Did you hear that Monica Lewinsky is getting an eight-figure book deal for her juicy tell-all? We'd take that with a grain of salt. Reports about huge advances have been wrong many times in the past, and they're often used as a way to drum up publicity.
Take the incorrectly reported advance Monica's "former flame" Bill Clinton got for his memoirs. The amount was originally pegged at $12 million, which at the time was the largest sum ever to be reportedly paid for a non-fiction book. But in this case, there's another rarity: Digging through Clinton's tax returns years later revealed that he actually got a whopping $15 million.
Clinton's underestimated book deal is the exception to the rule (though as a rule, much of this kind of book deal speculation turns out to be incorrect). Most news items about huge advances are highly inflated. British bus driver Magnus Mills reportedly got a million-pound advance for his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, which makes for a great rags-to-riches story. Too bad he only got £10,000 in reality. If you watch Fox News, you'd think Sarah Palin made HarperCollins pony up $5 million for Going Rogue. Back on Earth, the publisher only paid $1.25 million.
Think about it this way: Why would publishing houses officially divulge the amount they pay authors for their work? No other industry is that open with the media about their business practices, so why would publishers be? "Advances are seldom specified authoritatively," Michael Meyer wrote in his New York Times essay on advances. Citing the familiar verbiage, he adds, "Amounts are coyly described like cigarette brands — the 'mid-fives,' the 'low sixes,' the 'mild sevens.'” When we talk actual numbers we're often relying on figures provided to gossip rags by unspecified sources, coming as close to pure speculation as journalism gets. (Meyer writes that if there's any sort of standard advance, "most publishers I talked to cited $30,000 as a rough average.") Clearly, though, buzzy books by public figures and celebrities bring those speculated estimates up much further—even though those estimates are rarely verified.
That's how we ended up with thin reports about Oprah getting an even larger advance than Bubba, but no hard numbers to back up the claim. In summer 2011, Maria Shriver was supposedly getting $15 million for a new memoir. Over a year later, no publisher has officially announced a plan to print her book, making it likely that the figure was pulled out of thin air.
Everything about the news that Lewinsky is getting a $12 million advance seems fishy. Her book proposal remains "top secret," no specific publishing house has been linked to the project yet, and "friends" are the only source the New York Post cites for the $12 million figure. The National Enquirer attributes simply "sources," explaining that "Monica’s already got several publishers interested in her tell-all tale"—another detail that would seem to indicate that there is, in fact, no signed deal. Which publisher, exactly, thinks a Monica tell-all will fly off the shelves, 14 years after the scandal broke?
Many are expressing skepticism about Lewinsky's alleged huge advance—"$12 million does seem high, considering that Amanda Knox got a $4 million advance for her story involving the grisly killing in Italy of her female British study-abroad roommate, says Washington literary agent Gail Ross, who specializes in non-fiction," writes Annie Groer in the Washington Post. We're joining the fray. Consider, for instance, that Lewinsky reportedly got a comparatively small half-million for participating in the 1999 book, Monica's Story, written by Andrew Morton at a time you'd imagine as the peak payout moment for such a book. Sorry to shatter anyone's illusions, but we're doubtful that Lewinsky's book will be making her $12 million richer anytime soon.