Starting Over…?

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I thought I’d write about the realities of the publishing business today – and not the good stuff.  Yeah, I’m cranky.  For good reason.  I have a mystery-writing friend—someone I worked with a long while and introduced to her agent and celebrated with her through her first books.  She just called…

 

She just found out that her numbers on the first two books were not high enough and the publishing company is not picking her up after book three (which isn’t even released yet).  They will not be buying more books from her, under that name, with that character, ever.  Her career is dead in the water.  Which just gripes my goat.  Or would if I had one.

 

Apparently this happened last week and it just hit her.  Hard.  She just emailed me and I … well, I am still shocked.  I had hoped she would make it.  Really hoped she would, because she has become a good friend and is a kind, good, person, and her writing makes me laugh.  What more can you ask?

 

Now she has to make some tough decisions.  Does she stop writing?  Write something else?  If so, what?  Under another name?  With another agent?  Is she stopping and quitting or starting over?  What more can her heart-of-a-writer take?  These are the decisions that plague writers whose books do not earn enough to make them viable to their publishing company.  It is worse than being orphaned (losing one’s editor to attrition, downsizing, pregnancy, new better job, whatever.)

 

How it works: Most publishing houses offer a three book deal (average) to an unknown writer, though there are exceptions (waves to Misty,).  They then give that writer two books to make a name, build a fan base, sell through, and earn royalties on the third book of the three book deal.  Some few houses will go more books.  Up to five.  After that it is sayonara, baby.  It hurts.

 

My first two books (two book deal) with a co-writer, sold under the name Gary Hunter, and was planned to be a six book series (per the editor who so enthusiastically purchased the first two books) about an undercover cop in Washington, DC.  Then Rodney King happened.  Cop books disappeared from the market almost overnight.  Only Joseph Wambaugh survived the ensuing list purge, and he reportedly took a *huge* cut in his advances for the next few books.  Gary Hunter was purged.  My writing partner gave up.  And I had to decide who I was, what I was going to write, and if my creative heart could do this again.

 

I took a year off to decide and experiment with fiction and voice and character, and sent in four or five proposals to my agent.  Each proposal consisted of a five to ten page single-spaced outline and at least thirty manuscript pages.  I had huge publisher interest in a *lady cop* book but could never find the voice.  I also couldn’t find a voice for fantasy.  And my agent, who was less than excited about my career at that point, did not represent fantasy.

 

After a year of grieving, I reinvented myself as a mystery writer.  It hasn’t been an easy ride – more like taking a river at flood stage, over a cofferdam, in a leaky kayak.  I have survived.  So far.  But my friend’s pain is my pain.  What will tomorrow bring?  It is dang scary.  At times like this I really hate this business.  Almost as much as I love it.

 

So.  I guess my question is this.  If you got canned and had to start over, (either at the beginning of your career, for our not-yet-published fans/writers, or now, at whatever point you are at, career-wise, for my co-bloggers and other commercially published writers) how would you handle it?  What would you do?  Would you give up?  Pick a new name?  Start drinking?  *smiles*  What?

Faith

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10 comments to Starting Over…?

  • I would start a new series under the same name with a new publisher. As you pointed out, fads come and go in publishing. What she wrote may just be on a downward curve right now. In a few years, it could be the hottest thing out there. As I recall Star Trek was prematurely cancelled after 2 seasons. Now it is a premiere fanchise.

    So I would make a new series under the same name (unless I thought that I really choked on the first series and would like to totally disassociate myself with them).

    As my old Music History teacher use dot say, “Hemlines go up. Hemlines go down.”

  • I’d change my name, change my genre. I have so many stories I want to tell… o.O

    -Catie

  • I hope I’d move on to something else, try and reinvent myself. I imagine the way things work these days, I’d definitely have to choose a new name, but having multiple names has never been a complication for me. (Misty? Mom? Captain? Mahisti? Who am I today?)

    I think there’d be an immediate rush to weep, wail and maybe drink a bit, but I have to hope I’d be strong enough to keep trying. I don’t think I can go back to what I used to be.

    <<<sending good hopeful vibes to your friend<<<

  • Good comments, ya’ll.

    My friend is grieving, but she has already started bouncing back. She picked a penname (she sent me an email with the choce, and it’s cross-gender, which is smart) and has already picked another sub-genre of mystery writing. She is a tough bird, and I can’t see this keeping her down for long. But it is really hard.
    Faith

  • Lou Berger

    Thanks, Faith, for this blog entry.

    As a not-yet-published author, I’m unaware of the road ahead, having never traveled it. The stark reality you paint raises an interesting question.

    “Is the fate of an author strongly dependent upon the editor and agent?”

    In other words, what is the back story here? If the writing is superb, doesn’t the market find a way to get the work in front of the readers? Or am I being naive in my assumptions?

    If it *IS* the interpersonal relationships between the author and the editor and the agent (the triangle of publishing, I’ve heard it called), then the numbers will follow, yes? If an editor/agent pair find an author extremely likable, and the product is of better than average quality, won’t they try hard, promote the heck out of the story and get it moving?

    There’s still a lot I don’t know, but I’m curious as to your thoughts…

    Thanks for your insightful blog!

    Lou

    (waves to Misty)

  • Wow, Lou… Um…
    This is *great* set of questions. With very involved answers if I do it justice. To do that, I am going to answer them in my blog next Wednesday, and give you the history of publishing for the last 20 years.
    Which gives me a chance to pontificate!
    Whoowhoo!
    You lucky dog!
    Faith (thinking hard about answers)

  • [Coming late to the discussion] Great questions, Lou, and I look forward to Faith’s response. But if I can throw in my two cents, I’d say that the relationship between writing quality and commercial success is an inconsistent one at best. It’s very hard sometimes to pinpoint the source of success for certain books, and it’s just as difficult to explain why some great books never attract an audience. It also needs to be said that an agent and editor may love a book, but they have very limited ability to shape the marketing of the book. An editor can praise a book to his/her higher-ups in the publishing house, and that editor can push hard for a big marketing push, but ultimately that decision is out of the editor’s hands. It’s made by marketing and business departments. Sad but true.

  • Forgot to answer your question, Faith. I’d grab hold of a pseudonym and try the next project idea. I love this job, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and no one’s taking it from me without a fight. Tell your friend that we’re pulling for her. I admire her for getting right back to it.

  • Thank you David. I admire her too. She is a fighter.
    I’ll have her to guest blog after she reinvents herself! Now that will be a story to share!!!!!
    Faith