Are people more interested in reading about Ted Kennedy's dog or his life in America's most powerful family?
That's the question on the minds of publishers who reportedly paid $2 million just to get in the running to bid for the rights to the longtime senator's autobiography, which might end up going for $4 million to $5 million, say publishing sources.
The triumphs and tragedies of Kennedy's life, from growing up as American royalty and his political success to the heartbreak of his brothers' assassinations and the scandal of Chappaquiddick, certainly make for high drama.
But he might also just pen a dry recitation of his political achievements or a summary of his views on education and labor policy, which would appeal only to political wonks. Last year, Kennedy wrote "My Senator and Me: A Dog's-Eye View of Washington, D.C," with Splash, his Portuguese Water Dog, and the book did pretty well.
Carrot and StickIt all comes down to whether publishers can prod him to get more personal. It's a classic carrot-and-stick routine played out between the big book publishers and famous personalities -- tell all and get a bigger advance.
In recent years, publishers have shelled out major money to politicians and public officials in the hopes that they can recoup their costs in sales.
The results are mixed, say publishing industry analysts.
Among the successes: Bill Clinton was paid $10 million to write "My Life," his 2004 memoir with a $35 sticker price, which sold more than a million copies in the first week. Barack Obama got a $425,000 advance for "The Audacity of Hope," which has sold more than a million copies in paperback. And Rudy Giuliani was paid $2.7 million for "Leadership," with the sticker price of $25.95, which sold at least 665,000 copies.
Yet Martha Stewart received $2 million for "The Martha Rules," her 1995 business advice book, which reportedly hasn't sold well. Jimmy Carter's 1982 memoir, "Keeping Faith," was a poor performer. And the jury is still out on Alan Greenspan's "The Age of Turbulence," for which he was paid $8.5 million but has only sold around 300,000 copies so far.
"Publishers look at the situation and make as good a decision as they possibly can, and they keep their fingers crossed," says Michael Norris, a book industry analyst at Simba Information, a market research firm. "Sometimes they do well and sometimes they don't. It's a bit like literary venture capital -- you're not expected to make the money you've invested each time. But when you do, the payoff is huge."
Doing the MathThe arithmetic gets complicated when it comes to determining the expenses and revenues of a book.
The numbers break down like this for Greenspan's book published by Penguin, according to rough estimates made by Albert Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University's Graduate School of Business Education:
Expenses, including the $8.5 million advance, $3 a copy for printing and binding, $100,000 for direct marketing and advertising, shipping costs, overhead costs and administrative expenses (about 30 percent of net sales), all add up to about $12.7 million.
As for revenue, if the foreign rights sell for $4 million, and the publisher sells the book to chains for 50 percent of the $35 sticker price, Greco estimates that Penguin would have to sell more than 800,000 copies in order to make a net profit of $900,000.
"Once you get to the $5 million threshold, you've got to sell at least half a million books," says Greco. "If Kennedy gets $7 million to $8 million and doesn't move that many copies, then it's a bad investment."
Again, much of the book's success comes down to how much Kennedy is willing to reveal. "If he does a policy book, that would be a really tough sell for even a million dollars," says Greco. "If it's his life in politics and he touches on everything, including Chappaquiddick, and he's willing to go out and do Charlie Rose, the Sunday morning talk shows, newspaper interviews, book signings and generate publicity for the publisher, then maybe it's worth $7 million to $8 million."
Kennedy's high-powered lawyer, Robert Barnett, who has managed book auctions for both Clintons and Greenspan, and the senator's spokesman both declined to return calls for comment.