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.
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–and he fears his career is stalled.
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.
When we talk about career planning, the stalled career is one of the hardest things we tackle. Many authors are surprised to discover that editors will be reticent to take on a third book if the first ones did not sell well. But here are a few suggestions for trying to get your career back on track:
- 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 stalled career, you need to pull out all the stops. The idea has to be high concept and the execution near-perfect.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What do you think? When you are in one of those temporary stalls, what do you do to keep writing? Do you have a story of a stall that turned into nothing more than a brief respite before the next big assignment?