The horror. The horror. Superstar storyteller and scaremeister Stephen King is abandoning Viking, his publisher of 18 years, fleeing what seemed like a contented and placid literary relationship that spanned 44 titles from “The Dead Zone” to “Desperation.”
With a strange mixture of anticipation and cold dread, a few major publishers are considering Mr. King, like classmates warily circling Carrie at the high school prom. They are pondering whether to pounce on his newly completed manuscript, “Bag of Bones,” a 1,000-page novel about an author who develops writer’s block after the death of his wife.
In fact, a handful of top New York-based publishing houses are rushing to put proposals together to land Mr. King. But many executives in the running say privately that the rare contest for a superstar author will be a test of the industry’s resolve to rein in astronomical advances in a particularly bleak sales climate.
“This is really a reality check for all those people who have been saying that the business is out of control and the advances are going through the roof,” said one top publishing executive participating in discussions. “We’ll see how many people are going to go out there and pay a ridiculous amount of money.”
By most reports, the new tome is vintage King, a gripping tale from an author so beloved that a recent trade industry survey indicated that readers would like to be marooned on a desert island with their first choice of a Bible or their second choice of a King horror novel.
But several publishing executives involved in the talks fear that even another best seller from Mr. King will almost certainly lose money in a conventional publishing deal given the asking price of more than $17 million for a “Bag of Bones.”
“It’s pretty impossible to make money at that level,” said Paul Fedorko, the publisher at William Morrow, which is trying to piece together a proposal that would include deals with other divisions of Morrow’s parent, the Hearst Corporation. “But if you can put something else together then it’s worthwhile to be in business with Stephen King.”
Publishers are also weighing whether the sizable advance is better spent by spreading such a sum among up-and-coming authors rather than using it for a brand name whose net sales appear to have leveled at just over a million. At times, the rhetoric coming from New York publishing houses has the distinct ring of a major league franchise owner mulling whether to put a top athlete on waivers.
“Do you want to have one superstar with a lot of utility infielders around him or do you want to have nine All Stars on the field?” said a top publisher who considered making a bid. “We’re fed up. I just feel that we’re doing all this work for a poor bottom line.
“I realize that life isn’t fair, but it ought to be tolerable,” the publisher continued. “I have no problem with building up a superstar author where everybody makes money. But to be forced to pay top dollar so you basically can make no money?”
Mr. King’s work has been a staple on best-seller lists since “The Dead Zone” was published in 1979. But even best-sellerhood is a relative concept: 20 of the author’s books have made The New York Times best-seller list, for instance -- but newer books tend to spend less time there.
Mr. King became a literary free agent earlier this month after negotiations for a new book deal reached an impasse with Viking, where he had long been considered the undisputed pillar of the publishing house, both under his own name and his pen name, Richard Bachman.
But recently, Mr. King was forced to share the rarefied air of superstar status after Viking’s corporate parent, the British media conglomerate Pearson P.L.C., acquired the Putnam Berkley Group early this year and created Penguin Putnam Inc. That brought into the same luxury stable the author Tom Clancy, whose sales record far outstripped Mr. King’s. In 1996, according to Publishers Weekly, Mr. Clancy sold more than 2.4 million copies of “Executive Orders” while Mr. King sold 1.5 million of his books.
In the top echelon of the publishing industry, the conventional wisdom is that Mr. King was bolting Penguin Putnam because he was irked that Mr. Clancy negotiated a more lucrative deal. In August, Penguin Putnam announced a complex new deal with Mr. Clancy that includes a partnership to develop on-line games and the publication of two novels.
Penguin Putnam officials declined to reveal the total cost, but publishing executives estimate that Mr. Clancy could earn more than $20 million for each book, which does not include money spent on the on-line ventures, bringing the estimated total of the deal to nearly $100 million. In his last deal with Penguin, Mr. King earned almost $16 million for each book based on a four-book sale for $63.5 million.
The bottom line for Penguin Putnam is apparently the view that Mr. Clancy sells so many books that he will earn a profit even with a sizable advance.
Mr. King, who lives in Maine, was unavailable for comment. His lawyer and agent of 10 years, Arthur B. Greene, said the author was traveling in Australia.
Mr. Greene said that Mr. King decided to sever ties with Penguin Putnam after reaching an “impasse,” which he declined to describe. “There were aspects that he wasn’t satisfied with. He became a bit stale,” Mr. Greene said, adding that he was referring to the author’s treatment and growth.
Mr. Greene said he had “no idea” how much Tom Clancy made on his contract with Penguin Putnam and that Mr. King was simply searching for a “new enduring relationship.” Mr. Greene also declined to elaborate in detail about what Mr. King is hunting for, but he said, “it’s the publishing strategy principally and, of course, financial considerations.”
Mr. King’s spurned publisher, Penguin Putnam, is saying little publicly while keenly watching the actions of its rivals. Although Mr. Greene said that Mr. King’s relationship with Penguin Putnam is over, Marilyn Ducksworth, a senior vice president for the company, said gamely that, “as far as we’re concerned we are still in negotiations.”
But despite that belief, several publishing companies started receiving query letters from Mr. King’s attorney last week when many of their top executives were away at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“After being published for more than 20 years by one company, Stephen King has decided to make a change,” the letter stated. “We’re contacting a small group of publishers and are indicating to them that Mr. King is looking to establish another longstanding relationship, which will be artistically and financially beneficial to all parties.”
The news was so surprising that one publisher thought it was a joke.
“Here’s a guy who has been a success,” said Mr. Fedorko, the publisher at Morrow. “What happened? What is going on here? Is this a scam of some sort? Frankly, I thought it was a friend kidding me.”
The query letter from Mr. King’s attorney set a Wednesday deadline for submission of proposals, but that deadline was eventually extended and several publishers met with the lawyer late last week.
The letter did not specify the asking price for “Bag of Bones,” but in meetings it became clear to participants that the focus of Mr. King’s search for a new publisher was not a literary issue, but simply business -- with an asking price of more than $17 million.
Mr. King was not present at any of the meetings, a fact that some publishers found troubling because typically authors participate in significant negotiations. Several said that Mr. King’s lawyer listened sympathetically to their concerns that it would be difficult to make money on Mr. King at his present sales levels. But they were told that the author expected a new publisher to make greater efforts than Viking to increase sales.
And so that leaves publishers playing out the standard tension scenes of any horror movie as they warily pass each other in Manhattan restaurants. Will a competitor take the plunge and pay Mr. King an enormous advance?
“What’s interesting about this is to see whether all this talk about a recession in the book business has had some impact,” said one of the players.
“All it takes,” he added, “is one.”