Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

First round picks...and busts

Was thinking today how much two of my favorite icons -- Dan Marino and John Grisham -- have in common. Stay with me on this.

I love the NFL. And because pre-season doesn't start for a couple months yet, I -- like many football geeks -- resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Heisman god QB Matt Leinart go No. 1 or will the raw Vince Young leapfrog over him? Will my Dolphins go for a beefy safety or a WR so Culpepper has someone to throw to?

Yeah, I know. I need a life.

But sports section devoured and in need of something loftier, I turned to the Arts section of today's New York Times. There I read about Charles Frazier's upcoming book. You remember Frazier. He's the fellow who scored big with his debut novel "Cold Mountain." It was a critical darling, won the National Book Award and was a surprise bestseller.

Right after his big splash, Frazier chucked his agent and editor at Grove/Atlantic and on the basis of a one-page outline, sold his SECOND book at auction for $8 million to Random House. "Thirteen Moons" is set to come out this October. It is another epic love story set in the 19th-century South. Random House "is betting that readers who made 'Cold Mountain' such a hit will do it again for 'Thirteen Moons.'"

I gotta wonder. Is Random House making a shaky bet on a future prospect?

Sure, Frazier has a track record. But it was just one book. And this is literary fiction. Plus it's been 10 years between books. And $8 million is a lot of shekels for one book. Does Frazier have the arm to score another touchdown? Have his fans left the stadium? Is this going to be another one of those expensive busts we read about at the end of the year in Publishers Weekly that will make it tougher for Random Houses lesser lights? Wouldn't it be wiser to maybe trade down, and use all that money to build a couple of steady talents with potential?

Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses.

Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn't sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O'Brien.

Now let's look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book "A Time To Kill" while working fulltime as a lawyer. You can read about that part in this interview. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. "Everybody said no," he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold "A Time to Kill" to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them from Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, "The Firm." But then a bootlegged manuscript of "The Firm" surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: "Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it."

But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.

Publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a photogenic face and a "media platform" any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?

No one talking about the NFL draft really has any idea what they're talking about. No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who's going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who -- despite all the money they throw around -- is going to be the next John Twelve Oaks.

The people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they'll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they'll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.

So will Charles Frazier bring home the Lombardi again for RH? Or will he just be this year's David Guterson? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I'd be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with -- as the sports cliche goes -- a good upside. But what do I know?

When it comes to finding a winner, in the end sometimes it's just plain, blind, dumb luck.

12 Comments:

Blogger Mark Terry said...

Nice post. Yes, I wonder. Especially given that "Cold Mountain," the movie didn't exactly tear up the screen, suggesting people weren't really all that interested.

$8 million. That suggests, what? If it's a hard/soft deal, let's be really low-end and say they're going to sell 1,000,000 copies in hardcover. (I don't believe it, but let's go ahead and say it). So at $25 a copy, we can chip $2,500,000 off the advance, leaving us with:

$5,500,000.

How many paperbacks does he have to sell to earn that back?

Let's give ourselves an easy number, say the mass market paperback's going to run a flat $8, just to keep it simple, and let's really be generous and say he's going to get 70 cents out of each paperback he sells. So, in order to earn out the remaining $5.5 million, he needs to sell...

work with me here,


okay, my math is iffy, but I think he would have to sell about 7,857,142 in paperback to earn back the rest of the advance.

1,000,000 in hardcover
7,857,142 in mass market paperback

I'm really skeptical. Maybe they've got a movie deal lined up and lots and lots of foreign language rights expected.

Best,
Mark Terry

4:16 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mark,
I am bad at math and even worse at book math. The NY Times article noted that the intial press run will be 750,000 copies.

And that just to cover the cost of the advance, "the publisher — which will receive about half the $25.95 cover price of each book sold — will have to sell at least 625,000 copies. To cover marketing, printing and other overhead costs, it would have to sell even more."

Ironically, Frazier's first publisher Grove/Atlantic has the paperback rights.

Lots of trees will die for this puppy to live.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

I come at this as a horseracing fan. The sheiks of Dubai and Coolmore Stud just fought for the privilege to pay 16 million dollars for an unraced two-year-old colt. How can they possibly make that money back? Yes, the horse is well-bred, and these days, horseracing is more "race to breed" rather than "breed to race". The highest-earning racehorse ever was Cigar, who won a little over nine million. (He was a dud at stud.) Even if this colt lived a long life as a productive stallion, it would still be a huge gamble. Although, if he won a couple of stakes races (and that's a big "if"), with his breeding, he'd probably sell at stud for 50 million.

Big gamble, but with Sheik Mohammed and the Coolmore people, it's more about the splash and the power than a return on the investment.

Random House probably loves looking like a player. They get lots of hype for this deal. Natch, the books won't make back the money, and there won't be a backlist. I think, though, the movie deals and and ancillary rights are where they might make the money back, just like in horseracing.

That's why horseracing has turned into "run him two years and retire him to stud". It's not about horse-racing, it's about breeding. And I'm guessing that in this instance, it's not about books at all.

Am I making any sense?

10:48 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Carson,
You make perfect sense and it is as good an analogy as I've seen. I think you are right in that RH is still the Big Dog and wants to stay there, even if it is only in perception. (I believe RH has the most bestsellers every year).

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Carson,
I like that. Yeah, I suppose you can't get past that aspect of any business, the cachet, "player" or I've-got-the-biggest-cojones thing. I wonder if that works on an editorial basis, too. There certainly seem to be some editors--and definitely some agents--that work on that "I'm a player" level. But how do the editors keep their jobs if they don't turn in a profit, at least some of the time?

Of course, the buzz helps with all the subsidiary sales. The movie people will take a look, and since there's already been a movie made, some producer will think Frazier's "bankable," and that'll help all the foreign publishers pony (get it, I'm tying it into your analogy:)) up money for next year's "hot new book."

Still, seems like a gamble.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Mark - pony! Too funny!

I was told, too, they always make deals appear bigger than they actually are. They include all the bonuses and escalators in the "package". I guess it's a form of "making your own news". Hype it up enough, and you have a much better chance of making back your investment, or at least making everybody believe you're The Big One, as Kris said.

Infamy works well, too. Look at the amazon numbers of anyone who has been a bad boy (Frey) or sues somebody famous, and they go through the roof on the day it all comes down.

J Carson (who shouldn't be so darn cynical)

3:41 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

"one page outline"
~faints dead away~

6:42 AM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

Ha, John Twelve Oaks. Is that an intential MI mall reference? As a University of Michigan football fan, the story of Tom Brady is a neat one. Poor Tom was stuck on the bench while the superstar Drew Henson did his business.

But then Henson took a million dollar deal to go play baseball and left UM in the lurch. Brady stepped up and made his talent known. And Drew Henson, what ever became of him?

I think all of these QBs who went up through the trenches like Marino, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner are some of the most humble and generous guys in the league because they didnt buy into all of the hype BS.

They know how fleeting it is and how grounded to reality they are. Same with Grisham and other writers who came up the hard way.

And there's no way in hell that book is going to make its money back and it will be one of those stories everybody reads about as a cautionary tale.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Bryan D. Catherman said...

What a great write up. But even with all this chatter, one question has not been answered: What kind of ball handler is Grisham?

7:31 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I was reading an interesting report today published a couple years ago by the Authors Guild about the sad state for midlist authors. It talked about Frazier's "Cold Mountain" debut and what it meant for his publisher.

An event like "Cold Mountain" -- a literary book that was bought relatively cheaply (rumors say he got 100Gs...not cheap by any standard but still cheap relative to its success) is the Big Ball Lotto dream of all publishers. Why? Because they acquire it for little investment, it takes off on its own (again, little marketing investment) and then makes a ton of profit.

The problem, as you can see, is with Frazier's second book which comes saddled with a huge price tag and huge expectations.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Foiled again.

I'll have to scrap my current project, a novel about an unlucky proctologist.

Frazier stole my title.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

Eight million? I was going to say you would never see the NFL gamble like that and the salary cap protects the teams, but Alex Smith has twenty-seven million of the Niners' money, guaranteed. That can't be just for one book, can it?

I just deleted ten paragraphs about being a draft geek before posting it on my blog, because I knew I couldn't make it accessible to non-draft geeks, and not only do you make a great one, but you tie it into the world of publishing.

"Green" is too understated a word for how envious I am right now. More like a dark jade and Miami will take the speedster Santonio Holmes if he's still there. Otherwise they will take Chad Jackson to go on the other side of Chris Chambers.

7:46 AM  

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