Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Little, Brown Wolf(e)

Publishing is a business. If we needed a reminder of that, the news on Wednesday that Tom Wolfe will be leaving his long-term publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, served the purpose.

Wolfe, now 76, had been with FSG for 42 years--since his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was released in 1965.

He's moving to Little, Brown and Co., a division of French publisher Hachette Livre.

So why would a writer suddenly pick up and leave a publisher he'd been with for more than half his life?

The answer can be found in his last book: the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons released in 2004. FSG lost money on the book, which was described by the press as a critical and commercial diappointment. In a blistering review on 11/14/04, The Chicago Sun-Times said:

At 74, Tom Wolfe has become an old fart. The worst kind of old fart, too: a right-wing scold, a moralizing antique, William Bennett in an ice-cream suit . . . It has been a long time since I have brought such high expectations to such a painfully disappointing novel.

In an article this past Wednesday The New York Times explained the numbers this way:

According to Nielsen BookScan, which represents about 70 percent of book sales, “I am Charlotte Simmons” sold 293,000 copies in hardcover and 138,000 copies in paperback. When Farrar, Straus published the novel, it announced a first-print run of 1.5 million hardcover copies. Although such numbers tend to be inflated, a more realistic print run of about 800,000 far outstripped sales of the book. It also far undersold “A Man in Full,” which sold about 1.1 million copies in hardcover.

So, when Wolfe and his agent Lynn Nesbitt came back to the table to negotiate the advance for his upcoming novel, Back to Blood, an exploration of class, race and corruption in Cuban Miami, due to be released next year, FSG balked at ponying up the $5 million advance Wolfe wanted. Jonathan Galassi, publisher of FSG, said, "We just couldn't agree on terms."

Little, Brown was willing to fork over an advance in the range of $7 million so Wolfe et al picked up their marbles and decamped.

As I said at the outset, publishing is a business. If you accept an advance based on anticipated sales, you'd damn well better deliver--no matter how famous you are.

If you need further proof, read this post of mine dated 11/8/05 here.

It's all in the numbers.


Peter L. Winkler said...

It's an irrational business when it comes to the brand name writers or literary celebrities like Wolfe. His last two novels had disappointing sales. You'd think that he'd be hard pressed to get a good offer, but along comes Little, Brown throwing good money after FSG's bad.

Publishing is like the movie business. They bank on stars, even when stars' books/movies tank, because they don't know what else to do. Wolfe is one of the last of a group of literary celebrities. Capote and Mailer are dead, Gore Vidal is elderly and unwell, Vonnegut just died.

John Arkwright said...

I did not hear that "Charlotte Simmons" was a failure. I just read it and liked it. As someone who is around college students, I found it a reasonable portrayal of how personal morals tend to be reduced to the lowest common denominator on campus.

No characters in CS "preached" in favor of morality, except the rustic Tennesee mom and dad, who were terse in the extreme. No characters "preached" against morality, either.

In my view, the reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times has not seen a lot of college campuses. Or perhaps the reviewer is in favor of the regression to the lowest common denominator and prefers a romanticized view, such as in Pleasantville, as opposed to Wolfe's realistic view.

CS was, to sexual license, what Trainspotting was to drug use.