williams, who is also a Larsen family friend. "Usually a book gets foreign rights after it's a bestseller in the United States. It could be the story of the year, to get this amount of money for an unknown author for a complex book and to get this many licenses before it's published."

A typical advance for a first novel is less than $50,000, says Jim Milliot, senior editor at Publishers Weekly. He estimates Penguin must sell at least 150,000 copies to earn back its advance. "A good first novel will sell 50,000," he says. "People would sign up for another one if it sold 50,000."

With only 10 percent of books earning their advance, Larsen professes a belief in modest expectations. Godoff insists it is unfair to encumber Larsen with the burden of their investment in him. "The marketplace made that decision," she says.

Someone did well by this young Larsen. And Godoff refuses to hold him accountable to the advance. Well done!

Sometimes a novelist gets big attention because her or his book is a local dark horse, but other times we're just seeing good old fashioned corporate muscle. I mean, the front page. And I'm afraid this book just sounds like an irritating schtick, clever for clever's sake. But the article gives some insight into how it got this much power behind it. The most telling aspect perhaps is that the author has Boston's most high powered agent as a "family friend."

Let's not be too naive, but let's also keep myths from developing here. The book was kind of meant to be, set up to succeed, so if it does, I don't want to see the stories calling *this* one a dark horse.

And I say all that wishing young Mr. Larsen only the best.

PS (added morning after initial post): This seems unnecessarily bitter. I fear I'm smearing the author's name and work unduly just because he has one of the biggest, most powerful publishers and that's not fair. I have not read the book and I should therefore withhold judgement and focus on the fact that a book, a li'l old, old-fashioned, printed up book, got front page coverage. That's good news! -Brian

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