Friday, August 3, 2007

The Short Demand and the Long Haul

I am a published author with Dutton and HarperCollins. I was very, very fortunate to sell three books in four years, with the last sale happening in 2002.
My books did okay---made a couple of lists, etc and sold in the high single/ low double digits, but with numbers like that I'm still looking for my breakout book, huh?
Since 2002, however, I've sold precisely---nada. I've circulated three really terrific books to some very nice rejections, a couple revision requests, etc.
So, my question is: after three books of middling sales and five years of no contracts, am I done?
I have good news and bad news.

The bad news is that high single / low double digit sales (ie, between 9,000-12,000) are not middling sales. They're ok if you mean your books sold that many in their first years, perhaps.

A publisher prints what they hope they can sell in a single year—or, ideally, less. Some first printings will take longer than a year to sell completely, and we expect that. But every month stock we don't need in that month sits in our warehouse, we're wasting storage money on it. The stock in the warehouse should be stock in demand.

Compare your first print runs to your first 12 month's sales. Selling 10,000 copies of a 12,500 print run is fine. Selling 5,000 copies is not.

The good news is that you're not done until you're done. Your past books may not help you sell new ones, and you may need to try other publishers. But there's no reason to give up. Publishers will be more impressed with you, in fact, if you roll with these punches. If a past book just didn't grab the market, shrug your shoulders and keep loving the book yourself. Don't mourn or recriminate or whine.

You'll have plenty more chances because you're in the business for the long haul, right? You're a career writer, right? A professional. We like working with those.


Anonymous said...

EA, are you saying publishers don't care if your previous books didn't do well for another publisher? I was under the impression that if a first book did badly, any publisher you went to with another book would check out your track record and probably turn you down. (Though it seems awfully unfair, considering that what the author writes is just one of many factors that make or break a book.)

Anonymous said...

How can you be a "career writer" and a "professional" if you haven't sold anything in five years? I don't mean that as an insult to the questioner. I'm just saying . . . it's a hell of a profession where you have to earn your living doing something else.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it's all too possible to be a career writer and a professional and have dry spells. Just as it's possible to spend your life at this and never make enough to support yourself, never mind your family. Since the vast majority of published and publishing writers make their living doing something else, I guess it's a hell of a profession, period.

A friend of mine, who sold a number of novels to big-name publishers in the 80s, turned to flat-fee series writing in the 90s, and has now published a new novel with a smaller-but-still-known press after a nine-year drought. I myself have a new book coming out this fall after an eight-year drought, and it's a completely different kind than what I've done before. The market shifts, and we reinvent ourselves. In so doing, I guess the upside is that we prove we can do several kinds of writing! Another writer I know published picture books 40, yes 40, years ago and is now making a splash for the second time in her life! Talk about starting over. If I'm not mistaken, Madeline L'Engle had a ten-year drought before A Wrinkle in Time was published, and we all know what happened to it, and her, after that.

You're a career writer and a professional because you keep on keeping on. Don't give up, anon. You are NOT washed up unless you quit.

Deirdre Mundy said...

One of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, fell out of popularity for a while and is now back! (yayy! =) )

Also, Terry Pratchett's first few books weren't popular outside a very narrow group, and now he's a huge name...

Of course, when you DO publish your break-out novel, someone will probably want to go and reprint all those older books for your fans. =)

Editorial Anonymous said...

(1st) Anonymous,
This is where the fact that editors don't like taking anybody else's opinion comes in handy. We'll want to think about your other books and why they didn't do well. But if we feel what we're holding now is something we know how to sell, we aren't going to worry about your history too much.

Nancy Werlin said...

Editorial Anonymous -- are you saying that 9,000-12,000 sold in the first year is "okay only" for a picture book, or for a novel, or both?

Editorial Anonymous said...

I'm saying that those numbers don't sound so good if they're spread over 2-3 years.
What you want to do is compare what your publisher thought they would sell in the approximately the first year (ie, their print run) against what they did sell in that year. If actual sales are a couple thousand less than hoped-for sales, that's probably ok. Much less, though, and you've got a problem—one that may be solved with going out of print.

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately, it's all too possible to be a career writer and a professional and have dry spells...."

Thank you, thank you, o dear anon. for the pearly post!

It's good to be reminded that good authors have bad publishing paths.

I'm definitely hanging out with the wrong writer's group, every one of which has sold a book (or two, or three) in the last year....except me. All that happiness takes a toll.

And fabbo Ms. EA---I'm sending you a Christmas card for the very good news (my print runs and sales match up pretty damned close!)

So, I've finished a brand new mauscript, the next one is waiting in the wings; I've got a requested revision, and hope is in the air. I'm not done yet.... said...

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