SEX AND VIOLINS
Oct 20, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 06 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Click. Paul Bogaards, Knopf promotion director, hung up on me.
His answer, of sorts, to this question about Knopf author Anne Rice's latest novel, Violin, her 18th: "The announced first printing of Violin was 750,000. Now it's down to 400,000. What happened there?"
For the vast majority of authors, an initial print run of 400,000 would be cause for celebration. But Anne Rice, the queen of neo-Gothic horror fiction, with worldwide sales of over 100 million books, does not belong to the vast majority. With Grisham, Crichton, Clancy, and King, she belongs to the most exclusive club in popular fiction, a bankable brand whose name alone guarantees huge advances, first printings, and sales. She is the author of two hugely successful series of supernatural fiction, the Vampire Chronicles (five books) and the Lives of the Mayfair Witches (three books), as well as several books of historical fiction. Under the pen names Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure, she has written hardcore S/M pornography and softer erotica for more restricted markets (and advances).
According to published reports and her own coy admission last year on The Charlie Rose Show, Anne Rice's current three-book contract with Knopf is worth $ 26 million. Let's do some quick-and-dirty, dumb-guy math. Assume the entire print run (but no more) sells out. Four hundred thousand copies times the (rounded up) sales price of $ 26 per copy equals $ 10.4 million. The standard author's royalty on the sales (15 percent) comes out to $ 1.56 million.
But, assuming a three-book $ 26 million deal, Knopf is paying her at a rate of $ 8.6 million per book. In this (ultra-simplifiied) model, she is being paid 5.5 times the market value for this book. This model excludes many revenue streams (book-club sales, pre-sold paperback and foreign rights, etc.) and all costs beyond the author's advance (manufacturing, distribution, advertising, overhead, the booksellers' 50 percent share of sales, and returns). But this book would need to sell in the vicinity of 2 million copies to "earn back" the author's advance.
It is way too soon to pronounce Violin a vampiric, profit-leeching fiasco. Ultimately, readers will decide after the book goes on sale October 31, and Rice's are legendarily devoted. But there are some bad omens:
The discrepancy between announced first printing (recorded on the cover of the advance proof) and the actual print order is unusually large, even allowing for the unrealistic sales puffery commonly reflected in the announced figure. The revised print order is low, for Rice. In comparison, the first printings of her last two books were 1 million for Servant of the Bones (religio-historical fiction) and 750,000 for Memnoch the Devil (fifth in the Vampire Chronicles series), according to Knopf's associate director for publicity, Nicholas Latimer.
Publishers sell most of their books to retail chains like Barnes and Noble. "I can just tell you my buy was in line with about a 500,000 print run," says Barnes and Noble's Sessalee Hensley of her order for Violin.
The trade publications (often in the past friendly exceptions in a critical environment generally cool to Rice) have reduced Violin to splinters: "a disjointed and maudlin rumination on death, loss and rejuvenation" (Publishers Weekly); "soul mush," "dreadfully in need of a caustic edit" (Kirkus Reviews).
Violin is devoid of the Vampires, witches, and evil incubi that populate Rice's biggest sellers. "The book is not a vampire book," explains Hensley. "The witches don't sell as well as the vampires, and [historical novels] Cry to Heaven and Feast of All Saints don't backlist as well as her books in" either the vampire or the witch series.
In an interview, Knopf's Latimer wrote off the steep dive from the prospective first printing to industry-wide butterflies about falling sales, rising returns, and shrinking profits. Of course, a major source of book-biz indigestion is the mind-boggling author advances that publishers are eating. Typically cited are the lottery-winner advances for fluky, short-shelf-lived celebrities like Marcia Clark, not perennial commercial heavyweights like Rice. Her back titles sell consistently, and even if her current book is a turkey she may rebound with new titles that rival the sales of her backlist.