The trend towards taking big chances with high advances on untested authors like Paula Barbieri has some insiders nervous

For the publishing industry, 1997 has been nothing less than an annus horribilis. With the number of unsold books shipped back to publishers running as high as 45 percent, companies are going to extreme measures to win back buyers this fall: They’re wagering some of the biggest advances anyone can remember — and on completely unproven writers to boot.

”It’s insanity,” says Roger Straus, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, about the money reportedly being bestowed on everyone from Whoopi Goldberg, who got $6 million for a collection of ”ruminations,” to Paula Barbieri, who received $3 million for her bombshell-free memoir, The Other Woman. Sure, everybody knows their names, but the trend is still ”ridiculous,” agrees David Rosenthal, incoming publisher at Simon & Schuster.

If Straus and Rosenthal seem smug, well, they are about the only major publishers not betting the farm this fall on high-priced literary trinkets. It’s one thing for Putnam to give Tom Clancy $50 million for his next two novels or Patricia Cornwell a $24 million three-book deal — the sales records of those writers more than justify the money they get. It’s quite another for Doubleday to pay country singer LeAnn Rimes $1.3 million for a semiautobiographical Christmas fable. And that’s not all: Judith Regan, of Regan Books, anted up $1 million for Jenny McCarthy’s Jen-X and gave Denise Brown $1 million for Nicole’s Story. Random House paid ex-Air Force lieutenant Kelly Flinn, who left the service over adulterous affairs, a rumored $1 million for her memoirs, and Hyperion forked over $3 million for TV star Drew Carey’s Dirty Jokes and Beer. As Bantam Doubleday Dell senior vice president Stuart Applebaum admits, ”There’s a lot of stuff that’s a hard gulp.”

Only The Royals, for which Warner paid Kitty Kelley $5 million, is expected to be a surefire blockbuster. ”It’s going to be huge,” says Penguin Putnam president Phyllis Grann. ”But the rest are wild gambles. And when you gamble like that, you’re really playing with a lot of people’s lives and careers.”

Rob Weisbach at Morrow defends Goldberg’s $6 million check. ”I’ve done my math,” he says. ”All you have to do is look at [Ellen] DeGeneres, [Jerry] Seinfeld, and [Paul] Reiser. Between them they sold about 7 million books.” But for every Couplehood, notes Applebaum, there’s a Babyhood, Reiser’s recently published, weaker-performing second effort, for which he was reportedly paid $5.6 million. ”That kind of book usually does very well in the early weeks,” Applebaum says. ”This hasn’t done as well as expected.”

Most publishers doubt many of these big-dollar books will earn back their advances. ”If you have Oprah Winfrey and she’s writing about her own libido and she plugs it on her show,” says Straus, ”then you have a possibility.” Rosenthal thinks editors ought to abandon their high-priced love affair with marquee names and seek out the next Frank McCourt or Jon Krakauer. But he’s not optimistic. ”It’s like watching people in a depression take their last pay stub to Las Vegas,” he says. ”Sometimes it’s worth spinning the roulette wheel, but this time it’s more like Russian roulette.”