The Wednesday Writer’s Corner: A Siren’s Song of “Impending Success”
Next week, I’m going to do a more “nuts and bolts” post on planning the middle of a novel, but in recent weeks, my mind and heart have been drawn to a few tragedies I’ve seen among writers who came out on the more painful side of “impending success”—and I sort of feel the need to offer some thoughts.
There is a strange window in the world of a writer once he/she has found a publisher, signed a contract, delivered a novel, and then finds him/herself inside that misty period of time (which can last as long as a year) just waiting for the novel to be published.
Often, the size of the advance and the attitude of the publisher can affect expectations on the part of the writer.
JC and I were paid a very modest ($6,000) advance for Dhampir, and with the exception of our editor we had no contact with anyone at our publisher. Our agent at the time seemed quite surprised that any New York publisher had made an offer on the book. The book received almost no marketing. We knew nothing about the publishing industry at that level, and when the book came out in mass market paperback, we had no expectations. We were lucky. A month later, the book was in its third printing. Eight months after that, we received a royalty check for $21,000—nothing Earth shattering, but certainly unexpected and quite welcome.
However, we were stunned by the book having exceeded expectations. Our agent was stunned. Frankly, I think everyone except for our editor was stunned.
So, that’s one side the coin. We had absolutely no expectations at all, and we were pleasantly surprised by some modest success. The book could just as easily have tanked, and we could have been lucky to even earn out that initial $6,000. That happens all the time.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN . . .
Okay, the other side of the coin can occur when a publisher pays a writer a fairly large advance and makes a bit of a verbal fuss, and the writer becomes convinced that he/she is going to be the next HUGE thing, and that the book will sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and that life after publication will be very, very different. I’ve watched several writers in that six-month to a year window prior to publication who are floating on the joy and promise of “impending success.” I’ve sat on panels at conventions and seen their absolute confidence that within the span of a few months they will be the next Robert Jordan . . . and are on their way to being wealthy. I’ve watched their close friends (who are mid-list writers) sitting around them and looking at them with great envy.
I was even in a conversation once regarding one of those midlist writers--who had seemed a bit blue lately--when another writer said, “Oh, I think he’s just really depressed over [insert name]’s impending success.”
But me . . . I tend to look at those glowing, expectant, impending writers with concern—even worry if I care about the person.
Few things in this life are a dead certainty. Now, there are some writers in that window of time who really can be sure of a wild success. Justin Cronin for example. His book, The Passage, probably could not have been anything other than a complete and utter success. The marketing money that Ballantine threw behind that book was staggering. They managed to turn that book into a success long before it was published. I think he was pretty safe in feeling confident.
However . . . after the great success of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger was paid a large advance for her next book, Her Fearful Symmetry. I’ve read a few business articles that speculate she was paid as much as five million dollars. Yikes. There was great anticipation during those months of “impending success.” But . . . once it was published, the book did not achieve the popularity of The Time Traveler’s Wife. From what I’ve read in business articles, it is unlikely that she will ever earn out that advance.
But those two writers are major players.
Okay, pretend you received a $150,000 advance for a three-book fantasy deal. Your signing advance is a third of that (and remember 15% goes to your agent, and a large chunk goes to taxes). You are convinced by a number of sources that you will indeed be the next Robert Jordan. You bask in the promise of your first book coming out to huge success and big sales numbers. You even quit your day job to work on the second book.
Your publisher tries to convince the book chain representatives that you are indeed something special. The book store reps are optimistically tentative, and they order an initial 20,000 copies of the hard cover (which is pretty good for a fantasy hard cover by a new writer).
Publication day arrives!
You wait with full confidence for all the success you’ve been expecting.
The book sells five thousand copies, and then all interest fades away.
You’re nowhere close to earning out the advance, and you already spent what you got to keep from your signing advance (and your first “delivery” advance) by paying off your credit card, buying a new car, and remodeling the bathroom. After all, you thought you’d be making big royalties soon. You will have some more advance money coming in upon official delivery of the second and third novels, but it’s not enough to support your family.
Within four months, the first book goes into remainder and is piled up on those “bargain book” tables at B&N. Your publisher is disappointed in you.
This does happen.
Can you imagine how this would feel? Your next book is due, and you’re almost too depressed to finish it. If the first book sold five thousand copies (which under normal circumstances is considered “not bad” in hard cover), it’s not likely that the second will do better.
Six months later, you go to your old boss and try to get your job back.
Now, some of this tragedy could have been avoided.
For you promising young writers out there, don’t believe that finding a New York publisher is the end of the rainbow. You’ve still got a ways to go. Don’t ever buy into the myth of “impending success.” That road can lead to heartbreak. Don’t quit your day job. Don’t spend all of your signing advance until you have a better idea how the book is going to sell to the general public.
Keep your expectations tentative (I’m not saying “low,” I’m saying “tentative,”) and then if you end up with a success on your hands, you will be pleasantly surprised.