Stephen King Has the Publishers Terrified

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The thousands of readers who buy Stephen King’s tales of terror probably don’t care which publishing house puts his books in stores. Their devotion is as deep as the author’s output is prolific.

Last year, the six paperbacks that made up his serial novel, “The Green Mile,” all became bestsellers. “Desperation” and “The Regulators,” his two thick hardcovers published simultaneously last fall, went on to sell a total of around 2 million copies.

But before King’s next tingler goes on sale, King first must pick a publisher. After nearly 20 years with Viking, he recently stunned the industry by seeking offers from other houses for what is titled “Bag of Bones,” setting off a high-stakes bidding war that promises to test the limits of how much publishers are willing to spend in a sluggish period for the book business.


Industry sources say King is seeking an advance that exceeds the $15 million to $16 million per book paid under his now-expired contract with Viking, already one of the richest deals around. Moreover, the sources add, King wants an unusually high royalty rate--26% of gross sales, compared with the standard rate of 15%--and will not commit himself beyond “Bag of Bones.”

“There’s no profit for any publisher in the world with those terms,” said an editor whose company was making a more modest offer.

King also is said to favor the idea of switching to a house with more literary cachet, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Scribner, or Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All three companies were expected to submit bids in concert with their respective paperback partners.

The ticklish problem for King is that his sales, impressive as they are, do not approach the Grisham and Clancy levels that he apparently wants to reach in terms of compensation. John Grisham’s legal thrillers sell more than 2 million copies apiece in Doubleday hardcover. Tom Clancy’s techno-dramas, while selling fewer copies, apparently have earned back the huge advances paid to him, so that Penguin Putnam Inc. recently agreed to a new two-book deal that Publishers Weekly valued at $50 million.

King has been in the same company as Clancy since an acquisition by Viking’s parent firm led to the formation of Penguin Putnam in December.

“We are doing everything within our power to keep him [King] that is economically viable,” said Marilyn Ducksworth, Penguin Putnam’s corporate director of public relations.