Column

So you would become a Mario Puzo, eh? First listen to this cautionary tale

Mordecai Richler October 2 1978
Column

So you would become a Mario Puzo, eh? First listen to this cautionary tale

Mordecai Richler October 2 1978

So you would become a Mario Puzo, eh? First listen to this cautionary tale

Column

Mordecai Richler

As there’s been so much publicity recently about prodigious paperback advances for undeserving writers—$1 million here, $2 million there—I think it might be helpful to get the facts straight.

To begin with, such advances against royalties are rare, exceedingly rare, and the bonanza isn’t quite what it appears to be. The one novelist in a thousand who wins a million-dollar paperback advance usually splits that sum 50-50 with his hardback publisher, cutting his take down to a still-nifty $500,000. He will now hear from bores who suddenly remember that they went to school with him. People he has never met will send him their unpublished novels and pronounce him vile if he returns them unread.

Relatives in the shoe business will phone to say they could have written a better book, if only they had the time. He will also hear from his agent, who will carve $50,000 out of the pie. The tax bite is likely to come to another $200,000, leaving the trembling writer with $200,000, which he will probably receive in four annual payments of $50,000, making him no better off than your local dentist, though more resented.

It is also worth noting that a far more commonplace paperback advance for a novel in the U.S. is likely to be $25,000 and, in this country, $2,500, with the same splits all the way down the line. The truth is, except for a very few, there is little money in good writing for either writer or publisher. Most reputable publishers, considering the average profit margin available on their capital investment in such a risky trade, would be far better off putting their money in mortgages. They would not only earn more, but would also benefit from not having to endure so many outsize egos. Outraged authors phoning them collect from an airport stopover in Saskatoon to protest that their definitive study of church architecture in 19th-century Ontario, called the book of the decade by The United Church Observer, is not on display at the kiosk like the latest Harold Robbins—and how come, you incompetent bastards? Doesn't anybody out there care about Canadian culture?

Every writer not only believes, he knows, that his publisher is working incredibly hard on everybody else’s book on the list, but is doing his utmost not to move his own book, which the publisher secretly hates. Writers are inclined to paranoia, and no wonder. A useless, lazy, and all too easily corruptible bunch, they are thoughtfully protected

from the temptations of affluence by being allotted just about the smallest chunk of the publishing dollar and even this much, grudgingly.

Look at it this way. If you don’t borrow whatever books you read or get them out of a library, if you are sufficiently demented to buy the occasional book in a bookshop for, say, $10, the price is divided thus:

That celebrated risk-taker, the bookseller, takes between 40 to 44 per cent of the money. Furthermore, he gets his books on sale-return, which means if he doesn’t sell them, he can ship them back from whence they came. If he does sell them, he will wait 90 days before paying. On the other hand, he will occasionally have you around for a booksigning party, an opportunity for him to tell you how many more customers other, better authors attracted.

The publisher’s traveller, who never reads your book lest it prejudice him against you, earns six per cent.

Twenty per cent goes into publisher’s cost and overheads, which includes an accountancy staff carefully chosen for their ability to make mistakes in royalty statements, though never in the author’s favor.

Five per cent is eaten up by promotion and advertising; this usually means a party, which enables the staff to get drunk and eat free, something no writer begrudges them because they are usually underpaid. Especially the girls.

This the cunning publisher manages by telling the girls that they are going to meet incredibly exciting people on the job, namely authors, neglecting to say that most of them are no taller than five-foot-two, suffer from bad breath, and will be expecting the girls to go to bed with them. Another 18 per cent is accounted for by manufacturing costs. Three per cent is allowed for the publisher’s profit margin, of which two per cent will be consumed by interest on outstanding loans. Ten per cent goes to the lowly author, who started it all by writing the book. Astute readers will note it makes for a total of 106 per cent, which is where the arts councils come in, riding to the rescue.

Furthermore, in this country where once or twice during his career a writer may have squeezed a grant out of the Canada Council, he is considered to be the most cozzened of creatures. This, by totally inept textile manufacturers, who couldn’t function if they weren’t protected from foreign competition by outlandishly high tariffs. Or by oilmen, denouncing writers for being on the take, themselves living in luxury on huge depreciation allowances. Or by multimillionaire manufacturers who are pursed with ransoms by Ottawa, if only they will build one of their polluting plants in a deprived area. The truth is that most Canadian writers work in a more competitive world than our sheltered businessmen. And the best are internationally competitive, which is more than I can say for most of the dolts who produce this country’s shoes, furniture, and clothing.