The writer of A Suitable Boy is proving to be a rather unsuitable man for his publishers right now.
According to a report on Tuesday on the Mumbai Mirror website, author Vikram Seth has been asked to return the staggering $1.7 million (around Rs.10.4 crore) advance he was paid to write the sequel to his acclaimed 1993 best-seller after he failed to meet the June 2013 submission deadline. The new novel is scheduled to appear later this year.
Seth’s publisher, Penguin’s Hamish Hamilton imprint, which is now part of the recently merged Penguin Random House, is in negotiations with his agent, David Godwin, on this matter. A final decision was yet to be reached at the time of writing this article.
Whether or not Seth is forced to return the advance, the crisis turns our attention to some disturbing aspects of the modern publishing machinery. Unlike the olden days, when the life of a writer was supposed to be all want and hardship, contemporary publishing has changed the ethos of the writerly life. A six-figure advance, once unthinkable, is a common feature of the industry now, with sums reaching astonishing heights for the more successful names. In 2009, Scribner paid $5 million to Audrey Niffenegger for her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. Amitav Ghosh was reportedly paid Rs.44 lakh by Penguin Books India for his ongoing trilogy.
While higher advances ensure a better quality of life for those who have embraced writing as a full-time career, the figures can look deceptively large when flashed as newspaper headlines. A book usually takes several years to complete, unless you are churning out a quickie, and if you have nothing but the advance to depend on to finish it, then even supposedly handsome sums may feel stretched beyond a point. Take away the agent’s commission and taxes, and what you are left with may be just enough to pay the bills, not sponsor a glamorous lifestyle.
Not many are aware that advances are paid in instalments—usually half at the time of signing, and the rest in two equal instalments, on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, and at the time of publication. Increasingly, ever-smaller initial advances are being paid out, as low as one-fifth of the promised figure. Then there is the dreaded “delivery and acceptance” clause in most contracts—which, though seldom invoked, gives the publisher the right to reject a manuscript if it does not meet their editorial standards. In that case, the author has to return the advance he or she was paid. Writing is an unpredictable activity, happening often in fits and starts, and not always sticking to a fixed timeline. Even those who sit down every morning to get through a fixed quota—1,000 words by lunchtime—may end up with a poor 80,000-word manuscript in spite of their rigorous regime.
The chief problem with advances is that they are rarely indicators of an author’s true genius. The publishing industry, like any other profit-making business, evaluates the worth of authors on the basis of their sales history or projected sales figures. In India, writers who churn out bilge usually end up getting the heftiest deals from their publishers. Feted and lauded by a majority of readers who seek easy gratification from books, these writers, like rock stars, command an enviable fan following, and make millions through advance, royalty, and endorsement deals. Fortune favours them not because of their deathless prose but because of their ability to intuit the pulse of their target readership. All of which is fine, since publishers have to make their margins in order to sustain their business and indeed, to be able to publish serious (and less read) genres like literary fiction and non-fiction. The trouble is not with making money but turning money into a marker of quality.
Publishers are also to blame for setting up unrealistic expectations by paying absurdly high advances which are seldom recovered from the sales of a book. Such transactions merely end up creating a cult around authors whose reputations are built more on the basis of their monetary value than their intrinsic creative merit. The hype around these authors usually results in sales, though there may be rude shocks along the way. In 2009, Penguin Books India paid an advance of Rs.35 lakh to first-time author Sarita Mandanna for her novel Tiger Hills, which proved to be a flop. At the other extreme, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as a self-published e-book, became one of the biggest money spinners in contemporary publishing, reportedly earning as much as £52,000 (around Rs.47.3 lakh) a day at one point.
The more prudent thing perhaps is to pay modest advances and hope for steady sales that will ensure regular royalty cheques to authors. Publishing has always been a gamble of sorts, dictated as it is by the whimsy of what qualifies as public taste at a given point in time. Even seasoned practitioners of the trade have had to eat humble pie every once in a while.