Orphaned Books

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Recent industry news has been filled with reports of editors and publishers changing houses or even leaving to work on their own. When an agent reads those reports, it is often with a deep groan. Another book orphaned at a publishing house.

In the last eighteen months I have had two major books orphaned. Let me tell you their stories. The first book was sold after a vigorous auction in which many houses stayed in for several rounds. The six-figure deal went to a house where the entire team were huge proponents. In fact, a good part of the team flew out to outline the extensive plans they had for this book and two more. The excitement was palpable. We were in the best possible hands. Guess what? Before the first book came out, everyone we initially worked with left. I could just imagine the project landing on the desk of an editor who scratched his head and said, “We paid that much for this? I don’t understand.”dreamstime_xs_33596422

The second situation was another one in which the book had many houses vying for it. The eventual auction winner was the perfect house for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the publisher had a relationship with the author, believed in the book, and had been a huge supporter of the ministry behind it. Guess what? The publisher and the editor who worked on the book just moved to another house. The book just came out.

It happens. Yes, it makes us crazy, but it’s important to know what it could mean for the book and to take steps to mitigate any damage.

What does being orphaned mean for the book:

  • It means the book has likely lost its biggest cheerleader, and you may have lost your advocate in house.
  • It could mean that your book will not really resonate with the new editor and/or team.
  • It may mean that all the previous plans for the book and for you are up in the air.
  • It could mean lackluster sales, depending on where the book is in the process, if the marketing team changes, or if the new editor is the one to pitch the “inherited” book to the sales staff.

What does it mean for the author:

  • It often means that you have lost your best contacts at the publishing house.
  • All the work you’ve done in building relationships needs to be done anew.
  • You need to work doubly hard on promotion and author-marketing for the book.
  • It could put the author’s future with this publisher in jeopardy if sales are not up to projections.

What can be done to mitigate the damage:

  • The author needs to learn who the new team is for the book, and if they don’t introduce themselves in the first few weeks after the announcement, the author should touch base in a non-demanding, winsome way to make the introduction. Make them love you.
  • The author needs to be aware of the worst case scenario but pray for the best case. (Adoption can be just as  positive an outcome for an orphaned book as it is in adoptive families.)
  • Your agent needs to be in touch with your house. She will find out who will be caring for your book. She needs to enthusiastically re-sell the book to the new team. She’ll let them know how lucky they are to have you and the book.
  • Your agent needs to keep careful watch over the book to make sure it is getting the attention initially promised.
  • If the worst case comes true, your agent will plan on moving you to a new house when your contract is over, explaining potentially dismal numbers by the well-understood phenomenon of “orphaned book/author.”
  • Good news. If the worst happens and you need to find a new house, you probably have your old champion at a new house. And he owes you :-)

So I’ve covered the worst case scenario. An orphaned book may just as easily end up with a new, enthusiastic editor and team, but agents are wise to expect the worst and then be delighted by the best.

Your turn. You always come up with such great possibilities. What would you do if your book were orphaned? Got any creative ideas for us?

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34 Comments

  • Linda says:

    Interesting post Wendy – marketing seems to be a bane for all of us. Shows how important your support team is in every aspect of publishing!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It is important. In the best of all worlds the publishers finds new readers for you and the author takes care of the readers he already has– so it’s a one-two punch. both are needed to build a significant career.

  • Wendy, Great explanation of a scary (but extremely possible) scenario. It simply goes to emphasize what authors know and readers don’t (nor do they really care): getting a book contract isn’t a guarantee of success. People change jobs, publishing houses are bought and sold, sales figures dictate business decisions…and yet we keep on writing–because we’re writers and that’s what we do. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • I hadn’t really considered this, although I know a couple people whose books were orphaned last year after a couple publishers closed certain lines they had published.

    You give good advice here, and a realistic view of what aspiring authors need to think through. I’ll have to think on what I would do (after working through the initial disappointment, that is ;) ). Being proactive and having ideas in place is a good plan. Thanks for helping me think ahead, Wendy.

  • Thank you, Wendy.

    I read this twice and the first time through it was “WOW, those POOR WRITERS!!”
    Yes, caps.

    Then I read it again.

    Once there was a cute, happy little redhaired girl, the kind Charlie Brown pined for. She had a big family, then one day, half of it was gone. No one could make her understand where everyone went. She lost half her world, which for a little kid, very was bewildering.
    People pointed at her mother and said mean things, so the little girl crawled inside herself and wouldn’t come out. Only few little friends, and the stories she made up in her head, meant anything. At all.
    She lived in a horrible place called a housing project and fear was on every corner. Real, visceral, bump-in-the-night fear.
    Her mom carried on, as best she could, so the little ‘half-orphan’ and her siblings did the same.
    Then one day, a dashing man came and swept her mom off her feet and married her. He gave her a big house on a nice street and they lived happily ever after.

    That half orphan survived the real world, and she’s brave enough to say she’d survive the same thing in the book world. And no way could it, would it, should it ever possibly hurt as much.

  • This sort of thing happens in research, as well – the project director at one’s funding agency moves on, and the person who’s inherited the project – unwanted, because it adds to workload – is often looking for ways to close it down.

    There are some important things to remember –

    1) There are worse things in life. It’s not likely that you’ll be looking for dead relatives after a typhoon has washed away your town, so do keep a sense of perspective.

    2) While the new team may be ambiguous or even resentful, the organization has a vested interest in your project – either financial or by reputation. If your sales are dismal, it reflects badly on the house as well. Don’t get an Alamo mentality – you’re not facing a wall of enemies.

    3) This is not personal, so don’t personalize it in your interactions with the new team. In the US, we hug and even kiss perfect strangers, and have friends we don’t really know. Working with someone does not make them a buddy. It has nothing to do with YOU (unless you fancy yourself the next Salinger, of course, and try to make life difficult for everyone).

    4) Don’t second-guess your agent, and don’t act without your agent’s knowledge. Few things are more embarrassing to everyone concerned than mixed or conflicting messages from author and agent.

    Take an even strain, and remember – you’ve beaten long odds. You HAVE a contract.

    No one can ever take away that achievement.

    • Something I’d like to amplify-

      Please be patient with the new team handling your book. It’s likely they were assigned to the project, and did not volunteer.

      1) They have to sort through all of the notes and correspondence around your book (both with the author/agent team, and internal) – and they have to READ it with a discerning eye.

      2) They have to be able to present reports to higher management that are consistent with the work that was done before.

      3) They have to come up to speed on the market research and placement plans that have been done, and either implement them or justify changes.

      4) They will have to invest time in a project that will never be truly their own, and for which they’ll never get ‘full’ credit.

      In most cases, the new team has your book as a task added to those they already have. They’re not getting additional pay, they’re probably putting in more hours, and to some the easiest course of action is simply ‘sabotage by neglect’. It allows them to concentrate on projects that they nurtured and that will make their reputation, rather than one that was ‘pre-chewed’ for them.

      It’s your job to become a part of the team, and this place has to be earned. You’re the author, but it’s not yours by right. You have to deserve an invitation.

      Be helpful, be understanding, and never, ever be demanding.

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Wise advice. “You’re the author, but it’s not yours by right. You have to deserve an invitation.Be helpful, be understanding, and never, ever be demanding.”

        Thank you for this, Andrew.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Excellent advice, Andrew. Keeping perspective, telling yourself the truth, not blowing things out of proportion or personalizing them, and leaning on your team– perfect!

  • I had this happen with my previous book, and I was so caught off guard because I didn’t realize it could happen in the submitting stage. An editor read my full, sent me a three-page letter with requested changes, and asked me to resubmit. When I did, two months later, she’d moved to a new publisher. The first one wasn’t interested in the story, and the editor wasn’t able to take on new authors at her new house.

    I remember being disappointed but not devastated. And I look back now and am so glad that book didn’t sell. It wasn’t ready.

  • Wow, this is something I guess I had never considered…but it makes total sense! This is why I’m so glad I have an amazing agent who can help me navigate waters such as these if it ever happens to me. I’m sure it would feel a lot scarier if I was all alone.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It does take a team to navigate something like this. It’s a tough challenge even with the best case scenario.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    This makes me want to cut my hair short and curly, dye it red, and sing at the top of my lungs, “THE SUN’LL COME OUT TOOOMORROW!” I tend to be fairly optimistic but I can see how this could be a massive blow. Great educational post and good to be aware of these possibilities so we can be mentally prepared should that happen in our careers. But as Lindsay Harrel always says, “God’s got this”. Simplistic, but SO. TRUE!

    • Christine Dorman says:

      Jaime (and Lindsay), you’ve hit the most important aspect of this worst case scenario–God’s still in charge. Somehow, things will work out. Maybe not the way I want them to, but if I am open to God’s grace and guidance, I learn something valuable from the situation.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s one of the reasons we thank God for the publishing houses that have almost no turnover. (And yes, they do exist.)

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Wendy, for this post. Initially, it’s not only sobering, but scary to read. Actually, the post hit on my worst if-I-get-a-contract fear: what my book gets accepted by an agent and / or a publisher and then…just sits there, contracted, purchased, but not published? Both you and Jeanne brought up and extremely important point: writers have choices. If the book is orphaned (or even if it being ignored by the team that seemed enthusiastic when they acquired it),the writer can just sit and worry and cry and pine away or she can get involved. I love your description, Wendy. The writer can initiate contact in a “non-demanding, winsome way.” Don’t let the book be put away and forgotten like the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    This post also is an excellent example of how valuable an agent is to a writer. Not only can she help win over the new team, she can help the writer navigate through the swamp of this scenario–and help her move to a new publisher, if it comes to that.

    I was heartened to hear that an agent can explain to the new publisher the reason for the lackluster sales. Because of the job interview convention of never saying (or implying) anything negative about your former employer, I would be afraid even to hint that changes at my former publishing house prevented my book from selling as well as it could have if it had gotten the intention it deserved. See? That sentence sounds whiny. I sure an agent could come up with a much better way of saying it.

    Happy Tuesday! :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      We are very careful not to denigrate another publisher– in the same way you are in a job interview. But everyone in publishing understands that situations crop up in every publishing house that affect sales.

      I still remember the books that published on 9/11/2001. The world changed on one morning and nobody was paying attention to books for the longest time. Things happen.

  • These are the ups and downs of the industry that have always existed, but about which I knew NOTHING as a newly published author. It’s a reminder to hold even our precious projects in an open hand, remembering, as Elisabeth Elliot used to say, that God knows. God allows. God plans. God permits. I’m not always great at remembering those things, but I believe them. Once again the advocacy of a good agent is shown to be priceless. No one better to hold a writer’s hand than an agent who has “been there” and “done that” before.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Thanks for those words from Elisabeth Elliot, Steph. We sure learn things we never thought were possible when we journey down this path, don’t we?

      (I’m thinking it’s time for an Eliot reread.)

  • My debut novel was orphaned the day after I signed the contract for it. It hurt and it surprised me. At the same time, I can’t second guess it. I’m so GLAD that the book was contracted with and released from such a respected publisher, and I know the editor stayed until that day particularly to get that book in the house. He was trying to give me a gift.

    There were some issues–like not having my professional review dates or payment dates be on anyone’s calendar, and I wonder how sales were impacted by the sudden departure of the editor who had championed the contract–yet the rest of the house rallied around me as best they could. Even the packing guy in the warehouse read it!

  • R.A. Rios says:

    I agree this is some pretty scary stuff, after working so hard to get your work noticed then this. Reminds me of the old saying to think before you leap. I’ve submitted some of my works with great anticipation but now I’m having second thoughts. lol

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      But don’t have second thoughts, R. A. This is a rare occurrence but part of our job on this blog is to inform, so we try to cover some of the intricacies of this industry.

      Chances are this will never happen to you. (But if it does, you’ll be ready.)

  • Nancy Moser says:

    This happened to me–with a different twist. I had a 2 book series contracted with a publisher and they went OOB! They offered to still publish the two books, but with little or no marketing. So Janet and I decided the best thing was to get the rights back and begin anew.

    So here I am, with two books written, and one completely edited, waiting for a new chance with a new publisher. It’s very hard to start over like this with books that are very dear to me, but it is what it is.

    I’ve taken comfort in this fact: because of the contracts I finished the two books. Without those contracts, I might not have done that, i.e. I might have left them in proposal form. Also, the first book got professionally edited by a great editor at the now defunct publishing house. God did that. God gave me the contracts so I would finish the books. Then God took the contracts away. Why? I don’t know yet, but I have to believe He has something amazingly wonderful in store, something that couldn’t have been achieved if not for this exact scenario. I hold onto the future of those books with anticipation. And when doubt and fear sneak in, I focus on the fact that God knows what He’s doing. All the time.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      “And when doubt and fear sneak in, I focus on the fact that God knows what He’s doing. All the time.”

      And that’s the answer, isn’t it.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Oh my goodness, Wendy I wish I would have had this column in my hands when various of my novels were orphaned, not just once but 6 times. Each time was different, each time was difficult. This was during that period when large US publishers were being bought up by international companies and incredible editors were finding themselves out on the street. But you know what? These gifted people bounced back, adjusted, and reinvented their lives. Now I see this happening in the Christian Publishing world, too. What great examples these agents, editors, and administrators are to all of us who are writers!

  • Alda Dyal Chand says:

    Another set of worthwhile comments as well as such an informative blog I love reading this information as I feel a bit isolated as I sit at my desk in India.I am just beginning to think about sending in a query letter, so these comments are my inspiration. I will be back in the States, God willing, in April and look forward to reading more blogs.

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