By: Jeff Herman
Let's make sure everyone knows who I'm talking about. Ms. Knox is a young and above-average looking American college student who was found guilty by an Italian jury for helping to murder her above-average looking roommate. They were both exchange students. Ms. Knox subsequently spent several years in an Italian jail, and would have remained there for many more if she had lost her appeal a few months ago. The only thing certain is that someone was brutally stabbed to death, though drug-fueled sex games gone wrong was the alleged catalyst.
Presumably, Ms. Knox's book will be a first-person narrative about everything that happened to her in Italy, and will obviously not say anything about her killing anyone, because she insists she didn't and is free as a bird. However, the Italian prosecutors might decide to try extraditing her for a retrial, so her life isn't perfectly cloudless. Will hundreds-of-thousands of Americans buy a hard cover edition of her story, in order for the publisher to recoup her advance? No body, not even the publisher, can know that until after the book is published. Then why take such a big risk, especially when so many good writers would gladly accept paltry four-figure advances?
First, the story has international appeal. It continues to be a front-page controversial issue in Italy for numerous political and prurient reasons. The victim was a British citizen of Middle Eastern-Jewish descent. Most European nations took a keen tabloid interest in the proceedings. It's possible that the book will earn more overseas than at home.
Secondly, if Ms. Knox wasn't good to look at in photos and on video, she probably would have had to settle for a six-figure advance. To date, she has been relatively under-exposed and hasn't given away the store; she has left people wanting to know more about what happened and what she's like. Upon publication, the media will be stepping all over each other for pieces of her, and she will comply for the purpose of recovering her advance and getting royalties. Will the publicity, cyber explosions, and reviews cause massive sales? Some times it does and sometimes it doesn't.
Thirdly, the large publishing companies have large infrastructures that either need to used or risk being liquidated. It seems counter-intuitive, but it's better to be visibly busy and make bad investments than to be in the background and safely profitable. If a house is known for throwing the dice, that's what industry insiders will remember. Besides, turnover is so rapid that dumb acquisitions can often be blamed on people who have moved on to do the same thing for other teams.
Fourthly. Even if a seven-figure book fails, it might end up becoming a cash cow reprint forever, and recoup the initial costs many times over for teams that couldn't even tell you what the book is about without reading the catalog copy. Big publishing companies are big because of the revenues generated by their non-glamorous back-lists. Front-list acquisitions are what keeps everyone busy while bleeding red ink that gets cleaned up by the back-list. If a portion of the front-list goes on to feed the back-list, costly hubris can be charged off. In fact, a high profile front-list can be seen as part of the overall marketing budget for bolstering the firm's standing in the industry, as opposed to an activity that needs to be profitable in and of itself.
Fifthly. It's a lot easier to publish a few high-end new books than dozens or hundreds of low-end new books. Think about all the calls, emails, meetings and logistical tasks that can be consolidated into a tight handful of commitments. There are unsaid reasons why mere mortals might prefer to squash resources into fewer and fewer acquisitions.