Economics of Murder in Mississippi

I got the new non-fiction book by John Safran for Christmas. Murder in Mississippi. It was a quick read and a good one.

The premise: Safran knows a white supremacist in Mississippi – when the guy gets murdered he heads over to write a true crime book. The story only gets better from there.


Perhaps I’ve been overs-sensitised to costs by working for the Australian Financial Review (“BYO phone”, “travel by bus”, “we’ve run out of pens”). But throughout the book, Safran incurs big expenses that left me wondering if he, or Penguin, were going to actually make money on the book.

Let’s have a look:

Expense 1. Travel. Jackson is halfway between Dallas and Atlanta, or if you like, halfway between Miami and Denver. Today, the cheapest flights Melbourne – Mississippi are $1642.

Expense 2. Living. When he moves into the Sleep Inn and Suites in Jackson Mississippi, they are brand new and the carpet, which he says “feels like minigolf astroturf,” squeaks. Its advertised price is now $79/night.

Safran writes that he stayed in Jackson from winter to summer. Penguin claims “Over six months, Safran got deeper and deeper into the South.” During that time, Safran also went off to other parts of America to make some TV.

He also stayed at the Ashford Place apartments (circa $1000/month.)  If we assume he spent 6 weeks in the first motel and 10 weeks in the second one, that’s around $6000 on accommodation. I’m budgeting $50 a day for food and drink, for four months. That’s $6000 on food.

[Running total $1642 + 6000 + $6000 = $13642]

Expense 3. Car hire. Unavoidable. Jackson’s public transport situation is the sort of unholy tangle that would make Jarrett “Human Transit” Walker apoplectic. Four months of the cheapest Hertz car on monthly booking adds up to $4000. Plus, say another $1000 for gas? (Mississippi gas prices are almost the lowest in the US, equivalent to $A0.897/L)

[Running total $1642 + $6000 + $6000 + $4000 + $1000 = $18642]

Expense 4. Bribing the incarcerated.

This is the one that really caught my eye. The book includes a series of trips to Walmart where Safran buys phone cards for the murderer. He also delivers some other goods on his behalf. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what they are.

At one point the murderer asks for $2500 and Safran says “I can’t give you $2500. I don’t have much money left.”

Click here to see the murderer’s facebook profile (friends include one J.Safran!).

Assuming the items mentioned in the book are everything, that’s around $2650.

[Running total $1642 + $6000 + $6000 + $4000 + $1000 +$2650 = $21292] 

So. Twenty-Two Thousand Dollars. Quite the bill.

It is probably more than he budgeted. The book reveals he didn’t expect to spend so long in Jackson. He’s barely been in the place a few weeks when the expected trial is delayed.

murder in M

Safran is a big name as these things go, and I guess he was spending an advance he got from Penguin.

Instagram reveals that around the time the book was launched, Safran visited a whole heap of bookstores and posed for photographs with the proprietors. He did shows in Melbourne and Sydney to promote the thing.

Penguin is working hard to sell the book. There’s even been posters up around the place, as though his book was a rock act coming to town.

As author Ian Irvine explains here: “The promotional budget for your book is, generally, directly related to the size of the advance.”

Advances vary a great deal.

Melbourne internet publishing impresario Mel Campbell got $5000 for her book Out of Shape. Flinders University student Hannah Kent got over $1,000,000 for a two book deal, after writing one about an execution in Iceland. (!)

Safran is probably in the middle. I’d guess his advance is around $60,000. It is his first book and he’s got no form as a writer. On the other hand he is a publicity machine, especially among those who would buy non-fiction.

If I am right, that means he made $38,000. He could make more if and when the royalties cover the cost of the advance.

But he had to take time off from his radio show. Even if he got a $100,000 advance, and pocketed a large chunk of it, missed wages are a major cost of the book.

(Money would be scant compensation for hanging out in Jackson, which seems like the worst of what’s bad about America.When I dragged and dropped the orange Street View man onto a random corner of inner-city Jackson, I found myself on a huge roundabout with multi-lane roads in all directions, and no buildings in sight except a church.)

Quantification and snark aside, the book is pretty terrific, and I am insanely jealous. You have to invest to make something like that happen.

As his friend Lally Katz says to him in an email at the start of the book:  “What an exciting thing to do. You’d have such a great and sometimes dangerous adventure.”

Here’s the real economics of it all. A true adventure like that is scarce and therefore valuable. Of course it is worth it. Getting paid to adventure is every man’s dream. Speaking of which, The Economics of a Great and Sometimes Dangerous Adventure sounds like a book people would read. Any publishers reading who feel like commissioning that title?