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The Books That Lost Publishers the Most Money

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Arvyn Cerézo

Senior Contributor

Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find them on arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

Publishing companies are a business, and they need to generate revenue to stay afloat. As much as it’s uncomfortable to think about, the book business revolves around profits and sales. This is evident when publishers do “comps” or a sales forecast using comparative titles. I was once a publisher, so I also felt icky crunching numbers in Excel when I only wanted to publish a great book.

During this process, publishing editors who are interested in acquiring a manuscript bring it to an acquisitions meeting to discuss the deal with other editors, representatives of the sales and marketing teams, and possible customers. They fill up a profit-and-loss forecast prior to this meeting. Called the P&L sheet in corporate jargon, this document contains sales forecasts based on comparative titles that help in determining the amount of the author advance, the anticipated print run, and the marketing and promotion budget. Comps assist publishers in estimating the volume of resources they should devote to a book and how well they anticipate it will sell.

With these comps, some authors are given bigger advances than others. Established or big-name authors whose books become bestsellers usually get six-figure advances in their next contract. And when publishers give advances this big, that means that it’s a project that they want to recoup the expenses on the most. Often, they also invest huge resources in production — and especially in marketing and PR.

Sometimes, though, publishing invests in expensive projects with almost no budget caps, and it doesn’t guarantee a bestseller success.

Books That Lost Publishers Money

The Warm Bodies series by Isaac Marion

Cover of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Isaac Marion, author of the popular young adult paranormal book, Warm Bodies, which was adapted into film in 2013, revealed on his blog that his publisher had dropped him for the fourth book of the Warm Bodies series.

According to him, The Burning World, the second installment of the series, was released during “one of the most chaotic moments in modern American history,” accompanied by political mayhem and social upheaval. Despite glowing reviews, the book went unnoticed by the media and readers, reaching only 1% of its readership, he wrote. Marion also attributed the “years of strategic blunders, mismanagement, and neglect” for its failure to bring in sales. Then, the third book came out during the tense political situation in 2017, only selling a few thousand copies (for comparison, the first book sold a few hundred thousand copies). The publisher couldn’t release the fourth book until sales improved. “So my publisher dropped the series. And just like that, four years after nearly topping the NYT bestseller list and seeing my name on movie screens around the world, I was out on the streets,” Marion wrote in another blog entry. “Due to low ratings, the Warm Bodies Series is canceled.”

This scenario seems impossible, since Marion was already somewhat prominent at the time. His book was adapted into a film, and the projects should already have been rolling right from there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. To recoup a big advance, which the publisher wants, you need to sell a lot of books.

Currently, there’s no 100% accurate way to track book sales, but there’s NPD BookScan, which only accounts for 75% of retail sales. If the Warm Bodies series were doing fine, though not well, the publisher might not have canceled it.

Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish

Cover of Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish

In singer Billie Eilish’s case, her popularity didn’t translate into selling enough books to break even on her advance. In her self-titled memoir published in 2021, the singer only sold 64,000 copies since it was released in May of that year. According to the New York Times, Eilish was offered a whopping $1 million as an advance.

There may be a variety of reasons why the book sold fewer copies than expected. Many speculate that the book flopped because Eilish didn’t heavily promote it. Huge followings also don’t necessarily translate into sales. Her fans might not be big readers, and for them, a book might not be that enticing compared to her music.

Unpopular Political Memoirs

Some books are guaranteed to flop if the authors are controversial or did something that caused public outcry — just like in politics and public service.

Matt Hancock's Pandemic Diaries cover

Matt Hancock, an ex-UK government official, had published a pandemic book that flopped in book sales. Hancock was reportedly offered £100,000 for the book deal, and it didn’t do well partly because he was heavily criticized during his tenure in the UK Parliament. It sold 3,304 copies in its first week.

In the United States, Mark Meadows, the aide of former President Trump, also published a tell-all memoir in 2021 that tanked in sales. The ex-government official likely had received a big advance like the other officials who wrote memoirs during their time at the White House, but the book performed poorly compared to these other similar books, selling less than 22,000 copies. This was probably because of the ex-official’s and his former boss’s polarizing nature.

None of these authors have been given another book deal, so far. Marion went on to self-publish the rest of the series despite the popularity of the Warm Bodies film. Perhaps, Eilish might be offered another book deal down the line, but publishers aren’t risking it now. For the two politicians, there have been no other offers.

Publishing is Profit-Driven

Doing a sales forecast in a P&L statement is an art and science, and publishers have to project how much a book is going to sell before they decide on an advance. This means that when an author finishes writing a book, the job is not done yet. When they query literary agents, they have to take into consideration the comp titles as publishers will base on these books. By doing that, authors would also dive into the demographics of their target readers.

This would let publishers figure out how much the book would probably sell in the market, how much advance they would give the author, and how much they would earn and lose. So if the book doesn’t meet the expectation, the publisher loses money, and authors won’t likely get a second contract.

The business of publishing is like a gamble. Publishers release a book hoping that it would be the next American bestseller. According to the statistics, only about 25% of books earn out their advance, which is a very small percentage. That means that publishers are gambling, losing, or might be making less money each time they put a book out there. They lose less with authors with small advances, but bestsellers pay for and make up for these anyway, and it’s much more of a loss when it’s a big book with a six-figure author advance that doesn’t do well in sales.

While making less money doesn’t mean losing money, the sales NPD BookScan records aren’t 100% accurate. We never really know the true scale of the financial loss, unless publishers reveal the balance sheets.

Just like other businesses, the publishing industry relies on sales forecasts to determine the advance given to the author and the amount of money they’re profiting and losing in a book. The books and the authors are the products. Looking at it that way may seem odd, but it is what it is. Publishing has always been about making money with art, and that’s not necessarily bad. Publishers have to produce hits or bestsellers for all the books that don’t do well in the market.