Blockbuster-or-Bust Approach: Publishers Are Looking for the Quick Score - the Book That Soars to the Top of the Best-Seller Lists

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Publishers are looking for the quick score -- the book that soars to the top of the best-seller lists. Millionaire novelist Dean Koontz has doubts about this trend.

It hardly raises an eyebrow when an athlete such as Shaquille O'Neal signs a multimillion-dollar contract. Nor is it a much of a surprise when an entertainer such as Sylvester Stallone is offered a small fortune to star in a movie yet to be written. Even writers are making money.

"If you can gain new audiences and increase your percentages in various kinds of readership, the ultimate upside is much bigger than it was 10 years ago," novelist Dean Koontz tells Insight. Having penned 17 best-sellers, six of which made it to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list, he knows what he's talking about. His new deal with Bantam is said to be worth at least as much as his last one with Knopf: $18 million for three books.

Publishing changed forever in the early 1970s when the paperback rights to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I'm OK You're OK were auctioned for $1 million each. Loyalty to an im-print or an editor no longer could be taken for granted; suddenly, prominent writers were behaving like free agents, ready to jump houses to secure a better deal.

"Publishers now treat books that have large potential the same way as Hollywood: to grow it into a blockbuster," says Koontz, whose latest novel, Sole Survivor, has just been released by Knopf (see sidebar). It isn't only best-selling authors who are receiving staggeringly large advances. A number of unpublished authors, some of them barely out of college, are pulling down million-dollar advances for their first novel. "It's a lot easier to launch a first novel than it is one written in mid-career," explains literary agent Lynn Nesbit. "Everyone likes to discover someone new."

Writers weren't always expected to win the lottery the first time out. Koontz's first novels -- and he's written more than 70 -- were far from best-sellers. "Thank God, I'm not a young writer trying to work my way up these days," he says, "because I don't think you could now do what I did. I had 15 years of pretty much struggle and failure before I started pulling it all together."

Nor is Koontz alone. Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and the late John D. McDonald, all of whom ultimately achieved considerable success, spent years in obscurity turning out paperback potboilers while they honed their craft. Now publishers are so eager to acquire best-selling writers that they seem to have lost patience with writers who merely make money for the company "There's a policy in a lot of publishing houses," says Koontz, "unwritten, but it's absolutely there, that if a writer does three or four books or at most five, and there is even moderate but not explosive growth -- if they're making money, but not a lot of money -- they'll drop him. …