Sarah Palin's memoir: Why the math might not add up for HarperCollins

Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate, is always a hot topic of conversation in the media. Her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, slated for release by News Corp.'s (NWS) HarperCollins next Tuesday, November 17, is no exception; it's been making news since the ink dried on the deal made last May.

Going Rogue was one of 10 books selected for massive discounting by Amazon (AMZN), Walmart (WMT), and Target (TGT) in their ongoing price war. Palin made headlines last month when she revealed that HarperCollins had paid her a $1.25 million "retainer" sometime between January 1 and July 26, the day she stepped down as Alaska governor. Oprah Winfrey has her booked on her show next Monday, which the author will follow with a bus tour to far-flung corners of the country (or as she famously called them during the 2008 campaign, "the real America"). No less than three books about Palin are slated for publication around the same time, including a parody called Going Rouge: An American Nightmare.
So all signs seem to point to a season-saving bestseller for HarperCollins and for the book business: Pre-orders are rumored to surpass 40,000 copies, with more added to the estimate each day. But look past the top ranking on Amazon and the reported first printing of 1.5 million copies -- and the math may not add up in Palin's favor.

The $7 Million Woman?

The conventional wisdom on Palin's payment for Going Rogue is that she received a $7 million advance from HarperCollins (which hasn't commented). But what did she really get?

Until recently, publishers have long split writers' advances, paying half upon signing a contract with the writer, and the other half upon a book's publication. But with the complicated financials of conglomerates in the equation, many publishers now pay out advances in quarters: upon signing, upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, upon hardcover publication, and finally a year later, upon publication of the paperback.

The only HarperCollins contract that's been made public -- the original deal for O.J. Simpson's If I Did It, originally slated for publication in 2006 by Judith Regan's imprint (before it was shut down) -- suggests that HC pays authors in quarterly installments. For Going Rogue, the $1.25 million paid to Palin seems to account for her signing and her delivery and acceptance. That would mean Palin's getting two more payouts, with her cut of the final advance, minus fees to her literary attorney, Robert Barnett, somewhere between $2.5 million and $5 million.

Breaking Even at 400,000 Copies

O.J. Simpson's contract also broke the advance further -- it accounted for fees paid to ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves. Lynn Vincent, a senior writer for Christian World, is widely reported to have done the gruntwork on Going Rogue -- proving so efficient that Palin's manuscript was delivered early and allowed HarperCollins to move the publication date from spring 2010.

Vincent is not getting a byline on Going Rogue, and she's not disclosing her fee. But Andrew Crofts, who literally wrote the book on ghostwriting, has some insight on her fee, based on his own experiences ghosting fiction and non-fiction in the U.K. "It's possible that she is on a percentage deal," he says, "but I would think it more likely that someone of Palin's wealth would want to pay a fee, or get the publishers to pay one. If it was England, I would imagine she would be getting somewhere between £100,000 and £150,000" -- between $168,000 and $252,000. "In America, that figure might be higher."

The ghostwriting fee will likely come out of Palin's payday. But that's still a significant outlay of money by HarperCollins, which the publisher may never recoup. If Palin's advance is as high as $5 million, then HarperCollins wlll need to sell more than 400,000 copies of Going Rogue to cover the advance and expenses for marketing and overhead.

WIll HarperCollins Get Paid Back?

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy got a reported $8 million advance for his memoir True Compass, published by Hachette Book Group's Twelve Publishers in September. Twelve sold foreign rights to True Compass for three countries and has published a limited leather-bound edition for $1,000 a copy. That gives Twelve a better chance of earning back its advance than HarperCollins on Going Rogue, which won't have a similar limited edition and as of yet has not been signed for any editions outside the U.S. (although Barnett sold world rights to HarperCollins).

Within the industry, figures for both print runs and pre-orders are notoriously inaccurate. Publishers inflate print-run figures -- a good rule of thumb is that the actual print run is half of what's reported -- so the 1.5 million-copy press run of Going Rogue is likely closer to 750,000. The Amazon-Target-Walmart price war has made cheap copies plentiful, but their sites' "bestseller" rankings indicate high velocity, not necessarily high sales; if several hundred copies of Going Rogue were rapidly pre-ordered, the book would shoot up in the rankings.

For Going Rogue to go big, she must attract her contingent through bulk sales to the Christian right -- an audience long ignored by The New York Times Bestseller List, and by publishing in general, until Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series about the Rapture proved too big a cash cow to ignore. But a year after her failed candidacy as Vice President, Palin is no longer the great hope of her party. Her image is tarnished by gossip media's fascination with her and her family -- especially Levi Johnston, the teenage father of her infant grandson, who has proved indiscreet with reporters eager for sordid details.

First Serial Rights

For Going Rogue, no publication has publicly stepped up to claim first serial rights -- running the juiciest excerpts before the book comes out, which either kindles or extinguishes public anticipation for it. Such an excerpt deal may have been struck for The Oprah Winfrey Show, which features Palin in an interview the day before the book's release; the public will find out on Monday.

Either way, it may not be in HarperCollins's interest to bank so much of its fall projections on Going Rogue. The publisher had a huge bust this year in Jonathan Littell's massively hyped thousand-page novel The Kindly Ones, for which it paid $1 million that it didn't come close to earning back. (Bookscan, which accounts for as much as 70 percent of all book sales, last summer reported a disappointing 17,000 copies sold.) And until recently, the company's 2009 earnings have been brutal, in line with sales of hardcover books, which have plunged 12.3% from last year, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Of course, the stars could still align in Palin's favor. She could produce the hit she and her publisher are looking for. But the math suggests that it may be the readers who go rogue on Palin -- and on HarperCollins's plans to right the wrongs of its dismal book sales.
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