Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fixing a Stalled Career

Let's say you have a client who has published a handful of novels, all of which failed to earn out. The client's working on a new project. Do you recommend that she finish the new novel on spec, and submit the whole thing? Or do a handful of chapters/outline? Do you tend to get more/better offers for full manuscripts than partials, all else being equal?

Honestly there is no way to answer this question since it’s going to be different for each and every client. If all of your novels failed to earn out and you are working on a new project, I’m going to assume that you aren’t going back to your previous publisher with the book or that your publisher has already passed on your option material. It means that you are starting from scratch, except that you have those numbers dragging you down.

What this author doesn’t say, but I want to make clear, is that earning out isn’t necessarily the sign of an author who's a good or bad risk. Earning out your advance only matters to the publisher who paid the advance. What others are going to be interested in is your sales track record. Let’s say you were paid an advance in the mid-six figures, your advance didn’t earn out because the publisher only got orders for 50,000 copies of your book. However, you sold 40,000 copies. That’s not bad at all. Well, it is to the publisher who isn’t recouping the advance, but to other publishers those are pretty decent numbers, and if they like your next book it’s likely they’ll snap you up and pay an advance comparable to those 40,000 copies you sold.

Now that’s the good news. Based on your question, my guess is you got a smallish advance (say $10,000), and not earning out $10,000 means not a lot of copies were sold, essentially stalling your career. So do you need to write the full book or would a partial work? The problem isn’t going to be what you submit, it’s going to be overcoming those numbers. If I were your agent it would depend on what you’re writing. If it’s in the same vein as your previous books I don’t think you’d need a full manuscript. You might however need a pseudonym. If you’re writing something completely different (going from mystery to women’s fiction, for example) you’d probably need to complete the full manuscript, not because of your numbers, but because you are making a dramatic shift in style and editors will want to see that you can do that successfully.

The only person who can really answer this question is your agent, and the answer is going to depend on the agent, the work and you as the author.



Ash. Elizabeth said...

great post, even though i'm still working on the whole getting-published-for-first-time-around step. hopefully this wouldn't happen to me, but if it did i'd have this post to look back on :)

Anonymous said...

And sadly, with weak numbers, if you weren't repped before, it's going to be harder than before to find a good agent. It's a hard business.

AM said...

Ow! This is a depressing dose of reality.

I’ve come to realize that there are many things beyond writing a great novel that determines an author’s sales.

If this author found an agent and a publisher for more than one novel, could the low sales numbers be due more to an ineffective book cover, or a bad release date, or a lack of advertising and marketing rather than the novels themselves?

If so, why would other publishers penalize the author if they liked the new book? Wouldn’t they consider that the sales issue might be due to the previous publisher’s handling of the novel?

Lea Ann McCombs said...

As I'm also still waiting for that first contract, I can only thank God my first book didn't sell, even though at the time I was crushed. My second novel is 100 times better and therefore more likely to meet sales expectations. Maybe I can sneak that first one back in the mix after I've successfully sold out a few books.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Read some of my other posts. The low sales could be caused by a number of things--the cover, the content, the release date, the subject. Unfortunately there's no way to know. What the publisher will know is that bookstores are only going to place orders based on your previous sales.

They might not "punish the author" as you say, but it will effect the bottom line and, as I've said time and time again, publishing is a business.


Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused about the pseudonym. Even though the agent and publisher knows your real name, and therefore the sales you made, do they look at you as if you didn't have that "failure" (assuming the sales were poor) just as long as you use a pseudonym now?
And if so, why?

Kate Douglas said...

Anonymous, I've seen authors totally reinvent themselves with a new genre and a new name. Jessica Bird, aka J.R.Ward comes to mind--Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series is a total 180 from her traditional contemporary romances written as Jessica Bird. That new name and new series has catapulted her from mid-list author to NY Times bestseller. Ann Maxwell wrote s/f and mysteries with her husband, but as Elizabeth Lowell she regularly hits the best seller lists with her romances.

The pseudonym gives authors a chance to break out in a new genre w/o the old books that might not have been successful pulling them down. A reader who might have looked at a Jessica Bird romance and passed it by will pre-order the new BDB books months in advance--same goes for bookstore orders. I thought long and hard about changing my name for my new series, but finally decided to stick with Kate Douglas in the hopes that I would bring my readers of erotic paranormal romance over to my new paranormal romance series. The first book, DemonFire, doesn't release until March, but in the meantime I'm working on the name branding and hoping to get a buzz going to push sales. So much of publishing is about marketing and perception, something you don't realize until that first book is ready to release.

Anonymous said...

Thank you (from Anon 12:37)!
What if you're not changing genres? And do you have to use a psuedonym just to get an agent or publisher to consider your new series?

Mira said...

Helpful! Thanks -

AM said...

Thanks for responding, Jessica. I will read your previous postings.

And thanks, Kate. Create a new brand. This is making sense.

I’ve been trying to understand the nuances of authors’ rankings within the industry. Until recently, I thought the accepted standard was that new authors developed their sales over time. However, recent blogs have led me to believe, perhaps incorrectly, that once an author is ranked based on their first novels’ sales, it is very difficult for them to change their ranking in the industry.

As Jessica mentioned, bookstores set order quantities based on authors' historical sales and of course, having less books on the shelves will probably lead to lower sales.

If this perception is accurate, then my entire concept about first time authors’ careers must change. My entire writing career may be dictated by my first novel’s sales.

Today, I’ve learned a great deal.

Thanks to you both.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the position of trying to resuscitate a stalled career after my debut novel tanked, due to its small press publisher failing to send out advance review copies in time for the deadlines of the trade journals. Hence, no reviews and disastrous sales. Even though my publisher stuck with me for the second novel, which was in a different genre, no one suggested I write under a pseudonym, so the chains didn't buy the new book. This one, however, has gotten superb reviews, award nominations, and decent support from independent bookstore, all this in spite of the fact that its publisher was going bust.

People are telling me that my next book, for which I'm starting to look for an agent, will get a chance because of the critical success of the second novel and its lower expectations of sales coming as it is from a struggling small press. Is that true?

Anonymous said...

I sure hope so, anon 3:12. Good job.

Anonymous said...

What I love about this post is the message that we CAN fix a stalled career. Just what I've been waiting to hear. Thanks, Jessica!

Stephanie Damore said...

So much information - and it's all helpful (from the commenters too!) - Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:50 pm asked: What if you're not changing genres? And do you have to use a psuedonym just to get an agent or publisher to consider your new series?

This post at Absolute Write explains the Death Spiral in all its depressing glory.

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Anonymous said...

anon 810 from anon 1250:
Wow, that is depressing, but thanks.

AM said...

Anon 8:10,

That link to James Mcdonald's posting at the Absolute Write was very informative.

Thank you.