Monday, November 17, 2008

Thinking Long Term

Thanks so much to everyone for your well-wishes and congrats! I sincerely appreciate it so much.

Okay, so I promised a little behind-the-scenes detail from the book sale and some other stuff, so here goes. Warning: I'm extremely zonked right now, so I might split this post in half - part today, part tomorrow. But I'll get you all the info, I promise!

So, what was most gratifying about the sale of The Happiest Days of My Life was that it validated everything that I have placed my faith in over the past few years. Let me rewind and explain because I think this might give some of you a bit of inspiration too.

When I sold The Department, we sold it for what Pub Mktplace would "a very nice" deal. In non-PM terms, this means that the pub house has some faith in you, that you'll likely get some co-op/promo budget, and that expectations are that you'll sell a decent amount of books. So...what happened with the Department is that it sold...a decent amount of books. Not great. Not terrible. Adequate. Cancer books, I realized even though plenty of people told me this and I didn't believe them because I'm apt not to believe negative things, are very, very hard sells. It doesn't matter that it gets great reviews or is mentioned in a variety of huge magazines. People don't want to read about cancer (often - not always) or other harrowing situations that they've faced in their real lives (like, I would never pick up a book that deals with a sick child because it's just something that, though I've never been it through personally, I could not stomach at all), and...well, lesson learned. No cancer. Nothing that will turn potential readers away.

I also learned to think BIG CONCEPT, which is something we've been chatting about here on the blog. A good book isn't enough these days to set it apart from the other good books that are out there. Not for midlist authors who have to fight for attention. So I started thinking BIG CONCEPT, came up with Time of My Life, drafted the first 100 pages, and voila, my agent was ready to sell them. (Actually - tangent, I forgot. Before this BIG CONCEPT thing dawned on me, I wrote 150 pages of a different book. We shopped it around and got middling offers. Offers, yes, 4 of them if I recall, but they were lower than my original advance, and truth told, I knew I could write a better book. BUT. This is when my agent said something very wise, very pivotal, and something that I had to believe, just because I believed in her. She said that the third book was when we should expect my advance to explode. That these first two books were stepping stones to prove myself and to build my audience, and that the money we got now wasn't the money we were really chasing. It was a long-term strategy that wasn't necessarily easy to accept because who knew if it would pay off, but we didn't have much of a choice. Ultimately, we walked away from these 4 tepid offers because not only did I want to write a better book, but I also knew that these lower advances would mean a smaller print run and less promotion/co-op...which meant that this third-book advance strategy that we were aiming for would backfire. Advances are all built off of how well your previous book sold, and if my second one sold poorly, I was screwed.)

Anyway, back to those 100 pages. So, my agent shopped them around to very, very positive responses. BUT. As with that other ms, the advances, while higher - generally around what I earned for The Department - were, well, disappointing. Not because by any objective terms they were disappointing, but because you hope to build and build and build, and in this case, I'd flat-lined. Why? Because The Department's sales were only okay. My sales track record spoke for itself, and even though everyone who read these 100 pages of Time of My Life agreed that it was a bigger, more universal, break-out book, no one wanted to literally bet on it. My agent said - and I agree, to this day - that had ToML been my debut, I would have been paid huge money for it. But it wasn't, and I was swimming against the current of my previous sales, and that was that.

Ultimately, we did all that we could with our situation: we went with the best editor, the best imprint, the team I'd been dying to work with, and yes, they also offered the most money. But I was prepared to go with them for less because I knew that I was at a critical juncture: crappy sales and crappy promotional game-plan and crappy art, etc, meant that my future as a novelist would be in jeopardy. Because I couldn't stomach banging out novel after novel for dwindling advances and lackluster sales. It's hard to explain until you've been through it, but it's like your heart gets crushed when your book doesn't perform to your expectations (forget the industry's), and I just knew that I wouldn't want to go through it over and over again.

So, through all of this, my agent kept reminding me about book #3. That that would be our big one. I didn't focus on this while I worked on ToML, but certainly, I aspired to it. I trusted my agent's instincts, and while I'm sure that I would have worked just as hard on every aspect of ToML regardless of the prospect of an even bigger book the next time around, it was nice to know that I could swim upstream and possibly overcome the sales record of The Department. My agent thought I could, my editor thought I could, and most importantly, I thought I could.

The news this week of the sale of The Happiest Days of My Life was, of course, incredibly exciting and gratifying. But not because of the $$$ behind it. (Though that's great too.) Really, it's because I've worked very, very hard to get to where I am. I tried to be as smart as I possibly could be in an industry that isn't always forgiving or easy to understand. When things didn't go as well as I hoped, and certainly, I could have settled for different options, I didn't. I didn't settle. And it was tough. I'll be honest. It required a lot of optimism and false confidence when I didn't feel too chipper about the news that was coming in. But it worked. My agent was right. I do feel incredibly lucky to have achieved what I've achieved, but I also feel like I've earned it, you know? Not everyone will love what I write, and that's okay. But no one can say that I haven't earned it. And to me, that's what matters.

And I hope that in sharing this (there is plenty more to share, but that's tomorrow, as I'm about to collapse on my keyboard), you guys might see just what I'm talking about in terms of thinking long-term in your careers. Forget the instant gratification of landing that fat advance and think of your career in a larger scale.

Tomorrow: branding and strategy behind book #3.


Brenda Janowitz said...

You are so generous with your time and advice-- thank you! You deserve all of this success and then some!


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Allison, this makes so much sense and is just what I needed to read this morning (as I work on Book #2, knowing it's better than Book #1 but not as good as Book #3 will be). I love the "third-book" philosophy.

Thanks for this and congrats on all your success!

Anonymous said...

Great post letting us inside what goes on behind the scenes, congrats on #3!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Allison. I love reading about your hard-earned successes!

Larramie said...

Allison, you've earned your success -- if for no other reason -- than by not settling. And that includes every aspect of your writing life, particularly your honest generosity!

Trish Ryan said...

I love your message here--don't settle! There's not much out there today telling us this, and I think it's an important message. Thanks for passing it along, and letting us share in your well-earned success.

Now get writing! :)

Trish said...

Allison, this is excellent advice (you and your agent are brilliant!) and I appreciate you sharing it. So wise.

Sending good writing vibes today.

Anonymous said...

Anytime anybody hits it big, naysayers will try to make it look like it happened overnight. You know the work you put behind it. To hell with anyone who questions it.

When I appeared on The Early Show, which highlighted my web site in the segment, one of my mother's friends asked her, "How did Jen get THAT?"

My mother's reply summed up our feelings nicely: "We don't know. She's only been doing this since Tuesday."

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Ha, Jen Singer--THAT is a great, great reply by your MOTHER! Love it!

off to read Part Two of this post!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Jen - that is so classic. Hilarious!

Mia King said...

I'm totally late in offering my congrats, but it's heartfelt nonetheless! Congrats congrats congrats on the success of Time of My Life and the huge sale of THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF MY LIFE. Keep us posted on how the branding strategy works -- it makes good sense (it's a business, after all!).