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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Decries Huge Advances as Damaging for Readers and Publishers Alike

     Long before the movie and sometime after we saw COLD MOUNTAIN mass displayed in every airport in the nation, Charles Frazier was “given” an eight million dollar advance after he, according to The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA), sent Random House a one page proposal for his new book, set to be released in 2005.

      Considering that Clinton received ten million from Knopf, this doesn’t seem unusually high. After all, Frazier does much more with words than tell insider secrets or expound-- text book style--on politics. That may sound judgmental, especially considering I haven’t seen Clinton’s book yet; it is just that these two scenarios are part of the reason I am ticked off about advances.

    I know that advances are only part of a big business picture. We are, after all, a free market society and publishers must make money in order to exist. We want them to do well, because we want to buy, borrow and read good books. Nevertheless, considering that a close author friend of mine just received $3,000 (got that? do the math!!) for an exquisitely written literary novel every bit as good (in my opinion) as COLD MOUNTAIN, and that another author who has written a book with an underlying theme about the lack of tolerance in America for atheists (an unpopular subject however important, however needed), these monster-advances are patently ridiculous.

     If large publishers squander all their eggs on advances and promotion for those books they are sure will sell well, they will have little left over to cultivate new artists or books that broaden literature’s themes. They, in turn, will have little to promote these books—and all of us in the industry know that precious little of that goes on! Further, no book, not even books by Hilary, her husband, or for that matter Frazier, are sure bets and it takes mind-boggling sales figures to cover whopping advances like these.

    I am not saying that Frazier’s work is not worth this kind of an advance. I am glad that someone besides Steele, Grisham, King and Rice is going to make some money. It’s a cantata to my ears that that a literary author has been recognized with cold, hard, green cash. It’s just that, if the big publishers would trim their expenditures on what they believe will be profitable ventures and put it into buying and promoting some new guys and gals, they would end up with a longer string of novelist’s names that carry the clout of the favored few; that is a long term business consideration, rather than short term, but one that is essential if books, as we have come to know them, are going to continue to be available.

     If publishers took a tiny share of the gargantuan expenditure to expose the unpopular or experimental, they could help keep alive the kind of literature (Joyce’s, as an example) that was unpopular when it was published but manages to continue to sell, sell, sell in every decade since it hit print. In either case, writers and readers would benefit. It would also—imagine this!—be good for the book biz including small, independent bookstores, chains and the publishers themselves.

  Oh, by the way. Frazier’s next book will be about a white man raised in the 19th century by Cherokee Indians. Yes, I think we should all buy it. We don’t want Random House to go broke on this book, or any other. That is what could happen if sales go down while they keep forking out dollars to appease the profit gods while neglecting their mandate by readers to find and expose great new authors and works for this and the next generation.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Café Press is a site where authors can offer promotional products printed with little or no investment. A romance author might wear T-shirts printed with hot pink to book fairs; literary authors might give mugs imprinted with their book cover art to reviewers and interviewers who, after all, deserve a little something special for helping to keep good books on the shelves at bookstores. Go to:

Readers' Tip: I’m going to tell you a secret. The blurbs that you read on the back of books are all part of the publisher’s insider’s game. If you want to know about books, go to the newsstand and choose a nice, slick magazine that uses independent reviewers who know how to give you an appraisal in 500 words or less. After all, you want to spend less time on reviews, more time reading your selection. Or, use sites like

Of course, book sections come at no additional cost with your Sunday paper. The downside is that many are so erudite or academic you’ll have to slush through 5,000 words to get an opinion. I also avoid reviews with a rundown of the plot. I’ll get that when I read the book, thank you.

2004 Past Columns

Carolyn Decries Huge Advances as Damaging for Readers and Publishers Alike

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