Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
This week I’ve been talking about the things I look for in a new client. Things like being knowledgeable and invested. And writing books that have commercial appeal. And offering fresh ideas and a fresh voice.
I also look for a writer who is realistic and prepared for the long-haul. When I get a query that insists I look at the “next bestseller,” I toss it in the round file. Yes, there are a number of debut books that became overnight successes. Just like there are lottery winners who recently won hundreds of millions of dollars. But does that mean if you buy a lottery ticket you’ll win millions?
We can’t plan a career around hoping for a miracle. Many fine, fine published books go virtually unnoticed every year. Reaching bestseller status is a convoluted combination of hard work, writing skill, word-of-mouth and that unpredictable combination of events that take an author to the tipping point.
I’m looking for writers who are realistic– knowing that they are going to have to pay their dues, possibly with very little return in terms of attention and money for the first few years. A writer must work hard at building his readership. Success comes when that readership builds with every book. It’s when a writer has a number of books in print, regular royalty checks, new book contracts and a growing readership that a successful writing career is born. One bestselling writer once told me that it took eleven years until she broke the six-figure income barrier.
So I’m looking for writers who are prepared financially for the long haul. A while ago I wrote Kiss of Death: Quitting the Day Job that addressed this issue. When we have clients who are desperate to make money we have a problem. This industry is not like a job. The money is sporadic and never guaranteed. A writer needs to be able to support himself while he builds his career. Or else you need a “patron of the arts,” as one writer describes her spouse.
Building a writing career is not so different from starting any business. If you were going to buy a Subway franchise, say, you’d need the money to purchase the business; money to buy food, materials and supplies; and you’d need money to live until the business hits the break-even point. Why do we believe writing will be any different?
Financial desperation leads to all kinds of short term decisions that sabotage a career. We’ve all heard of writers who take on too many projects because they need the money and end up missing deadlines, turning in shoddy work and losing the respect of their publishers. And a writer who is worried about money cannot be creative. The book always suffers.
I’m also looking for writers who are emotionally equipped for the long haul. Writing is a tough business. It can break your heart. The market is fickle and the odds are stacked against us. Writers need to be able to take rejection, critique, tough reviews and sometimes a stalled career. Too-fragile writers will crumble under the pressure. All that said, there is nothing else quite so satisfying. I look for resilient writers.
I also look for writers who have enough years to build a career. As agents, we pour ourselves into our clients. The first several years we may see precious little return on our investment. That’s okay, that’s our part of the financial long haul. If we believe in a writer we’ll work like crazy with absolutely no return in the early years if necessary. But if a debut writer who is seventy-five years old comes to me, I need to be positively bowled over by her book because, even if she writes for ten years, it’s barely enough time to really get a career launched. Of course that’s not to say I wouldn’t take her on if I loved that one book. I’ve done it more than once.
I look for settled writers. If a writer tells me he’s going to be moving to Sri Lanka for a period of five years I have to wonder how we can build a career with an inaccessible author. Writers who take “writing breaks” to raise children, to care for parents, or to “find themselves” usually find themselves with a stalled career. Writing is like any other business, the commitment needs to be there.
As you can imagine, things come up in any writer’s life. We can’t plan for everything but I promised you the inside track this week. These are some of the things I chew on when seriously considering a new client.