A pile of steaming dung: when a $ 2 million advance becomes worthless


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I’ve burbled on a few times on this blog about my dream of having a publishing contract, being given an advance of six figures, a movie deal … A poster of my face as large as the side of a fifty story building pasted across the moon so people could recognise me from earth …

Well, maybe not the last one.

I suppose I’d translated a large advance and being the subject of a bidding war into literary success, a sure fire winning combo for a solid writing career. A story I read today has made me rethink.

The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli gave City on Fire by the interestingly named Garth Risk Hallberg a scathing review. Vincentelli called the book an

Overhyped … steaming pile of literary dung.

The 900 page novel was at the centre of a bidding war some while back, which garnered the debut author $2 million – ten publishers bidding over $1 million. The book has already got a movie deal.

Now, not being familiar with the NYP, I don’t know if it makes a habit of flying in the face of accepted wisdom – I don’t know if their writers tend to be perverse for the sake of argument. I’m guessing from the shock tactics of the piece’s title, it’s not seen as a serious literary journal. Maybe one of our American cousins reading this could enligthen me.

But the book certainly hasn’t captured the readers’ imagination as the publishers will have hoped – the book was languising at number 825 in the Amazon chart as Vincentelli wrote her piece.

And although the Guardian was less scathing, admitting Hallberg was a promising talent, it did say the book was no masterpiece.

Now, first off, I’m feeling sorry for Hallberg.

Yes, he’s already earned a pile of dosh from the book. But he didn’t ask to be caught in a bidding war and the ‘genius’ of his novel was something bandied about by publishers, not him, I’m sure.

Maybe it would have been better for him if his career had a quieter start, with less fanfair, allowing his talent to gradually grow with each new book he released. 

Instead, it may have stalled before it’s properly begun. I do hope not.

And second off? Well, we all know publishers have missed signing great books because they’re hard to categorise or just plain weird – but that so many could misjudge the reading zeitgeist, leaving themselves so seriously out of pocket … That’s surprised me.

It’s made me rethink my own parameters for success. Maybe I won’t be so desperate for that six figure contract after all.















10 thoughts on “A pile of steaming dung: when a $ 2 million advance becomes worthless

    1. I haven’t read it, no. It doesn’t really appeal to me. But I do hope reviews like that one don’t affect his future. I’m sure he’s after a long and fruitful writing career, not a flash in the pan

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I received an ARC of this book and read a couple of chapters. It didn’t capture my interest none too much. I’ve heard the hype, and like most things that are hyped, I felt it underwhelmed. I’ve heard from folks who think it’s the best thing ever, and from others like me who’s response was meh. It’s still sitting on my proverbial nightstand. By proverbial I mean it sort of fell off a stack of other books and landed under the bed, where it still is. I may or may not go back to it. For reading, that is. I will eventually got it out from under the bed, I think, regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting to hear from someone who’s read it – or at least tried to! From the excerpt I heard online I wasn’t bowled over, but then it was only a snippet. Sounds as if the book would be living under my bed too, if I’d been given a copy 🙂 It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the chap’s career – and whether they bother making the movie now it’s not doing so well. Starting small is – perhaps – the way to go for longevity?


  2. To get a crock of gold at the beginning of your journey, even before the rainbow appears, sounds like the real story has never got started. Sounds like a real-life parable to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s pretty sad I think. Much better to start small. Well, at least he’s earned with his first book more than most writers earn during their whole careers. It might be som compensation. And who’s to say he won’t continue onto big successes if he does have talent. Good luck to him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, as much as I’d like to have those millions, I’d much rather make them from actual sales than an advance. Then again, if a publishing house has spent that much money on a book, they’ll presumably throw all their marketing power at it in order to make back the money… Still, they don’t always get it right. I mean, how many editors wake up every day wishing they hadn’t rejected Harry Potter?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. Their must be some recurring nightmares out their over losing HP. Let’s hope City on Fire makes its money back – for the sake of the publisher and the author. I wonder how many books you’d have to sell for the author to make $2 million from the sales? .


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