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Big Advances Worry Publishing Industry

June 29, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Publishing insiders winced Thursday over reports of $20 million and $12 million advances for embryonic books that are barely a gleam in the authors’ eyes.

British novelist Jeffrey Archer, who wrote the 1982 saga ″Kane and Abel,″ is ironing out a deal for two novels and a book of short stories.

Archer, who hopes to announce early next week which of five suitors he has chosen, said he turned down $20 million about two months ago from a U.S. publishing house offering world rights, excluding Britain and Japan.

English writer Ken Follett, author of ″The Eye of the Needle″ and ″On Wings of Eagles,″ signed a contract this week with Dell Publishing Co. that pays him a reported $12.3 million, in advance, for two more books.

″It’s distressing that at a time when it appeared the advances publishers were going to be paying were more in line with the authors’ sales, an auction as spectacular as yesterday’s would occur,″ said Pocket Books President Jack Romano.

Simon & Schuster, the parent of Pocket Books, reportedly dropped out of the Follett competition before the bidding reached $10 million.

″The difference in opinion between the competing publishers in this particular case was extremely wide in terms of the potential of the two books,″ said Romano.

″If the winning publisher turns out to be right, they’ll obviously be smarter than all of us,″ he said. ″Or, it says publishers are still willing to risk large write-offs in order to move authors from one publishing house to another. Or maybe both.″

Often, the balance sheet has become the bottom line in what Random House executive Peter Osnos has described as ″a season of anxiety in publishing.″

Simon & Schuster posted pretax losses of $140 million; the chairman of Doubleday was forced out because of financial problems; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich borrowed $3 billion to fend off a takeover.

Such cold facts have caused employee layoffs, fewer titles for the public and smaller advances for authors - usually.

Unlike Stephen King, who is said to be guaranteed $35 million to $40 million in his latest, four-book contract, advances for most authors do not exceed five figures.

These days, publishing is like movie-making, Follett’s agent, Al Zuckerman, told The New York Times. ″There are only a handful of big names who are guaranteed to sell books.″

Dell President Carole Baron called the deal with Follett a ″prudent investment″ that would make money for the company. She expects to publish Follett’s first book in 1993.

Baron would not confirm the price, but said it included hardcover and paperback rights for the United States and Canada.

Follett still has another novel to complete under a contract to William Morrow & Co. for hardcover and Penguin Books in paperback. It was reported that, like Pocket, Penguin also dropped out of the latest bidding war at $10 million.

The $12 million ″is considerably more than we offered, but we won’t know for years who is right,″ said Peter Mayer, chief executive of Penguin U.S.A.

By one estimate, Follett’s next publisher will have to sell 350,000 hardcover copies and more than 2 million paperbacks of each novel, just to break even, The Wall Street Journal said.

Publishing executives said Follett’s books usually sell about 250,000 hard- cover copies and 1 million to 2 million paperbacks. His latest novel, ″The Pillars of the Earth,″ published by Morrow, sold more than 330,000 hardcover copies. The paperback edition is to be published soon.

Asked why Dell had such confidence in Follett’s sales potential, Ms. Baron told the Times: ″Maybe it’s eternal hope, or the passion of the day. But at all levels, when an author changes houses, you often see an injection of enthusiasm and increased sales.″

DT

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