Today marks the release of Matthew Thomas’s 640-page debut novel We Are Not Ourselves, a sprawling Irish-American family epic that has been garnering major buzz because of its big price tag: according to Page Six the book “got more than a $1 million advance in North America, and closed a six-figure UK deal at the London Book Fair.” Not too shabby, Matthew Thomas! But the question is: do big advances always herald big books? Here’s a look at a few debut novels that earned huge advances — and how they fared once they made it out into the real world.
Destiny, Sally Beauman, 1987 ($1 million advance)
Surprise, surprise: sex sells. Beauman’s first novel, a steamy romance that includes diamonds worn in interesting places, broke the record for biggest advance for a debut when it was snapped up by Bantam in 1985 — the book only half finished at the time. Well, they knew what they were doing: the book debuted at #6 on the bestseller list a week before its publication and also went on to become an international bestseller.
The Day After Tomorrow, Allan Folsom, 1993 ($2 million advance)
Folsom’s debut thriller — a 937-page manuscript — was immediately snapped up by publishers, garnering him a huge advance, especially for the ’90s. It debuted at #3 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and was reviewed in the LA Times by Robert Ward, who wrote, “It would take something twisted, wild, ambitious, unputdownable and outrageous simply to compete with his own hype… Let me put it this way: I started The Day After Tomorrow yesterday at two in the afternoon, and finished reading it, my eyes bleeding, at 3 a.m.” The book stayed on the bestseller list for months, and Folsom went on to write other bestsellers. The movie you’re thinking of, however, is unrelated.
The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter, 2002 ($4.2 million advance in two-book deal)
This Yale Law professor received a frankly bonkers advance for his first novel and the promise of a second. Though not everyone loved the thriller, it sold some 350,000 hardcover copies in its first year. Worth the millions? Who knows, but certainly not a flop.
The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru, 2002 (£1.25 million advance)
Kunzru’s debut novel got good reviews, but didn’t get close to earning out that massive advance. Luckily, it did help build him a top-notch literary reputation that has carried through today.
The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason, 2002 ($1.2 million advance)
Mason was 26 when his historical debut novel was published. It became a national bestseller, but more importantly, it is becoming a Werner Herzog film.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, Gordon Dahlquist, 2006 ($2 million advance in two-book deal)
Great title, but extremely disappointing sales for this steampunky thriller. According to some sources, the book only sold 22,000 copies of a 120,000 print run, losing its publisher Bantam Books some $851,500. The sequel was published in 2008, but likely didn’t make more than a dent in that debt.
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell, 2009 ($1 million advance)
The $1 million Harper‘s paid for the rights to publish Littell’s first novel in the US should have been a relatively safe bet (as safe as a thousand-page novel can ever be). After all, the book was originally published in France in 2006, where it sold 700,000 copies and won the Prix Goncourt. But then again, the book is sort of difficult. At the Times, Motoko Rich describes it as “a fictionalized memoir of a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.” Michiko Kakutani hated it, and so did a lot of other people — but the book had its champions in the states as well. Still, the book did badly in the US, selling only 17,000 copies of a 150,000 print run in the first four months. Well, the publishers can still use them as paperweights.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach, 2011 ($650,000 advance)
By all accounts, this was a winner, named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times, shortlisted for the Guardian first book prize, considered (though it seems plans fell through) for an HBO series. It sold 117,954 hardcover copies in 2011, which wins back that advance several times over.
This Is How It Ends, Kathleen McMahon, 2012 (£600,000 advance)
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, 2013 ($1 million advance)
Kent’s novel, about the last woman to be publicly beheaded in the 19th century, not only sold lots of copies (five months after its publication it was sitting third on the Nielsen Bookscan list of national bestsellers, after books by J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown) but was optioned by Hunger Games producer Allison Shearmur. Not bad for a 27-year-old debut author.