We just wonder sometimes if, a little like the Red Queen, we are being asked to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. Publishers claim that they're losing money but then we hear of an advance of US$8.5 million for Alan Greenspan's life, £5 million for 20-year-old footballer Wayne Rooney's memoirs, a million dollars for Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, a thousand-page opus. Ditto for the Clintons, Vikram Seth, and somewhat less to desi chick-lit (another godawful tag) newcomers Lavanya Sankaran and Kaavya Viswanathan (cancelled after her plagiarism).
So what is the average advance for a novelist? John Scalzi has his own rating scale ranging from $0 to $100,000 and above. Justine Larbalestier's survey of first-time novel advances is depressing:
1985: $2,500, $8,000
2004: $350, $10,000
Average advance: $5,920
Assuming a slump with $5,000 as the average advance for a budding writer in 2006, the million-dollar payola to Chandra means that as many as 200 new writers won't get book contracts as a result. Larbalestier concludes that "there's not a whole lot to be made writing novels. Find another way to make dosh. Personally I'd recommend plumbing."
The rationale for the big handouts? Apparently, in these days of Oprah and reality and TV, nonfiction sells. It makes so much money, sometimes four times the huge advances that they hand out, that publishers can afford to publish more fiction. Or so they say. We know that literary agents and houses are dropping their fiction lists altogether. Besides, nonfiction has taken a bad rap with the Frey, Nasdijj, and Leroy incidents (never mind the US papers' lies about the cause for war in Iraq) so what is its future?