Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Sophomore Slump

In the comments section to one of my blog posts there was a reference to the sophomore slump, when an author has spent years writing and perfecting her first novel and now only has nine months to a year at most to write the second novel and just can’t get it there. This resulted in the following question off the comment board:

Does it really have to be that way? Can't I say to a publisher, "No, I'm only dealing with you for this book, but you'll have the first option to see the next one"? Or is it always a package deal and they buy the next two books in the series or trilogy? Because honestly, it's almost enough to make me put my foot down and say, "No, I'm not going to make any deal on books I haven't written, because if a book is not ready, I WILL NOT put it on the market, deal or no deal."

Honestly, you can do almost anything you want. If a publisher comes to you and offers a three-book deal and you’d rather make it a one-book deal, you can certainly try to do that. I will tell you, though, that there have been times when part of the negotiation did involve the number of books and the publisher wouldn’t budge. You can also set your own delivery dates. If the publisher wants books number two and three at nine-month intervals, but you would be more comfortable with eighteen months, you can try to schedule accordingly.

The problem with waiting so long to deliver the follow-up book and subsequently publish it is that if you are writing genre fiction it’s going to be nearly impossible to build a career on this kind of schedule. More and more publishers are finding that authors who really have success and break out do so based on a quick publishing schedule, especially with the release of their first few books. Once an audience is established with two or three books, it’s possible to stretch things out again to give the author time to catch her breath; and the readers, they’re already fans, so they will happily wait.

By coming out with one book and waiting two years for the next it’s very likely readers will have forgotten you and might not even think to come back. Now, I do believe that writers of literary fiction can be a huge exception to this rule. If the book is truly mind-blowing you will probably get the reviews (NYT, etc.) on the second book to bring the readers back. Of course, you’re hinging your career on reviews.

Now what some publishers are doing to accommodate authors who can’t write a book every three months is to hold the first book or two so that they can schedule the books three months or six months apart, or even back to back in subsequent months. The problem with this, based on your question, is that if I sold a two-book deal for you today and you wanted to wait eighteen months to deliver book two, your first publication date wouldn’t likely be until sometime in 2010.

Ultimately, what I tell my clients is first things first: you need to write a good book, and if the publisher wants it in six months, but you’re more comfortable with nine, you need to go with what makes you comfortable. Reasonably, though, I think you need to learn to write a really knock-out book in nine to twelve months at the outset if you want to build a career. Yes, there are exceptions, but don’t look at authors who first published ten, twenty, or even three years ago and use them as an example. The market has changed.