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.