"Steve Alten: Swimming In Shark Infested Waters" by Garrett Peck appeared in the October 22, 1999 issue of Hellnotes Newsletter. It details the trials and triumphs of author Steve Alten (MEG, THE TRENCH, DOMAIN) in the treacherous arena of big publishing houses.
STEVE ALTEN: Swimming in Shark Infested Waters
The career of Steve Alten has been much like the submersible vehicles he has written about. He has seen dizzying heights and dismal depths. In 1996 Alten was the general manager of a meat plant. He worked on his novel Meg in the evenings and on weekends. The first 100 pages sold to Disney Pictures on a first look deal. Things were looking good. Then, on Friday the 13th that fateful September, Alten and several other employees
of the meat plant were let go. He suddenly found himself out of work with $48 in the bank and a family of five to feed. Shortly afterwards Meg was taken to auction. Since it was known Disney was looking to film the story, interest among publishers was extraordinarily high for the work of an unknown author. After a day and a half of bidding, Alten and his manager accepted Doubleday’s offer of $2.1 million for a two- book deal. Things are looking up again.
In 1997 Meg is published in a 175,000 copy first printing in hardcover. Doubleday gives the book bestseller promotion. Doubleday sells the foreign rights for $1.2 million, putting the book in the black before the first copy was produced. Meg does make the New York Times bestseller list, peaking at #19 on the hardcover list and #7 on audio list. Ultimately it went on to sell 100,000 copies in hardcover—a respectable number for a first time author. Certainly Alten was pleased at the figures. He does feel Doubleday made a mistake in not putting a picture of a shark on the cover, though “It’s kind of hypocritical,” he laments, “They bought a shark book, then didn’t advertise it as one.” He feels more striking artwork might have sold more copies. “Even on the paperback they just have a black cover with the title Meg, which is a girl’s name.” Still, to have your first novel make the New York Times bestseller list would make any young author happy and would certainly please its publisher as well. Apparently that was not the case.
Alten had already begun work on his next novel for Doubleday. It’s working title was Phobos, which is a moon of the planet Mars. It dealt with the Mayans and their prediction of the end of earth in the year 2012. It also dealt with an asteroid striking the earth. Then Doubleday got the word two motion pictures on that subject, Armageddon and Deep Impact, were in production. They wanted changes to the story line. Alten happily obliged them, feeling they had some good ideas. The title of Phobos became Sire, then changed again to Fathom. In all, Alten was to do four complete re-edits of his 500-page manuscript. He submitted the first two-thirds of the book and they were accepted. He was paid for his treatment and first 100 pages. Then he delivered the final third of the book. Suddenly Doubleday would not return his phone calls. He was mystified. Finally, two weeks prior to the day they were supposed to have delivered a sizable check, Alten’s manager gets a call from the president of Doubleday informing him that they are canceling his contract. The company did not ask for any advance money back, but would simply take it out of royalties for Meg.
Alten acknowledges that it was within Doubleday’s rights to cancel their contract, but he was extremely displeased with how they went about it. They announced the cancellation in a very public way and hinted their reasoning was that Meg had not done well. Certainly the book’s sales figures would indicate otherwise. It seems as though the real problem was that the book failed to live up to their unrealistically high expectations. Alten was also distressed that Doubleday didn’t even want to look at anything else he might write, including a sequel to Meg. The real problems were that Doubleday still had his book Fathom and that the negative publicity they had put out had hurt his reputation with other publishers. Many didn’t even want to look at his material. Others questioned the sales figures of Meg when they were presented, because they had heard Doubleday said the book hadn’t done well. Alten finally decided to file suit against his first publisher to get the rights to Fathom back free and clear.
During the time the suit was being worked on, Alten was able to write The Trench, his sequel to Meg. It found a publisher with Kensington Books. It was published this spring in a first print run of 80,000 copies, 79,000 of which went out with the first order. Alten reports that his relations with Kensington are good. For one thing, they agreed with him that the cover should feature a shark. Not only that, but they gave it a most eye-catching shiny silver finish. Alten had a mock movie poster for The Trench designed by a reader that features a huge shark eating a submarine. Kensington is considering this artwork for the cover of the paperback. There is one thing Kensington has in common with Doubleday, however. They also want him to be an underwater writer, ala Peter Benchley. Alten would prefer not to have to write on the same subject all the time, though. “How many other creatures are there to write about?” he asks rhetorically. Never fear that he is done with creatures, though. He has another underwater creature novel in the works called Leviathan. Kensington will get the first look at this one.
Finally Alten’s lawsuit against Doubleday was worked out in arbitration, so the case didn’t have to go to court. Alten got the rights to Fathom back, which was his main concern. He spent the next year rewriting the book as he wanted it, retitling it Domain. He has recently sold it to Tor Books on a two-book deal, with the other book being an as yet unwritten sequel. Domain is due out in May 2000.
As for the Meg movie, after two disappointing screenplays were written, Disney wound up passing on making the film. Alten now has the film rights back and will soon be marketing a package with financing. Perhaps the success of Deep Blue Sea will help him in this venture. The success of The Mummy has also drawn the interest of filmmakers toward Domain.
So for now, the seas have calmed. Though his first three books have seen three different publishers, he feels the experiences have made him a better writer. In daring the raging waters of New York publishers, Steve Alten is learning to ride the waves.