In a world where fees of $5,000 to $7,500 are the norm, a 23-year-old unpublished creative writing student at UC Irvine has sold his first novel for $155,000. William Morrow & Co. paid that highly unusual, if not unprecedented, sum for hardcover rights to Michael Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."
"I believe it's the most that an unpublished first literary novel ever sold for," Chabon's agent, Mary Evans at the Virginia Barber Literary Agency in New York said, making a distinction between literary and commercial.
The agency believes "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is both literary and commercial, Evans said, predicting it would be sold all over the world. As early evidence, she said, after an overnight reading, an editor at the Italian house of Mondadori called on the morning of the American auction and bought the Italian rights. Movie rights are being auctioned now, and paperback rights are expected to be auctioned by Morrow, she said.
"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is a rites-of-passage account of one summer in the life of Art Bechstein, during which he deals with his gangster father; his friend and guide to the exotic side of Pittsburgh, Arthur; girlfriend for all seasons, Phlox; and a character named Cleveland.
At Bantam Books, vice president Stuart Applebaum, stressed that the figure should be kept in perspective of other high advances. (Bantam, for example, paid $1 million for Sally Beauman's "Destiny" in 1985, a figure that was described at the time as "thought to be the highest advance ever offered for a first novel by a relatively unknown writer.")
"It is a good chunk of money but I could not put it in any context in terms of superlatives. Other people who have never written fiction before have probably done better," Applebaum said.
"It's the kind of thing where it certainly is a handsome amount of money but in these days of six-figure advances and sometimes even seven-figure advances, it is unlikely to raise an eyebrow in the jaded New York publishing community," Applebaum continued. "It is what is between the covers that the consumer cares about and that is yet to be demonstrated."
Meanwhile, at Morrow, president Sherry Arden had no fears about the consumers, predicting, "the public will be excited to read this.
"It's a sensational first novel by this 23-year-old man who has hundreds of years of writing ahead of him. . . . This is a beautiful writer. We're all in business to sniff out this kind of talent. He is, in our opinion, a major writing talent. We were just determined to get this book."