Been There, Been That

By John Gilstrap

I’ll be honest: This is not the blog entry I’d intended to write, but given the posts over the last two days, inspiration struck while I wasn’t looking.

I think Ol’ Cap’n Sully is worth every dime of the $3.2 mill his agent was able to squeeze out of William Morrow. He’s worth twice that if that’s what Morrow was willing to pay. That’s how the game works. Agents pitch books, publishers make offers and authors accept or decline. I know for a fact that if Pinnacle, my current publisher, had offered ten thousand dollars more than they did for my next book, I would have accepted it. Ditto a hundred thousand or a million or even five million. I’d be out of my mind not to. I’d expect nothing less (more?) from someone as sharp as Sully.

I think Mark Combes had it right in his reply to Michelle’s post yesterday. Publishing is not a zero sum game. The fact that Sully got big bucks does not mean that someone else won’t. I heard on the news yesterday that Crown is paying $7 million for President Bush (43)’s book on his most important decisions. That’s $10.3 million in a single day from two different publishers. Will they earn out? I’m betting they come close, but I’m sure that from the authors’ perspectives it doesn’t matter.

I’m equally sure that as authors competing for shelf space in the same stores, it’s none of our business. I find the sniping about such things off-putting.

Fourteen years ago, I had the honor to be one of the seven-figure first-novel news items. After decades of writing for my desk drawer, I’d achieved my lifelong dream–in spades. I think I’ve written in this space before about the thrill I feel being in the company of writers, of calling myself a member of the club that I’ve always dreamed of joining.

Unfortunately, my newsmaking advance barred my immediate entry to the club because I was assumed by some of my “colleagues” at the time to be a talentless hack who happened to bamboozle gullible publishers (23 of them worldwide) out of money that they could never earn back. Because I hadn’t paid my dues, some of the authors I admired most wouldn’t even speak to me.

Most notably, I was in New York attending an event when a well-respected midlist mystery writer introduced me to one of the Great Names as “John Gilstrap, the guy who made X on his first novel.” The Great Name glanced at my outstretched hand and walked away.

Even though all of these authors understood how the game is played, their prejudice (jealousy is too loaded a word, and is too self-elevating) was focused on me—not on my agent and not on the publisher, but on me. I guess no one wants to burn bridges with agents or publishers. I have it on good authority that my advance in and of itself made NATHAN’S RUN dead on arrival as a possible nominee for a first-novel Edgar Award. (I’m not saying that I would have won, or even should have; only that I was told that the fix was in from the beginning.) That’s tough stuff.

As for there being no zero sum game, I think it’s interesting to note that one of the popular and woefully underpaid writers at the time—and one who always treated me very well, in fact took me under his wing—recently signed a reported $10 million book contract. Good for him.

Every year brings a new crop of newsmaking advances. Some of the recipients are celebrities, some of them are short-term headline darlings cashing in, and some of them are real authors beginning what they hope will be a long career. Each of these newly-anointed rich folks triggers a new round of behind-the-back sniping. I understand where it comes from, but I can’t bring myself to participate. Been there, been that.

9 thoughts on “Been There, Been That

  1. I agree with you, John. Captain Sully is as entitled to write as anyone else in the world, and he should get all the money he can for his efforts–especially when the airlines are too strapped to pay pilots what they’re worth for flying us in their airplanes, as seems to be more and more the case these days. Captain Sully is my personal hero, by the way, and I totally hope all pilots are as good as he is. (Aside to Captain Sully if he ever reads this blog: Hi Captain! Way to go on that river landing, btw!! You totally rock!) As a reader, I would be much more likely to pick up a thriller involving a tense cockpit drama by Captain Sully than a book of poetry. Just saying. But a memoir, by him–yes.

    Regarding your larger point about advances not taking away from other authors–that must also be very true, John. I’ve not stood at the mountaintop to be able to appreciate that perspective yet (grin), but hope to be able to, one day soon!

  2. Yes. People are still free to enter into contracts (AIG notwithstanding) so the money paid is up to the one with the money. It’s a risk, of course, for both sides. Esp. with fiction.

    We should hope for success for the parties, because then there’s more money to spread around.

    Snubs like the one John writes about always fascinate me. I see stuff like that and go re-read the chapter called “Jealousy” in Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

  3. What John, no haiku?
    I have no problem with huge advances per se – when a writer who has been toiling away on a manuscript for years gets a seven figure deal, I say more power to him. Those are, after all, writers. Prior to this week, I very much doubt Captain Sully ever referred to himself as an author (I also doubt he’ll be writing the memoir himself-with this sort of deal, a ghost-writer is generally a necessity.

    My argument was against the publishing industry glomming on to the media obsession du jour and throwing money at them.
    Presidential memoirs are a very different beast-they tend to consistently sell well, since leading the free world for eight years should arguably produce a few good anecdotes.

    Imagine how many new careers could have been launched for that amount of money, how many writers could have seen their dreams come true the way yours did. That’s the sad thing.

  4. Michelle, I tend to lean your way on this. But I also believe that we should never begrudge a fellow writer for his or her success. If we were all writing the exact same book, then we could compare advances, sales, etc. The good news here is that deals like Capt. Sully and Bush have made is proof that the industry is alive and well. We should all take that as a promising sign.

  5. Me? I just want to become the media obsession du jour. Or at least get paid like one. Then I hope the media mispells my name, in the announcements, not on my check, so that when I got to those parties like John talked about I can say, “Huh? That ain’t me.”

  6. John, thanks for coming to my defense. I thought I might get banned for life – although I have a pretty good idea where Joe Moore lives so watch out bub….

    Anyway, we are seeing a lot of “class envy” floating around these days. Hate to see it. I want everyone to succeed. Even pilots with questionable writing chops.

    And Michelle, I can understand your argument. That a lot of great authors (such as yourself) could get a pretty nice boost with that dough. But remember, as much as we love books and words and authors, publishing is a business and publishers are in it to make money. So them glomming onto the flavor of the month might make my eye twitch, I understand that they are trying to capitalize on the market. And perhaps if Sully’s book of poetry goes orbital there is more cash in the kitty for those struggling thriller writers trying to break into the biz.

  7. You mean, if Sully’s successful I may not have to do the hairy streaker version of “Snakes On A Plane”?


    It’s metaphorical….

    the size of the snake is totally in your mind…..

    Show, Don’t Tell

  8. I’m not bothered by the fact someone else is getting a huge advance. At least you know the publishers have enough money to do that, which means they aren’t so likely to go under in this horrible economy.

    @ Mark Combes:
    I’m ok with pilots and questionable writing background, but if that includes people who write their entire novel in one solid block of text, or anything written in chat speak…count me out. >.<

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