The Obamas’ dual book deal seems to have gotten folks thinking.
Here’s Nina Martyris at The Paris Review looking at David Bellos’ new book The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’. Mr Bellos points out that because the c. $3.8 million (in today’s money) that Hugo received in 1861 for Les Misérables was for an eight year license, this remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature. These sorts of things are difficult to compute: but here from a few year’s ago is The Daily Beast‘s piece on 14 of the biggest book advances. Forbes obligingly provides a photo gallery showing the 15 top earning authors of 2016.
What does seem extraordinary in the deal for Les Misérables is that the young Belgian publisher, Albert Lacroix, aged 28, was able to raise this large sum as a loan from the Oppenheimer bank. The book may go into this a bit more I guess, but The Paris Review article doesn’t enlarge on it, though it does note that Lacroix had contacts at the bank. They must have been good ones! He even got the loan before he’d contacted Hugo. Lacroix obtained translation rights as part of the deal, and mitigated the risk a bit by subleasing the French edition to a local publisher. As The Guardian tells us “‘There’s some irony in a novel so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major bank loan,’ Bellos notes, ‘probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book’.”
Ms Martyris writes “On the morning of April 4, 1862, part 1 of Les Misérables, called ‘Fantine,’ was released simultaneously in Brussels, Paris, Saint Petersburg, London, Leipzig, and several other European cities. No book had ever had an international launch on this scale. Within a day, the first Paris printing of six thousand copies sold out to the avid queues that snaked around the bookstores. The critics and literati panned it brutally. . . But the people absolutely loved it. When forty-eight thousand copies of the ‘Cossette’ and ‘Marius’ volumes went on sale a month later, ‘Hugonic fandom’ had reached such a fever pitch that shoppers in Paris arrived with handcarts and wheelbarrows to whisk away as many copies as possible.” Lacroix was able to pay off his loan within months — presumably payment terms in the trade were less lengthy than they became.
The New York Times Book Review focusses on the non-financial aspects of the book. Tobias Grey, their reviewer, quotes Mr Bellos’s claim that “there are around 20,000 different words in the 630,000 words of the text”. To drag the focus back to money, this means that Hugo was paid at a rate of around $6 a word. The Obamas’ rate, which I speculatively calculated at the link at the top of this page, dwarfs this. Hugo started writing Les Misérables in 1845 and got it published 17 years later, though apparently he set it aside for 13 years in the middle (and nearly lost the manuscript in Paris riots). President Obama is said to be hard at work on a beach in Tahiti: he and Mrs Obama will probably deliver their manuscripts in something more like 17 months than 17 years.
See also Romolan royalties for another massive authorial payment.