Monday, February 04, 2008

Well, Basically, We're Screwed

(Admin note: Blogger's spellcheck isn't working, and I'm typing on a new laptop and not used to the keyboard, so if you see misspellings, just ignore them! Thanks!)

So I had drinks last week with a very good author friend of mine, one whom I befriended after reading her first novel and sending her a note telling her how much I adored it. Turns out that we went to the same college and were in the same sorority, only, ahem, I'm a few years "wiser" (let's not say older, 'kay?) than her, so we never knew each other.

Anyway, we were sipping our drinks (okay, our teas - that's how lame we are these days - tea, not drinks), and I asked her if she's nervous about the upcoming release of her next book. Not that she should be nervous - her first book did really well and was published to much acclaim. But you know, just nervous in general because having a book published is nervewracking, period.

Her: "So nervous."

Me: Why? You've been through this before.

Her: Exactly. That's why I'm nervous. Because basically, I know that I'm screwed. (Though she might have said something fouler than "screwed." I'm paraphrasing.)

And I couldn't help but crack up. because I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Here's the thing about publishing: it is so super-exciting to have your work in print. Hell, you busted your ASS off to get it there, and it's no small accomplishment to have done so. But once you're there, you find out that writing a break-out book is nearly impossible, often -no, almost always - to no fault of your own. Which is totally fine. Not everyone needs or wants to be a best-seller. But the advance of your next book is based on the sales of your last one, so if you really want to bring home the figurative bacon (or just quit the day job), quite frankly, those sales do matter a whole damn lot. Which is why my friend and I got such a good chuckle out of her statement.

The bottom line, as I mentioned above, is that barring Oprah or The Today Show or something else major happening, your book is likely to float along at midlist, neither too high nor too low, and unless the publisher decides to push the hell out of your book (which they might - you'll know that long before your book hits stores), it's an uphill battle for eyeballs. (In my opinion, a review in People and/or EW can also really boost sales.) My friend and I tried to name a few books that really took off without expectation (i.e, without that publisher push and money behind it), and the list is short. I know that both Emily Giffin's first book and The Nanny Diaries didn't sell for huge advances and yes, they became best-sellers, and lately, the Memory Keeper's Daughter comes to mind as one that just skyrocketed in paperback. I'm sure that I'm missing others - dozens of them - but these books are the exception, not the rule.

So what does all of this mean? Hell if I know! I'm just passing on some insights from the trenches. I really, really don't want to sound like I'm complaining. I'm just stating the facts. It would be nice to think that writing the book is most of the work, but, in fact, that's just the beginning. Which isn't meant to be discouraging - you know that here at Ask Allison, I'm all for positivity! - just realistic. This book business is a tough gig, no two ways about it.

So any other break-out books you guys can think of that come to mind? I'm talking about books that really took off without a six-figure advance and the promotion and print run to guarantee a best-seller. Eat, Pray, Love, maybe?


Anonymous said...

See, now, that's one of the things about publishing that terrifies me, and that I'm trying not to worry too much about at this point. Lots of writers say that they wish they had known about midlist difficulties before becoming authors, but if I think about things like that I just freeze up. So I can see why you're so concerned.

Larramie said...

Ah, where have I read that "word-of-mouth" makes such a difference? You never know!

Trish Ryan said...

Okay, your comment that it's an "uphill battle for eyeballs" will have me laughing all week! What a great way to put it :)

We can't purposely write the breakout book, but we can keep writing (and frankly, your sale of book #2 has done wonders to get me off my couch and back to the keyboard). Who knows which book might hit big, and then send the backlist flying off the shelves?

Heather Wardell said...

I read somewhere (cannot remember where) that Emily Giffin's editor announced, "I'm going to make this book a best-seller" and lo and behold it happened. I don't think it's necessarily the most outstanding book, but with someone behind it that driven to make it succeed (and in a position to do that) it happened.

Maybe the question is, how to find an editor that into your book?

Heather (who must first find an agent that into her books :)

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Larr- you know, I do think that word-of-mouth can boost sales, but I'm not convinced that it can take a book from midlist to bestseller.

Heather-huh! I never knew that about Giffin! Good to know!

Larramie said...

Granted this was a while ago, but what about THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY?

Jen A. Miller said...

Myla Goldberg's 'Bee Season' is a great example of word of mouth really pushing a book, not just into sales, but into a movie.

Interesting question re: "we're screwed." In some ways, this makes me GLAD that my book is for a niche audience. Most of that audience is within driving distance of my house (if you're just tuning in, it's a travel guide to the South Jersey Shore), and I have a lot of connections in this niche area. And with the internet, it's that much easier to get the book's presence known and bought on Amazon (thank you, Chris Anderson, for the Long Tail theory -- it's the theory that allows you to really maximize niche markets and make more profits that way on smaller audience books). Instead of casting a net to a lot of readers, I can hone my effort on a small group, and hopefully get that group to buy.

That being said...I'd really like to sell a big hard cover book. Grass is greener as they say.

Anonymous said...

Think Jen might want to "hone" her writing skills if she hopes to "home" her effort on a small group.

picture sharpening one's skills (hone) versus zeroing in or pinpointing a specific target (home)