Failed Books

by F.

Publishers Weekly has a short piece on some of 2006’s big loser books—those ones where the author gets an $800,000 advance and then the book sells, like, 5,000 copies. Sure, the publisher may make it up in the long run. But still. It shows you how much of a crapshoot this business can be. Some examples:

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery, by Alex Kuczynski (Doubleday, Oct.)

Maybe there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but what about too much publicity? When New York Times style reporter Kuczynski’s debut book was published, the author—who’d landed a $500,000 advance—was everywhere. The combined Rolodexes of the well-connected writer and the Doubleday publicity department landed her on The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight and NPR; and in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Elle, Glamour, Allure, People and, of course, the Times. The result of all that exposure? According to Nielsen BookScan, the book has sold 6,000 copies so far. That works out to one copy for every $83 of Kuczynski’s advance.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth (HarperCollins, Nov. 2005; paperback June 2006)

Seth isn’t your typical blockbuster-writing author: he wrote his first novel, The Golden Gate, in verse; his second, A Suitable Boy, ran nearly 1,400 pages. A third, An Equal Music, was quieter, but his fourth book—the nonfiction work Two Lives—landed the author a roughly $2.5-million advance from Little, Brown in the UK. HarperCollins bought U.S. hardcover and paperback rights, and while the amount of that advance hasn’t been released, the house clearly had high hopes for Two LivesStateside, printing a reported 150,000 copies of the hardcover in fall 2005 (a paperback edition landed in June ’06). Sales, however, have been dismal; HarperCollins says it’s sold 20,000 copies, while Nielsen BookScan reports total sales of 6,000 copies. HarperCollins declined to comment on the 14,000-copy disparity, but whether the book sold 6,000 or 20,000 copies, it still looks like a dud.

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (Random, Oct.)

After his critical and commercial smash Cold Mountain, Frazier drew an $8-million advance from Random House for U.S. rights to his second book—the highest amount ever paid for a single novel. Random ordered a 500,000-copy first printing. As of January 22, Nielsen BookScan reported 225,000 copies sold, though Random House says total sales are closer to 300,000 copies. For most books, that would be impressive. But PW calculates that, based on standard publishing formulas, Random needs to sell about a million hardcovers and two million paperbacks to earn out its advance.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (Holt, Sept.)

It was the book everyone was talking about, and getting their hands on, at BEA. Holt, which paid a hefty $800,000 for Yale law prof Rubenfeld’s historical thriller debut, printed some 10,000 galleys and hit the publicity circuit. Despite strong early buzz and positive (if mixed) reviews, the book fell far short of expectations. Holt said it has 185,000 copies of the book in print, but Nielsen BookScan reports sales of only 26,000 copies so far. Holt will get another chance to push the title when Picador releases the paperback in June.