Restart a Stalled Writing Career

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Five years ago I blogged about the much-dreaded stalled writing career. The market has become even tougher since then so I want to revisit this. Today Iโ€™m going to give you some tips for getting back on track and next week Iโ€™ll talk about creative ways to keep working if you are seriously derailed.

Remember those days when we worked so hard to get published? Did you ever think that publication would only be the beginning of a new set of worries? As aspiring writers we were fixated on the prize– representation and an eventual book contract. All we thought about was holding that first book in our hands. We longed for the day we could change “writer” to “author.” Heady stuff.

But dreams do come true. Let’s say the author finds the perfect agent, and she sells the book. The newly-minted author holds an exciting launch party, and everyone who knows him comes to celebrate. In the afterglow, he makes deep eye contact with his wife, takes both her hands into his and hums a few bars of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” It doesn’t get much better than this, right? He makes it a habit to walk into bookstores looking for his book on the shelves. The only problem is that he rarely finds it. “We can order it for you,” the helpful clerk always says. Hmm.dreamstime_xs_18818624

Okay, so the first royalty statement is disappointing. Friends tell him about those famous “sleeper” books that start out slowly and build to bestseller status. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for him to realize that his book is not a sleeper. No, apparently it was DOA–dead on arrival.

His publisher acknowledges that marketing and sales mistakes may have been made. The editor offers another contract. A second chance! This time our author is practically paralyzed with fear. Will it be good enough? But eventually book number two releases. Everyone says it is good but, sadly enough, sales are still lackluster. Bookstore employees see the author’s name over and over as they pack up his books to send back to the publisher.

What’s an author to do?

When we talk about career planning, the stalled writing career is one of the hardest things we tackle. Many authors are surprised to discover that editors will be reticent to take on another book if the first one or ones did not sell well.ย But here are some quick suggestions for trying to get your career back on track:

  1. Write the book that simply cannot be turned down. You are going to meet with some formidable resistance because your first couple of books did not do well. (A rough gauge of success –your book should earn back its advance within the first year.) Don’t forget, those bookstore owners are going to remember that your books sat on their shelves for a long time and then had to be sent back. They are not going to be eager to give you a second or third chance. If you want to resurrect your flagging career, you need to pull out all the stops. The idea has to be high concept and the execution near-perfect.
  2. Continue to market the previous books. With enough word-of-mouth excitement, a sleeper can always be awakened. If a previous book started to do well, it alone could jumpstart your career.
  3. Develop an innovative marketing strategy for the proposed book and communicate this to potential editors. The author with a stalled career must be able to overcome the reticence publishers may have, based on past sales.
  4. Put the numbers in context for a potential publisher. This is something your agent will do for you. Every time an agent shops a book, the first question out of the editor’s mouth is, “What kind of numbers did he get on his first book?” There’s no fudging–sales are sales. But your agent needs to discuss some of the possible reasons for the lackluster sales and explain why this book is different. Often the agent will need to explain some of the issues at the publishing house that may have contributed to low sales. This takes real finesse since there’s a fine line between trying to put statistics into context and breaking professional confidences.
  5. Try to be patient. When an agent is shopping a new book for an author with regrettable past sales numbers, it’s going to take all her skill and expertise to make the sale. She needs to be strategic and patient. This step could take longer than the first sale did.

Next Tuesday, we’ll talk about what to do if all else fails–reinventing ourselves. But for now, I’d like to know what you’ve done when your career hit a snag. What do think about the industry’s preoccupation with success and sales numbers? If you’re just at the beginning of your career, do you have a plan in place to forestall derailment?

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  1. Great post!

    Much of this is mental, and it’s ultimately about facing the reality of a situation with a clear and faith-filled heart.

    We often speak of our books as our ‘paper children’, and there does seem to be an analogy from history.

    When David’s first son with Bathsheba was ill, he did all that he could to save him, in fasting and prayer and sacrifice.

    When the child died, he called for food and drink, and his normal clothes. He could do more for the child than hope to meet him in some better place.

    When our projects ‘die’, we have to put aside mourning, and even the memory of mourning.

    We have to go on. Carrying yesterday’s feelings of tragedy into today will simply poison the well of ‘new day hope’ from which we drink.

    • So true, Andrew!

    • Great words and perspective, Andrew. We can sit and mourn the past, or we can move forward and do the best we can from there. I’m for moving forward. Thanks for this perspective.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Excellent advice, Andrew, although probably a lot easier said than done.

      • Indeed it is easier said than done.

        But you’ll notice that David didn’t merely make a decision – he took concrete steps, asking food and his royal robes be brought to him.

        How hard this must have been, but the lesson’s there, that stepping out in faith requires more than merely repeating moto statements.

        Action begets attitude.

        Note too, that David’s actions foreshadow the New Covenant – his meal is the Communion, the celebration that transcends death, and his dressing is the putting on of Christ.

        Yes, it’s hard, and while it can feel like pretending, soon enough the pretense will become habit, and the habit, faith.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Good words, Andrew. (They are what I needed to hear today.) Concrete steps.

      • I’m honored, Wendy, that my words were helpful.

        God bless.

  2. You have raised some interesting issues, Mrs. Lawton, and I thank you for this.

    I do not believe that writing under a nom de plume is deceitful, and feel that it can be an excellent marketing decision, not only as a separation from previous career difficulties.

    For example, if I would choose to write novels that carry a theme of Christian apologia, how might it be seen? Will my name make me a traitor to one faith, but never fully accepted in another?

    One question (with two parts) seems to present itself on this subject:

    Would the publisher be “in” on the non de plume, and agree to its use as a marketing makeover for an author, or would an agent present the “rebadged” author as a new entity?

    Would an author using a nom de plume be better served by incorporating the name as a business entity, or following some similar path?

    I ask this because significant success would motivate some individuals to attempt to determine the author’s real name, and this might be an embarrassment if the purpose of the nom de plume was to break from a previously unsuccessful career.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Surpreet, somehow my points from my next weeks blog got included on this one before our amazing Michelle Uhl caught the problem and fixed it. (Who knows how these things happen?) We’ll be talking about pen names and ghost writing next week.


  3. I love the idea of ghostwriting. First of all, I’ve always been a behind the scene kind of person. I’m a helper. But … I have two people around me that have incredible stories … and they’ve talked about writing a book, maybe even got started, but busyness has kept them from completion. I’m used to interviewing … but only for articles … top length 1600 words. I can’t imagine a book. It would take much one on one time with the person, I’m assuming. But the idea keeps popping up in my mind. One lady, in particular, I have already written a 1,000 word article on … but what a story she has … her story was in Good Housekeeping, too. But I can’t quite bring myself to step out and ask. I have to assume the Holy Spirit is nudging me, but my hubby might would have a meltdown! ๐Ÿ™‚

    And Wendy, I didn’t mean to go down the ghostwriting lane … but when I saw that word, it drew me in again. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Shelli, you can see in my comment above that we’ll ask you to go down that lane again next week. ;-0

      • I saw that, Wendy. I think I was too sleepy when I read it initially to understand what had happened. I knew something wasn’t right, but just didn’t get it. When I finally got it, I was wishing there was a delete button! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Great post, Wendy. I’m still in the “If I can find representation and sell my first book!” stage. I’m gaining a more accurate understanding of the reality of the published author. It’s living the dream, with lots of hard work. I’ve heard about authors who have sold books, only to have them not sell as well as was hoped. It’s a tough road.

    I understand why publishers look at sales numbersโ€”they have to. But, it seems like if that is ALL they look at, they are missing part of the overall picture.

    I am still trying to figure out a plan that will keep me from being derailed. I’m looking forward to your post next week!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      It is not all they look at but it is a big part of the picture. We can never lose sight of the fact that although Christian publishing is a ministry, it is still business and publishers are tasked with being good stewards.

      • I hopped over to Chad Allen’s blog and read his post about 3 Questions Publishers Will Ask about Your Next Book Project. Ties in great to the discussion here.

      • You’re right, Wendy. I guess that’s the hard part. Publishers have to look out for the bottom line, whether authors like it or not. Even good books don’t always sell well in the current market. It’s part of reality, isn’t it?

  5. Yikes!
    There really are a lot of things to worry about as a writer. Ah well, I’m still at the dreaming of holding that first book in my hands stage…my worry…what if it is an e-book and I don’t actually get to hold it. Don’t get me wrong, most of the books I buy are e-books, I love them. But there is that dream of actually holding the book. Argh! I’ll worry about the flagging career thing after this “will I get to hold my book in my hands” angst has been resolved. Great post thought, thanks so much.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      About the “get to hold it in my hands” dream– the rise in ebooks has slowed down some and the traditional book is growing again at some houses. Who knows where it will go but all the ebook projections are being retooled down based on these new stats.

  6. Jaime Wright says:

    Panic!! Eeek. Ok. I’m breathing again. Several of my author friends have experienced just this scenario. This is when I take a step back and thank the Lord for agents who can help us muddle through and also pray for the inspiration to write that novel and develop that marketing plan. So much of my writing journey will be based on prayer. Because otherwise, it’s a scary ride when your dreams and goals are based on numbers. (I’m just rambling from sheer emotion, no logic implied or intended in my comment) ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I didn’t mean to scare anyone but many of the published readers of our blogs are in this boat. I guess it’s good to be forewarned and forearmed.

  7. “How do you plan to forestall derailment?” I work a little each evening on my mailing list. With time and a method, the list grows, and I will use it for general mailings and area-specific event announcements.

  8. Christine Dorman says:

    Wendy, thank you for this post…I think. Although I think I’ll have nightmares tonight ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Actually, you addressed my BIG FEAR as a yet-unpublished author:that the first book won’t do well, my agent will drop me, and I’ll never get another publishing contract. Your post, therefore, is encouraging. It implies that there is life after writing a book that doesn’t sell well (for whatever reason).

    I think having an excellent agent–one who believes in me and my work–is a powerful help in regards to the monster-in-the-closet of a potential non-started first book. First, the reason I want to go the traditional route rather than the self-publishing route is so that there are objective professionals involved (agents, editors, marketing teams) who can tell me whether or not my book is marketable not only in terms of quality, but in terms of marketplace trends. Secondly, having a good agent representing me will help me to be sure that the publishing company is holding up its end of the contract in regards to promotion and distribution (I know that I need to be the primary promoter, but you alluded to a scenario where the publisher dropped the ball). Thirdly, you mentioned the agent trying to explain the first book’s mediocre sales in order to sell a publisher on the author’s new book. You mentioned the “finesse” that it takes to explain without giving details that would “break confidences.” For these reasons, I am praying that I can obtain an excellent agent such as you. That’s one step in my plan to avoid a stalled writing career.

    You said what is probably the most important aspect of the plan: “Write a book which simply cannot be turned down.” This part of the plan includes not only doing my very best writing, but studying the market and studying the business of selling a book.

    The next part of the plan is to study successful promotion tactics (thanks to all of you who write this blog, I’ve gotten many fantastic tips and ideas). Another part of the promotion step is to work to create a professional and interesting author website and have it up and running before I start querying. Also, as I already have done, work on blogging, tweeting, and other ways of connecting with potential readers. The marketing / promoting aspect also includes making friends NOW with bookstore managers (and other employees) and with local librarians.

    I don’t know that the last part of my plan fits in the lackluster first book category, but it is a way that I’m hoping to get those who read my first book to read the second one. In the first novel, I am laying the groundwork for the second and third novels by putting in information that serves a purpose in the novel, but also whets the reader’s appetite for more without the “more” needing to be there. For example, in response to a scene I read recently in my critique group, one of my critique partners said, “I want to know more about Aileen’s background and her friendship with Keena. I’m intrigued by them.” That was exactly the response I was hoping for because Keena’s a secondary character and Aileen is a minor character in this novel, but the second book is about Keena as a teenager. The critique partner agreed that she didn’t HAVE to know any more than I gave for the plot to make sense. She just WANTS to know more. The other members of the group have said something similar on a number of occasions–usually about something that foreshadows the second book.

    I’m looking forward to next week’s blog. My first novel is written in an entirely different genre than the one I’m planning to shop first. I had considered using a pen name for it. I’m interested to see what you say about pen names and perhaps a change of genre as a way to revive a writing career.

    Blessings! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Christine, the very fact that you give so much thought to all aspects of the publishing journey bodes well for you.

    • Wow, Christine!

      Your positive and resilient spirit is so inspiring.

      It reminds me of something Norman Vincent Peale said, about a positive outlook being magnetizing, and pulling success to itself.

      Also reminds me of an anecdote about the golfer Gary Player. A fan once saw him make a shot that looked impossible. The fan said “Wow, what a lucky shot!”

      Mr. Player turned to him with a smile and said, “Yes, and the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Thank you, Andrew, for the affirmation. ๐Ÿ™‚

        I hope you’re feeling much better. I continue to pray for you.

  9. I do not have a plan in place to forestall derailment, but now I know I need one.

    Since I’m not published yet, I gasped along with Jaime while the reality of your post sank in. Knowledge can be a catalyst, so that’s a positive.

    Perhaps, in the future, we can hear a candid account of how the scenario you mentioned played out for an author, because the “Wind Beneath My Wings” scene would only happen in a book or movie. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I didn’t mean to scare anyone, especially before even getting started. But it’s good to realize that just as there are reasons to celebrate along the way, we need to stay alert. We never seem to get the chance to just say, “There! I’ve arrived.”

  10. Rejection is redirection. I’ve taught that in many writers classes because it is a great way to look at the big picture in a writer’s career. Perspective is a handy thing to have, both in life and in pursuing a writing career.

    There’s something calming and affirming about stepping back from an obstacle in the road and knowing there will either be a plan to go around that obstacle or there will be a new road. Deciding on a plan or heading off in a new direction is the tricky part, and that is where a wise and trusted agent is invaluable.

    Giving thanks today for having just that sort of agent!

  11. Literary Question:
    What happens if my book, “Beyond Danger & Adventure” earns back its advance within the first month?

    Do I get to go to Disneyland for free, meet Mickey Mouse and have breakfast with him?

    Oh heck. I’d settle for breakfast with Goofy and/or Pluto.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      If it earns back its advance in the first month then you get to start worrying about month two. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Great post, Wendy! I think the industry’s preoccupation with success and sales numbers is only natural in our culture. A lack of good sales makes it hard to stay in business. It certainly does put more pressure on us as writers, though!

  13. Wendy, I self-publish (for several reasons), but I follow Books and Such posts (and a few others) because I’m not so naive as to think I know everything I need to know. Of course, sometimes I feel like I’m cheating by getting free advice. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I do have a question at the end.

    Because I self-publish, numbers may look differently to me than to someone else. I don’t have an advance to earn back or books on the shelf to be sent back. I also don’t expect to sell as many books as traditionally published authors if for no other reason than not having that publisher backing. And I know that however decent a writer I might become over time, my sales are going to depend more on promotion (which I hate) than anything else.

    Now to my point…. I have not turned my back on traditional publishing completely, so I’m still concerned about that “stalled” point.

    My question…. What kind of numbers would an agent or a publisher expect from a self-published author–if they consider him/her at all?


    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s an impossible question to answer, Sylvia, for a number of reasons. If you were looking at a smaller publisher, a smaller number of book sales might impress. If you were looking to go to one of big publishers they might want to see sales numbers in the five figure range.

      But then, if the book you were proposing knocked everyone’s socks off, they might never even ask about numbers.

      Or if the marketing director at a publisher had an extra dose of self-confidence and bravado he might just look at your numbers and say, “Look what she did on her own. Can you imagine the sales if I were added to the mix?”

      So it’s always a complicated mixture of the sales numbers and the desirability of the book.

  14. I’ve had a few stalls in my long writing career, sometime stalled for years, but the thing that worked for me was to “keep writing.” Maybe the next book would be the one. In speeches I give to kids interested in writing, I remind them that nobody expects to be a star basketball player or an Olympic gymnast without practicing and practicing a lot. So practice helps writers get better too. Of course, no matter how discouraging the writer road looked to me at times, I’ve never been able to back away from the keyboard and quit writing. I’m a writer. That’s what I do. However, I have re-invented myself a few times as Wendy plans to talk about next week. Maybe I’ll chime back in then.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And the funny thing is that now that your career has taken off, Ann, all those books that were created during lull times are now in demand. Being a faithful writer is a key to success.

      Becoming an overnight success takes about twenty years, right?

    • Judy Gann says:

      And I enjoyed sharing your books with young readers during one of your reinventions, Ann. ๐Ÿ™‚ I remember how surprised I was when I discovered one of your recent books (before I met you) and realized you were the same author whose books I’d enjoyed and shared years ago.

      • I do, Judy. I really enjoyed writing for those young readers back then. They were such fun fans. I carried on a correspondence with one little girl for years until she got too old to write me any more. And Bill, actually the first success was pretty early for me. I sold my third novel so we’re talking maybe 3 years. But then along the way, there have been some rejection detours, but I never gave up. I always wanted to write one more story.

  15. Thank you, Wendy, for telling us like it is. Truth is good. I think “the industry’s preoccupation with success and sales numbers” is completely understandable. We all need to be able to put food on the table. The publishing industry wants to survive. Writer’s and readers want them to survive too.

    My plan “to forestall derailment” when I’m published is to love my readers. My “concrete steps” (that Andrew spoke of) will be to follow the advice here and on other agency blogs such as the post on the Steve Laube Agency today that goes perfectly with yours. It suggests that we need to spend equal time genuinely befriending our potential readership as we spend on writing. I think that’s true. When I mentioned I was writing a book (back in the winter) to my blogger friends, many of them said they would like to read it when it comes out. If I want to be a wise woman I will not neglect these sincere friends I’ve made long before I had planned to write my novel.

    So now I’ll go and ‘love on’ my friends with the industry’s blessing. There are a lot of wonderful people out there that want to connect with writers.

    I’m excited to connect with them through words since it’s the communication style that works best for me.

    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac โ€

  16. Informative post and interesting discussion. My first book sold decently, but the second one isn’t going anywhere. I think it’s because of the price point, but what can I do about that? I’ve approached marketing them the same, so maybe I need to be more creative with this book that isn’t performing the way I would like it too–especially since the reviews of it have been just as good as my first book.

  17. Anna Labno says:

    E-book format, anyone? Start powering up like my older son says and do next best thing. And pray about it.

  18. Great post and so timely. Guy Kawasaki, author of “Art of the Start”, stated in a recent Podcast that “The moment you start to write, is the moment you start to market.”

    Before the monumental shift in the publishing world there was a “Field of Dreams” mentality of..”If you write itโ€ฆthey will buy.”

    BUT..things are not the same because of how fast the industry has changed and the big question that needs to be addressed is “Who is THEY?” Authors need to have a very specific target market in mind before they write and need to understand that the buyer is not always the reader. There is a chance that there might be more than one target audience so the author needs to address that in their proposal and be willing and able to follow through with the marketing of their book.

    Authors have to know who their target audience is and how it will be marketed whether they write an E-book, self published book or a book that they working on with an agent. At the end of the book’s shelf life it is the AUTHOR whose books are remaindered and told it will be a while before book stores want to see their names. OUCH! That hurts!

    But, it also hurts the agent who has worked hard to help build the author’s career and the publisher who has invested in that book. The author has two choices to makeโ€ฆquit writing, which is what a lot of great authors have done out of frustration, or keep learning as much as they can about the industry, marketing, and publishing so they can pay it forward on the next project.

    Authors need to take the initiative to think OUTSIDE THE BOX and not assume that someone else will take care of the marketing details. They need to go where their readers are..not where books are and stop expecting Dennis Quiad to show up and create their perfect ball diamond. Things are different for everyone in the industry, we need to adjust our focus and move forward, encouraging each other and continuing to write for the Lord’s glory. Press on.