The last word on advances and Vikram Seth

Advances are tricky things for publishers. At Dahlia Publishing I don’t offer an advance simply because it’s a small press and there’s really no money in the bank for me to be able to invest in an author’s career by giving money up front. But conglomerate publishers have always (no matter how small, or diminishing it may be) offered advances. It’s called an advance because you get part of the money while you’re still writing the book before you’ve sold a single copy.

Writers are given a contract of agreement once they are signed to a publisher, this usually takes place once the publisher (or the editor of said department) has read their manuscript, absolutely loves it and makes the decision to publish. An advance forms part of this contract. It’s a legal obligation between two parties – the author and the publisher. There’s an advance clause detailing the sum offered, the time scale when it will be paid (on signature, delivery and publication usually). Advances are earned,  off set against future sales, and royalties are only paid to an author once they’ve earned their advance. Should a book not sell well, the publisher loses out. There’s an element of risk but one that usually pays off for the publisher (especially when they are putting their money behind a best selling writer who will sell millions of books).

It seems that no such terms apply to big name authors. And in the case of Vikram Seth the publishers have taken on more risk than they initially thought. Seth’s name was splashed across the global media earlier this Summer for not having written his book and therefore being asked to pay back his £1 million pounds (£1 million pounds!).

I was aghast. Firstly for the publisher and then for Seth. There are no details, only speculation that Seth received all of his $1.7 million dollars in advance of even delivery of manuscript.  I could not fathom how a publisher could firstly give any author such a large sum for a book they hadn’t even read or why a writer would accept such a tall order. After all, as a writer, an advance that big would, I fear, dent my inner creative and scare my artist away. And it seems for now that Seth’s inner artist too has been left sore – there is little evidence that the book, scheduled to be published this year, to mark the 20 year anniversary of A Suitable Boy, has been completed.

Having dipped into A Suitable Boy (it’s a big book!) some time ago, I fell in love with Seth’s prose. I was one of those bright-eyed young writers sitting in the audience of his London Book Fair seminar in 2009 when he announced there would be a sequel. Having waited four years to see this book through to completion I feel somewhat underwhelmed by what’s happened but I’m hopeful it’s only a temporary delay. Seth’s agent, David Godwin has suggested that he is in the middle of negotiating a new date of publication with Hamish Hamilton.

There has been no official word from the newly formed, Penguin Random (owners of Hamish Hamilton imprint) but the silence speaks volumes and raises some difficult questions for the giant publisher going forward. Should publishers continue to keep their big name authors happy by investing large sums in advances, at the expense of under-investing in new writing of first time writers? After this latest disappointment my guess is, no.