Starting afresh

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

I have been working on the early chapters of my next novel (an involved comedy set at Harvard, my undergraduate alma mater), and it has made me think about the question of being a single book author rather than a career writer. It’s not much of an issue while you’re writing your first book: then, the book IS your writing career.

But once you’ve completed the first to your own satisfaction, you need to confront some uncomfortable questions: okay, how does this book fit into my long-term writing plans? Is it representative of the kind of writer I want to be, or is it really a stepping-stone to the kind of book I’d actually prefer to write? And, always: what do I do for my next trick?

It is a common prejudice to regard authors who have not published yet as something other than “real” writers, an attitude that makes me apoplectic. “Real” writers, it is argued, are those who have books physically present in bookstores, who not only get paid for their writing, but actually make a living at it. “Real” writers, in short, are the ones on the bestseller lists, not the ones writing their hearts out in the solitude of their lonely rooms.

In other words, the people who use this term this way know absolutely nothing about the current writers’ market.

As anyone who has tried to market a book is very well aware, it can take YEARS to move successfully from the writing stage of a project to the point where the book is available for sale. Every writer, regardless of talent, has to move through the stages of writing the book, revising the book, finding an agent (unless you decide to go with a small publisher, or self-publish), selling the book to a publisher, rewriting the book to the publisher’s satisfaction, guiding the book through the IMMENSELY intricate byways of the average publishing house, promoting the book, and finally, building a fan base.

This is not a world, whatever the advocates of “real” writers say, where talent is instantly recognized, and a project is still warm from the author’s printer when she’s signing autographs at Barnes and Noble. In fact, as you may already be aware, finding an agent who is a good match with the work is a step that has taken many, many good writers two, five, ten, fifteen years – writers whose work has subsequently climbed the bestseller lists, won important awards, and charmed countless readers’ hearts.

I mention this, because I thought some of you could use a pep talk right about now. Since the NYC publishing world simply shuts down between Thanksgiving and the New Year, and agencies are swamped with New Year’s resolution queries and tax paperwork for last year’s sales for most of January, I would imagine that a lot of you are on pins and needles, awaiting replies. What you are doing is a necessary and laudable step of the process; it takes real courage to submit your work to total strangers with the power of life and death over it, and still more to keep submitting it after it has been rejected.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a real writer while you’re going through this process. Going through this process is precisely what real writers do, and the only genuine criterion for evaluating a writer is the quality of the writing. Period.

That being said, I return to the issue of the writing career. The vast majority of writers simply stop writing while they are marketing their first books, and no wonder. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to keep churning out queries personalized to each agency, crafting pithy synopses, and perfecting those first fifty pages that will wow the first agent who asks to see them. There are days when it takes almost too much energy to open the mailbox, to check for an acceptance or rejection. Be nice to yourself – this is emotionally difficult stuff.

However, if you truly do want a writing career, rather than a single success, it is vital that you not become so focused on the book you’re marketing that you neglect the next one. It’s always a good idea to have one in the pipeline.

And the more successful your first book is, the more crucial your next work will be. If you write genre fiction, you should plan on having another book completed within six or nine months of signing the contract on your first, as to be considered a successful genre writer, you will be expected to produce a new book every year and a half or so. If you write mainstream or literary, your name recognition will start to fade after a couple of years, so you will want to follow up as soon as you can. And if you write nonfiction, I can tell you from experience that your agent and editor will be asking you about your next project before you finish your first.

Funny, isn’t it? Before you sign with an agent or sell a book, it’s hard to get anyone in the industry to spend a few minutes reading your work, but after you’ve exhausted yourself pushing that work over the finish line, you’re expected to bounce to your feet and begin writing again instantly.

If you already have your next book partially finished or even completed, your life will be much, much easier later on, particularly in the year or two after you sign your first publication contract. (Remember, the months after you sign will be taken up with revision, so you may not have time to work on the next project then.) I know it’s tiring even to contemplate, but if you can be working on your next book while you are marketing the first, you will be doing precisely what successful writers do: keeping your career moving.

I hear some of you saying: wait a gosh-darned minute. I’ve been moving heaven and earth to scrape out the time to write my first book while working full-time (or, even more difficult, while raising kids full-time). Even if I didn’t take a well-deserved rest after finishing my book, I had planned to use my advance to support me while I wrote my next. If I already have notes on my next book, will that be good enough?

True, most books are not published until at least a year after the contract is signed – which means, in practical terms, that the final installment of your advance will be quite some time away. (Advances are typically paid in three installments: a third when the contract is signed, a third when the publisher accepts the book – i.e., after you have made all of the revisions your editor has asked you to make – and a third upon publication.) Unless your advance is very, very large indeed (as first-time authors’ advances seldom are), it is unlikely that a fraction of your advance will be large enough to support you for very long.

And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but even after your royalties exceed your advance amount, and you start receive straightforward royalty payments, it may be awhile before you get them. Some publishing houses are notoriously slow at passing along royalties – usually, contracts specify that they need pay them either when they exceed a certain set amount, or every six months, whichever comes first.

In other words, I wouldn’t count on your first book sale being able to take over your mortgage payments right away.

I know, I know, this isn’t the happy story we writers so often hear about overnight successes, but the fact is, most of the stories we hear are quite old, back in the heady pre-1990s days when editors would fall in love with a first novel, sign the author to a three-book contract, and hand over enough money that the author could devote himself (or, more rarely, herself) to her muse. You remember those days: it was the time when you would get all excited about a first novel, gleefully snatch up the author’s next as soon as it could be rushed into print – and never hear of that author again.

The reason for this was simple: authors used to struggle for years, perfecting that first book, and then their publishers would rush them into the second to try to maintain the momentum of the first. That’s why those second books so often seemed hastily-written; if the authors had not been writing all through the (back then, usually much shorter) agent-finding stage, the need to get the next book out the door sent them into a panic.

For this reason, publishing houses seldom give multi-book deals to first-time novelists anymore, but generally, the first book contract will contain a right of first refusal clause on the author’s next book. This means that even if your first book does not do well, the publisher reserves the right to see it before anyone else does, to have the option to buy it without running the risk of a bidding war. Which means, in turn, that if your first book enjoys the market success we all hope it will, you will be under considerable pressure to produce the next, pronto.

Use your querying stage wisely, and get started on book #2 as soon as you can.

As for me, with a memoir coming out this year, a novel just about to make the rounds of editors, and a small business to run, I don’t have time to stand around chatting. I need to get back to work on my next novel.

Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

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