Hold it, Hillary

A watchdog organization calls for the first lady to turn down an $8 million advance for her memoir.


Laura Miller
December 14, 2000 6:13AM (UTC)

As the bidding on Hillary Clinton's memoir soars as high as (rumor has it) $8 million, a nonpartisan watchdog organization called the Congressional Accountability Project has another suggestion for the first lady: Skip the advance entirely.

"The public ought to question it when a member of Congress receives such an enormous advance," says CAP director Gary Ruskin. "It can have the aspect of a gift or a sweetheart deal, and it can give the impression as well that the member is exploiting his or her office for monetary gain."

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CAP was part of a chorus that criticized former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., when, in 1994, he accepted a $4.5 million advance for his book "To Renew America" from HarperCollins, a publishing house owned by conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch. Gingrich himself had pushed for an ethics investigation of then-House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, for a similar book deal in 1988. Ultimately, Gingrich returned the advance, the House amended its rules to prohibit members from accepting book advances -- and Gingrich's book didn't sell nearly as well as he had boasted it would.

The ethics argument against hefty book advances rests on the speculative nature of book contracts themselves. Authors are paid royalties -- usually 10 to 15 percent of the cover price -- for their books. Publishers routinely offer authors advances against royalties, upfront payments that are gradually deducted from an author's subsequent royalty earnings once the book goes on sale. An author only begins to receive royalty checks after his or her book has "earned out" its advance and is seldom asked to return any portion of the advance should the book fail to do so.

However, in order to land a potential blockbuster -- or even just a particularly prestigious book -- publishers will sometimes offer an advance so large that few books could ever earn it out. Observers have recently questioned the $7 million advance paid to outgoing General Electric CEO Jack Welch for his autobiography. As in the case of Gingrich's book (and Wright's), an extravagant advance can be interpreted as a way to funnel a nice chunk of cash to a political friend. Then-House Majority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., called Gingrich's advance a "$4 million Christmas gift" from Murdoch.

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Gingrich's treatise on his political philosophy, however, never promised to reveal the kind of secrets that fueled tabloid cover stories for the better part of 1998: Clinton's memoir does. According to the New York Times, she has told potential publishers that she intends her book to be both "honest" and "dignified," but she has also said that she plans to discuss the Monica Lewinsky scandal. If her publishing suitors expect her book to be a bestseller, their hopes don't seem far-fetched.

There is no formal rule prohibiting members of the Senate from receiving book advances, however, Ruskin insists that Clinton ought to accept only "copyright royalities" on her memoir, or wait until the book starts selling before she sees a dime. Considering that the book isn't even written yet, that it may take as long as two years to complete and another six months to a year to roll off the presses, and that royalty payment don't arrive until several months after a book goes on sale, it would be quite some time before Clinton could reap the rewards of her painful revelations.

And the Clintons, according to the New York Times, are feeling the pinch. Set to vacate their home of the past eight years, shouldering a $1.7 million mortage for their new house in Chappaqua, N.Y., saddled with another $4 million in legal bills and in need of a home in Washington, they could use a quick and sizable infusion of cash.

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That's probably why Clinton is asking to receive all of her book advance upfront, when it's more customary for a publisher to pay the sum in thirds: one portion each upon the signing of the contract, the delivery of the manuscript and the final publication of the book. It's this variation from form that Ruskin singles out as most egregious. "If the deal really is as it's reported to be in the Times," he says, "it is not usual or customary terms for a book contract ... She will soon be a sitting member of the U.S. Senate. She's not Jack Welch, who works for GE and is a private citizen who works for private individuals. Hillary Clinton is a senator-elect and she works for us. That means she has to uphold the public trust."


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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