Question of the day: My debut novel did okay, not great, and now my publisher is being slightly less than enthusiastic about my follow-up. They aren’t excited about the book I’m working on, even though I love it, and have encouraged me to try to write something different. I’m torn – on one hand, I love this book but on the other hand, I need their support. What would you do?
I thought this was a perfect discussion for Writer Unboxed because I’m certain that I can’t be the only one who has been in this position, and indeed, I was in this EXACT position. And I feel for this writer because, well, there is little more demoralizing than pouring your heart into a book, having it only do so-so, and then feeling like the rest of your career will be determined by those initial sales figures. What I mean by that is that publishers base their next offer (and their future enthusiasm) on your prior sales, so if a book didn’t meet expectations, or even if it did but those expectations were low, you’re kind of screwed. Or at least you’re not going to keep ascending the publishing ranks to really have your books go gang-busters. But that isn’t to say that you’re always screwed. Sometimes – and really, I mean only SOMETIMES – you can gamble and win big. That’s what happened to me.
My story is this: my debut, The Department of Lost and Found, did okay, not great, and when it came time to sell my next one, I didn’t get a lot of enthusiasm from my publisher…they offered on it but it was significantly lower than my healthy debut advance. I was, of course, both simultaneously infuriated and demoralized – no small part because when a book doesn’t do that well, the author is the one who is ultimately punished when there are so many factors outside an author’s control that this notion seems entirely unfair. But anyway, at the time, I’d written 150 pages of my next book, and I took some time to step back and consider whether or not it really was the break-out book that I wanted to write. The truth was, it wasn’t, and I made the decision to ditch it entirely. Once I freed myself from the idea of that book, Time of My Life came to me almost immediately, and I wrote the first 100 pages in a span of weeks.
With the sample in hand, my agent and I decided we didn’t want to go back to my original publisher for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into, but one of them was certainly that they were SO tied to my sales numbers that we knew they wouldn’t budge much on advance money. And sure, money is just money, but it’s not really: without a reasonably healthy advance (some would say 50k or so), a publisher just isn’t going to give your book that much attention. Beyond that, my agent and I really wanted to think long-term and go to the imprint that would be best for my CAREER, not just this specific book. I’d long wanted to be at Shaye Areheart Books and with the specific editor there at the time, so we set our sights on that. As we shopped around to different publishers, many of the imprints were indeed still hung up on numbers and I got, I can’t remember, something like four offers, all of which were less than my debut advance. Ultimately, SAB came through with a solid enough offer that it made sense to take less money to be at the place that could send my career soaring. I have literally never regretted it for a day.
Now, granted, the stars aligned for TOML in ways that people couldn’t have predicted (and despite the lower advance, I now receive very nice royalty checks, which is fabulous), which is why I say that gambles like this only SOMETIMES pay off, and which is why I can’t ever tell someone, 100%, to jump ship from a publisher or a manuscript. For me, it was an issue of thinking long-term – I knew that my initial imprint wasn’t the perfect fit, and I also suspected that their waning enthusiasm would never reverse itself. And that’s a vicious circle: without in-house excitement, you’re never getting anyhere anyway.
So my advice here may just be to listen to your gut. To write the book that YOU want to write and then have a heart-to-heart with your agent about your viability in the market elsewhere. I wouldn’t write a book that you were less than enthusiastic about because I think that you’ll end up feeling like you compromised yourself, and that’s never a good thing, no matter how things play out.
I’d love to open this up to others though. Anyone ever been in this situation? Even if you haven’t, how would you advise this author?
Picture courtesy Flickr’s FreeWine