Book Deals, Books, Jed Rubenfeld, Law Professors, Money

Jed Rubenfeld May Be Hot, But His Book Is Not

jed rubenfeld 5.JPGOr so says the Wall Street Journal, in a fascinating front-page article about the disappointing sales for the Yale law professor’s debut novel, The Interpretation of Murder.

The strikingly handsome Jed Rubenfeld is a con law professor and deputy dean at Yale Law School (as well as a contestant in our Law School Dean hotties contest; but sorry, ladies, he’s married to fellow YLS professor Amy Chua). Henry Holt & Co. paid Rubenfeld an advance of $800,000 for U.S. rights to his novel, and his superstar agent, Suzanne Gluck of William Morris, “sold foreign rights to 31 publishers for more than $1 million.” As the WSJ explains, “[t]hat effectively valued Mr. Rubenfeld’s manuscript above $1.8 million, not including the undisclosed sum Warner Bros. paid for movie rights.”

But based on early sales figures, Rubenfeld’s hopes of topping the bestseller list may be about as realistic as his chances of catching up with current leader Evan Caminker in the ATL hotties contest. We suspected things might not be going swimmingly when we recently saw copies of The Interpretation of Murder marked “45% Off — Clearance” at Books A Million in Dupont Circle. (See also this reader comment.)

(UPDATE: Ann Althouse has a theory as to why Professor Rubenfeld may not be faring better in the hotties contest.)

More details about Rubenfeld’s foray into the literary world, after the jump.

In addition to the $800,000 it paid Rubenfeld, Henry Holt committed itself to a $500,000 marketing campaign. And here’s how events unfolded:

In the few weeks that followed his acquisition of “Murder,” Mr. Sterling had reason to believe he’d made one of the best decisions in his career. Rival publishers professed envy. Holt’s sales and marketing people told him how pleased they were to be selling the book. Mr. Sterling also had a dedicated author. Mr. Rubenfeld had written his senior thesis at Princeton about Freud and met his early deadlines.

The early signs were good. Entertainment Weekly magazine, in its June “Must Read” issue, declared the book, “a compelling, expertly crafted murder mystery.” Better still, the magazine said the novel was “shaping up to be this year’s ‘Historian.’ “

Independent stores were particularly enthusiastic. “Murder” was named the No. 1 pick for September by Book Sense, the marketing arm of the American Booksellers Association. That meant the book would likely be displayed at 1,200 independent bookstores across the nation and promoted in more than a dozen newspapers. Mr. Sterling ordered a first printing of 185,000 copies, an impressive number for any debut novel.

But the early buzz didn’t translate into good sales:

Mr. Rubenfeld’s book was published Sept. 5, and the first feedback came a week later. It wasn’t good. Holt got early word that first-week sales were strong enough to rank it only No. 18 on the New York Times extended best-seller list dated Sept. 24.

It was a decent showing for an unknown author. But Holt was betting that “Murder” would be a publishing phenomenon. For Mr. Sterling, the message was clear.

“I was aware after week one that it was going to be much tougher to make this a big hit, because blockbusters have to begin big,” he says. “But you make your plans months ahead of time, your commitments months in advance. And you don’t cancel them.”

And the hottie hitting the road didn’t help matters much either:

Mr. Rubenfeld began his book tour the week of Sept. 18, an effort that would take him to 12 cities. Holt, anticipating a murderers’ row of potential best sellers scheduled to be published in October, was determined to make its mark in September. But the results at the end of the second week were equally disappointing. The book slipped to No. 20 for the Times’s Book Review dated Oct. 1.

The situation continued to worsen:

The following week, the book dropped to No. 30 on the New York Times list. Any lingering hopes of achieving breakthrough sales were finished. Nielsen BookScan, which says it tracks about 70% of retail book sales, says “Murder” sold 12,400 copies in its first 19 days. Barnes & Noble alone sold nearly 15,000 copies of “The Thirteenth Tale” in only five days.

Holt invested $1.3 million in buying and marketing the book, a sum that doesn’t include the cost of manufacturing. It will need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies to recoup its investment. Barring an unforeseen spike, it will be lucky to get to half that….

Barring an Oprah ex Machina, that ain’t happening.

[T]he book never caught fire and could leave Holt in the red. What happened? A timing issue, say several rival publishers. Holt may have erred in promoting its book so heavily six months prior to publication. Booksellers might have been talking about “Murder” during the summer, but they were recommending “The Thirteenth Tale” in early fall.

Book publishing: It’s just like the Oscars. If you peak too early, you could be in trouble.*

Well, hey, at least Professor Rubenfeld has his day job. With tenure.

* See, e.g., Brokeback Mountain (early favorite, defeated in a come-from-behind victory by Crash); Chicago (acquired eleventh-hour momentum that propelled it past The Hours); Sissy Spacek (scooped up all the Oscar precursor awards, but defeated by Halle Berry for Best Actress).

In Era of Blockbuster Books, One Publisher Rolls the Dice [Wall Street Journal]
When Blockbuster Books Disappoint, What Then? [Galleycat]
Novel By Yale Law Professor Overpromises and Underdelivers [WSJ Law Blog]
The Intereprtation of Murder [Amazon.com]

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