So big book deals can still happen


Kathleen MacMahon’s book advance is great news – for her and for all first-time Irish writers, writes ROSITA BOLAND

ANY FIRST-TIME Irish writers quietly beavering away on a novel will have been cheered this week by the news of the latest big publishing deal. RTÉ television journalist Kathleen MacMahon will be receiving £600,000 (more than €680,000) for her two-book contract. This Is How It Endswill be published some time next year by Little, Brown on this side of the Atlantic and by Grand Central in the US.

Huge advances are still an exception, but several Irish writers have received them in the past for first novels. The best known is probably still Cecelia Ahern, who secured $1 million in 2003 for two novels, including her debut PS, I Love You. She was represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor, who is also MacMahon’s agent.

In 1996, Irish Timesreporter Antonia Logue, then 23, had the heady experience of nine publishers bidding for her novel, Shadow Box. This was on the basis of the first six pages; the rest of the novel was still unwritten. Logue received £70,000. (To date, she has not published a second book.)

Two years later, in 1998, another Irish Times journalist, John Connolly, got £350,000 sterling (punts 409,500) for his first crime novel, Every Dead Thing.

In 2000, Damien Owens got £200,000 sterling for Dead Cat Bounceand his second novel, Peter and Mary Have a Row. Twelve years on, he is still a full-time writer, but he now mostly works as a television screenwriter, most recently on the series Triviafor RTÉ.

Dead Cat Bouncewas my first book and I genuinely didn’t think it was going to get published at all,” he says. “A deal like that is what you dream of, and it seems so unreal when it happens. I was surprised when I heard about Kathleen’s deal, because I thought those days were over to a certain extent. It’s wonderful for her, and for Irish writers in general, because it gives a certain sense of hope to people. I would find it encouraging news if I was sitting at home half way through a first novel.”

The publishers didn’t make their advance back, but Owens got to keep the entire sum. “The one negative thing about getting a big advance is that when the reviews come out, it’s almost like the deal gets reviewed as opposed to the book. I had reviews asking: ‘Is this book worth that much?’ instead of simply reviewing the book. I’d say Kathleen will get a bit of that too.”

Belinda McKeon, who also worked as a journalist with The Irish Times, received an unspecified sum from Picador last year for a two-book deal, which several publishers bid on. Her first novel, Solace, will be published this year.

“A book deal and an advance are a huge boost to morale, there’s no denying that. But what sticks with you are the conversations you’ll have had early on with the people who want to publish your book; the first experiences of talking to someone who really gets your book.

“Kathleen’s success is brilliant news for debut novelists. It’s proof that there’s an appetite for great first novels.”

For McKeon, her advance “has done what advances are meant to do – it has bought me time to work on my fiction; both on the edits for the first novel, and on the novel I’m working on at the moment. One other thing I’d say about advances, regardless of their size, is that they come to the writer in stages – so much this year, so much next year, so much upon signing, so much upon publication, so much upon paperback edition, etc. In that way, they function as a sort of salary, and if you can you avail of that as a salary, or as a supplement to your salary.”

MacMahon had this to say about her success: “Of course as a first-time writer you are very hungry for compliments about your work, so a deal like this is a huge affirmation. It certainly answers the question that haunts you as you’re writing: is it any good?

“But what really blew me away were the comments of the editors in the UK and the US: to hear your book described as beautiful and original by people who you respect is a dream come true. Definitely the words mean more than the numbers, but it’s very nice to be in a position to compare.”