Friday, December 14, 2012

Are You Holding Your Novel Hostage?

I received an interesting email the other day from one of the authors in the publishing house I work for. Sales for this author's book were down and the publisher asked me to go over the author's marketing plan submitted prior to publication. I went down the list and asked the author if any of these promotions had been done.

His reply stunned me. “I'm not going to do anymore marketing until I see some sales.”

Maybe it's me, but the logic of his answer escapes me: “I'm not getting any sales, ergo, I will not attempt to sell books until my book sells.” A new concept in marketing.

This isn't the first time I've witnessed a novel in a hostage situation. I have a friend who kept her novel bound and gagged for over twenty years while she repeatedly second-guessed her beginning. I finally sent the SWAT Team in and demanded she hand it over. Look for it on the shelves in spring.

Another way authors keep their manuscripts from ever seeing the light of day is to work toward perfection. There is no such thing as the perfect book and nobody in the business is looking for that Holy Grail. We want well-written books with good plots and a sense that the author knows craft as well as basic punctuation and grammar. The only one who expects perfection is a hard-to-please author.

Opposite of perfectionism is lack of confidence. How many times do writers compare themselves to other authors and come up short? How often do they talk themselves out of sending that query letter? Chances are the book you've written is good and will be better once the editor and myself make a few suggestions. Trust us if you can't trust yourself. Please, turn the book loose.

And speaking of trust, I don't like it when I meet all your demands and then you take the hostage with you to another house. Recently, I gave a very green author a break. All she had to do was give me a few edits. Months went by. Then she wanted to see the standard contract. Again, more time elapsed. Finally, she let me know she was signing with another house. That's fine, just don't keep me dangling while you shop around.

There have been ransom attempts as well. When a first-time author wants to know if they can retain movie, TV and product rights, I know I'm dealing with an amateur. If you see your characters as action figures and Hollywood stars are in your eyes, you're either too enamored with your talent or delusional. Either way, we're not going to finance those dreams.

Tough negotiators can also kill a book. Agents are there to get an author the best deal possible, but in the world of small publishing, there's no room to play hardball. Rather than dealing with their demands, it's easier for me to save my publisher the headache and give the book a pass. A good book can be held back until the agent sees enough profit for themselves. The author is abetting his captor—sort of like the Stockholm Syndrome or Patty Hearst.

So, while I always hear writers complaining how difficult this industry is to break into, I think many unpublished authors undermine their own best efforts. At some point, you have to take the leap and let go. Give your novel the freedom it deserves.

20 comments:

Julie Luek said...

Sunny-- good advice. I have anw MS I've worked on for a year that I keep considering trashing. It needs a lot of work and rewrite and my insecurities and lack of confidence keep making me want to give it the heave-ho. Thanks for the reminder to persevere then play smart and fair with the the publishing process.

William Doonan said...

Action figures!!! I never even thought about that.

As far as agents go, does it seem to anyone else like that day is over? As in so many other industries, there seems to be little room for middlemen. Profit margins are thin enough as it is, I can't imagine trying to make a living as an agent.

Sunny Frazier said...

Some agents are opening their own publishing houses. There was a time when you couldn't get through the door without an agent, but now the author has much of the power. I think authors still go the agent route because they feel publishers are out there to screw them over. However, when I get an agent query, it's just another headache. I ask myself, "When the profit is so slim, why split it with an agent who did what the author could do him/herself?"

William Doonan said...

Interesting. So maybe they're getting tired of splitting razor thin profit margins, and instead trying to morph into something else. Agents opening their own publishing houses -- I wonder how that's going to go.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

As usual, terrific advice.

Marilyn

marja said...

Certainly great advice. As an author I've made a lot of mistakes, but hopefully I learn from each one. As much as I love writing, it's still a business, so treat it as such.
Marja McGraw

James R. Callan said...

As usual, great advice. But you did get me to thinking. Forget the action figure. How about an in-action figure -- me sitting at the computer waiting for the muse. In fact, that may be the title of my next novel: Waiting for the Muse.

elysabeth said...

James, that is a good title and I can see several directions that could go in - mystery, romance, comedy, action, fantasy, sci-fi, or any number of other genres.

Sunny, what about the premise you think is really good and you start writing the story but it really turns out to be ho-hum or not that good of a story? Just thinking that's what my latest attempt at a novel is. I really am not holding it hostage but may return to it later, after I come up with some new mysteries for my character in my stand-alone that is now going to be worked as a series similar to the Nancy Drew mysteries. I enjoyed the post very much and saw another article on the same lines recently, and I'm pretty sure you weren't the author. Will send to you when I find it. E :-)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a middle grade/YA mystery
http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com
http://eeldering.weebly.com

marta chausée said...

You and your house have been a dream of clarity and support, helping a greenie like me. Who could ask for more?

Thank you both, Sunny and Billie.

Marta

Theresa Varela said...

Great post. I sent my ms out way too early. No hostage taking for me. Because I did, I was able to garner excellent suggestions and connections with an amazing group of authors and editors.

C.L. Swinney said...

This is awesome Sunny. Hard to please everyone I guess. I'm a newbie, but even I can follow your logic. Thanks for keeping us grounded.

Sunny Frazier said...

Elysabeth,
Sometimes we get bored with our own writing and assume it's not good. Get a second pair of unbiased eyes. Also, it may not be up to the standards you've come to expect from yourself but it may be well above the norm. At some point, we simply can't gauge if we're good or not. That's where trust of your talent comes in.

jrlindermuth said...

As much as many dislike marketing, it's a fact of the writing life and something we have to accept. With people like Sunny offering solid advice and Billie's new book on marketing OTP authors are steps ahead of many others.

Anonymous said...

This is great advice! Thank you! I've shared it with a friend who needs you to tell him just this!!
Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Terry Ambrose said...

Great points, Sunny. The SWAT team! Love it!

Liane Spicer said...

Good, practical advice on the realities of publishing. Can you sense a 'however' coming? Here goes...

I would not do edits for any editor unless I have a contract all tied up, and I would not advise any other writer to do so either. There's too much risk of wasting my time when I do the requested edits and the editor decides she won't acquire the book after all. There's also the risk of wasting the editor's time as happened to you when the author took her book elsewhere.

With regard to the rights question: Publishers initially try to grab all rights. It happened with my first contract; it happens with all first contracts, and authors are typically so happy to have a contract--any contract--that they sign everything away. When this happened to me I asked my agent to find out if the publisher would be actively pursuing the rights you mentioned. When she responded that they didn't plan to I refused to sign them away and the contract was modified accordingly. Go ahead, call me an amateur if you will, but an author is absolutely within her rights to decide which rights she wants to license, and to refuse to sign a rights-grabbing contract.

Agents are indeed in trouble, and a number have started publishing their clients' back lists--and new work too. As for publishers screwing authors over--if you have an hour or two--make that a day or two--I can fill you in on my own experiences and those of a number of authors I know.

Your authors all sing your praises, though Sunny. Good to know one of the good guys in the industry.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

I always enjoy learning from you, Sunny! Interesting, informative, and--sometimes, a kick in the pants! Thanks. :-) Radine

J Q Rose said...

I am a published author and I appreciate seeing the book business from your side of the desk or computer screen...I think I have been guilty of most of those hostage taking elements. I decided to just put on my big girl panties and let go of the ms. I mean really. What can happen? Nothing worse than someone saying to to your story. Then put them on again and try another place. Thanks, Sunny.

D.R. Ransdell said...

As a writing instructor, I'm especially prone to too much revising. And as many of you will probably guess, while that process produces nice sentences, sometimes, it kills the essence of the inspiration of the work. A few drafts are fine, but in my case, only the second draft should be drastic. Subsequent drafts should look for the occasional wrong name or other incongruity. I should leave it at that!

Cora said...

I'm not admitting which I am of those you've listed above. It's just between you and me.