(Attractive) Debut Novelists Earn Millions


Emma Cline received $2m advance for The Girls, due out in June, which puts her near the top of a growing list of first-time writers with advances in the millions. Last year, City on Fire earned Garth Risk Hallberg a $2m advance. The allure of debut novelists isn’t always an economic issue:

Given the amount of books a publisher needs to sell in order to make a profit, it’s possible that none of these novels will actually make money. But Random House publisher Susan Kamil believes that the honor of having a sparkling literary talent on your list can offset any financial loss.

Publishers are paying for great writing, editors like Knopf’s Claudia Herr insist. While she acknowledges that sometimes publishers take a holistic approach to their writers, considering access to celebrity endorsements and personal appearance, good writing speaks for itself. She adds, “We would have paid [Stephanie Danler] the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at.”

But over at The Toast, Mallory Ortberg points out that even clarifying this position means publishers likely pay less attractive authors less money:

What that quote promises is, at best, that editors and other publishing gatekeepers will do their best not to hold a writer’s appearance against them, and promises it weakly at that. “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at” translates roughly to: “We would not try to offer a fat writer less money for being fat,” which seems an awfully low bar. The effect is a little too self-congratulatory by half.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →