10 of the Biggest Book Deals in History

Publishers often keep extremely tight-lipped about just how much cash they’ve parted with when paying authors their advances. Pan Macmillan, for instance, merely said they’d signed a ‘seven figure’ book deal with Cassandra Clare in 2017 for her new adult series The Sword Catcher, publishing next year. From there we can extrapolate that she’s scooped up at least a million pounds.

Massive as that sum already is, here are ten book deals which dwarf that. I’ve ranked the ten biggest payouts I could find, in descending order, and found only one author of colour who succeeded in meeting the parameters of receiving an advance of $7 million (the lowest figure in the top ten) or more. My main source was this article from the Guardian, as well as an appendix in Nathan Joyce’s recently published compendium of Michelle Obama facts.

10 Biggest Book Deals

#1. 17 Books by James Patterson

In 2009, Patterson signed a deal with Hachette to write 11 adult books and 6 for young adults by the end of 2012. There was a jaw-dropping $150 million price tag attached – the biggest book deal in history – though Hachette has more than made that back: Patterson is one of the best-selling authors in the world, and is at the top of a sort of literary food chain with less-established writers using his name to market their own works. ‘James Patterson presents’, anyone?

#2. Becoming by Michelle Obama + Unnamed Memoir by Barack Obama

Published on 13 November 2018, the former First Lady’s memoirs immediately catapulted to the top of every bestseller list. It’s the most popular book of 2018 in the U.S. and had sold 10 million copies by March 2019. The mammoth advance reflects that figure. Penguin Random House shelled out at least $65 million in 2017 in a joint deal for books by both Barack Obama and Michelle, though the release of the former president’s memoirs has yet to be announced.

#3. Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

In 2008, Penguin agreed to pay Follett a total of $50 million for his Century trilogy, consisting of Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity. Inflation in the intervening decade means that the deal is now worth $57.5 million. Quite the hefty sum.

#4. My Life by Bill Clinton

Another presidential autobiography! In 2004, Knopf promised Clinton $15 million for this thousand-page tome. That figure is now worth closer to $20 million in modern money. At the time, it was a record-breaking sum: in comparison, George W. Bush netted only $7 million for his own memoir Decision Points.

#5. Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

You won’t be surprised to find another Clinton offering on this list. In 2014, Simon & Schuster offered her $14 million for her memoirs, which according to the Wall Street Journal people stop reading at roughly 1.9% of the way through the book. (See here for my article on other bestsellers nobody apparently finishes).

#6. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Two years later, Simon & Schuster once again engaged themselves in another eight-figure book deal. Springsteen received an advance of $10 million for his autobiography, the largest ever handed out for a musician’s memoir.

#7. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

This came as something of a surprise to me: a comedian I’ve barely heard of (though I’m admittedly not that great on comedy-culture references) did indeed receive a larger advance for her 2016 essay collection than J.K. Rowling did for The Casual Vacancy. Schumer was signed for $9 million, again by Simon & Schuster, who seem to have a real taste for these megabucks deals. Whether they made back their advance on her, though, is a different question.

#8. Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II

In 1994, Knopf invested $8.5 million into buying the Pope’s memoirs. That’s now worth $21 million, but it was a good investment: the book has been translated into 40 languages and sold over a million copies in Italy alone.

#9. Life by Keith Richards

Richards, a guitarist for the Rolling Stones, co-wrote his autobiography with the journalist James Fox. Little, Brown bought the rights for $7.3 million in 2010 (now worth $8.8 million) reportedly after seeing a ten-page excerpt.

#10. The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher

HarperCollins signed a two-book deal with Thatcher for her memoirs, which were published in 1993 and 1995. The $4.6 million sum seems modest, especially since her son Mark hoped to get over $9 million; however, the deal is now worth $11.3 million. Not bad at all.

Bonus #11. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

And finally, we come to the name on this list that you probably expected to see closer to the start. I know I did. It’s uncertain how much Little, Brown actually parted with in 2012 to secure Rowling’s first adult novel, but it’s anywhere from $2 million to $8 million.


These publishers all gave up millions for the books they wanted…but you don’t have to! Check out Book Riot’s Deals of the Day to see what’s discounted today.