Letting the market speak


There’s a virulent and contagious illness going around, and it’s got ties to the barnyard. Not swine flu, but a little guy I like to call cart-before-horseitis.

I am all for authors having career goals and knowing what success looks like for them (bonus points if you can recognize and enjoy it once you meet those goals). Write ’em down, ask your grandma to pray for you, do whatever it is The Secret tells you to do, yell them at midnight the third day after the gibbous moon, whatever makes you feel empowered.

But don’t put it in your query letter;

And don’t expect that those hopes should be the Operating Manual for your agent or your editor;

Above all don’t get angry when others fail to fall in line with the timing you think is Right;

Because if you do you ignore the reality that publishing is a business, and the market has to have its say for those goals to truly be achieved.

Object lesson: I see, all the time, queries from unpublished authors that say: “I am a very prolific writer and want an agent who can get me four to five books a year under contract for two or more houses.”

Now, I freely admit I am cantankerous, but doesn’t that sort of make you, too, want to say, “Great. And I would like to only sell books for a million dollars. Also, a pony.”

In this example, writing multiple books for multiple houses is putting the cart before the horse, who I am pretty sure is still chilling in the barn in fact. Writing multiple books/multiple houses would in fact be a lovely goal I support wholeheartedly, if that’s the right thing for your career, and you can’t know if it is until you are at the point where that’s a real choice you face.

It could also be the absolute worst thing for your career. Until you’ve written a book on deadline, while copyediting another and promoting yet another, you just don’t know for sure that you can write that fast and that often (to say nothing at all of quality). And if you did by some miracle wrangle this veritable cornucopia of deals before you have a sales track that suggests there is a market to support that kind of output, how do we know it won’t be the book equivalent of throwing a party that no one attends? That your publication schedule won’t outpace the reading public’s hunger for your work? (Ouch, right? But it happens–and then you may be toast, because you’ve got not one book with one house that sank like a stone, but multiple books with multiple houses that sank like stones, and who pray tell wants to get on board that train?)

If you’re dead-set on Multiple Publishers Now, or Getting A Multi-City Tour Financed By the Publisher, or Selling to Albania, or A Six-Page Feature in the New Yorker About Your Debut Cozy Mystery, and in my thoughtful professional opinion any of those things do not benefit the career you actually have,  this can create conflict. A good agent will explain why in his/her professional opinion these things aren’t prudent/useful/likely, but an author has to be willing to hear that.

There is so much in publishing you can’t control, and it’s hard for an agent to help you if you’re fixated on things that you really extra can’t control, particularly to the detriment of things you can. Take subrights sales. It’s totally valid to dream that your work will find readers worldwide. But if you set a (arbitrary) goal of selling in 10 territories, how exactly can you make that actionable? If your agent sends it out, pimps it at Frankfurt and London, and everyone says “nein danke,” are you a failure? No. It just isn’t meant to be with this particular book at this particular moment, for any of myriad reasons (pixies don’t play in Prussia, the second runner-up of German Idol just published a similar novel, your book is extremely American and doesn’t translate, Taiwan can’t get enough of werewolves but hates vampires, you name it. [Also none of those are real, so nobody ask me if we should change from pixies to fairies in order to crack Prussia. Also there is no more Prussia.]).

Same goes for film. I’ve heard of instances where authors fired their lit agents who are otherwise doing good work for them over not getting a film deal. Now, look, every relationship is different, or maybe those agents said no thanks without asking the author when Paramount called with a bag of money. But I think in some of those instances it’s a particularly rough case of CBH-itis. You certainly don’t want an agent who pretends there is no Hollywood, or refuses to even explain how the whole film thing works and whether it’s viable for your book (virtually every author thinks their book is a movie but relatively few of them get seriously shopped, much less optioned, much less made), and it’s perfectly valid to ask for a serious conversation about all that. But an agent can no more make a film deal happen on an author’s timetable than he or she can make it rain gumdrops.

All of these things–subrights, film, international fame and glory, letters from fans, multiple houses vying for the chance to publish even one of your gems–are results of success, and that’s why I’m calling it cart-before-horseitis. And let me define “success” not by these external signifiers, but in its truest form: Success is writing a book that speaks to people. Hits ’em where they live. If your book does that–these things follow. Maybe not all of them at once, or on the timeline you expected, but trying to force it is like asking a flower to bloom before it sprouts.

Letting go of an external timetable opens you up to opportunity, for your new goals to be realized in amazing ways you never could’ve planned. Why wouldn’t you want to leave room for the amazing surprises you’ll encounter along the way? It also allows for the truth that there are down times and up, no’s as well as yes’s, and you will weather those turns better if you’re focused on playing the hand you’re dealt rather than trying to turn a spade into a heart, just to tick it off your List of Stuff I Decided Meant I Was Successful Before I Really Experienced This Whole Publishing Thing.

It’s tempting to look at these things that come as results of a book that people adore and try to reverse-engineer them, but it can’t work that way. Write the best book you can. Then, to steal a line from one of my client’s manuscripts: you just “do the next right thing.” Think long-term, yes. Partner with your agent and house to do everything you can to help that book find its people. But don’t get so hung up on chasing those external markers of success that you forget to do the hard, hands-on-keyboard work being a successful author requires.

And leave that horse right where he can do the most good.

(Update: Here’s a great take from an award-winning author.)


30 Responses to “Letting the market speak”

  1. 1 barbara

    Sing it, sister. I am cutting and pasting as we speak.

  2. 2 Jennifer Boober hatch

    I guess maybe I’m a bit “Pollyanna-ish” but I would think these things would go with out saying…my greatest joy and measurement of success as a writer is found when I can touch the heart of a reader through my writing or help them escape to another place for a time….all the rest is icing on the cake.
    You are so correct in all that you have said. If a writer is writing for the reasons you have listed above, perhaps they should reconsider the profession. I think they will be hard pressed to find success if those are the reasons they write.

  3. Well said. This is definitely something most of us writers need to hear because there are times when we tend to get a little ahead of ourselves. I have my moments but thankfully those crazy thoughts don’t make it out of my head.

    “Do the next right thing.” Love that. I think I need to tape that quote on the wall in front of me so I can be reminded of it when I write or even think about my writing goals or life in general.

    Thanks for sharing. This is one of those thing every writer needs to read.

  4. Great post! My first book just came out this year – a very small book with a very tiny publisher. An editor at a much bigger publisher expressed an interest in giving me a contract if I could churn out product quickly. I really thought I could, and I did do one novel for her in five weeks time. But it was EXHAUSTING. And no fun at all. It felt about as creatively fulfilling as being the receptionist at an accounting firm. In fact, the receptionist job was better because I got more money and still had the mental energy at the end of the day to write the sort of stories I really cared about.

    Unlike you, many agents and editors show up at writers’ conferences and talk about how important it is for writers to be able to produce a lot of material in a short time. It’s very easy for newcomers to conclude that’s the only measure of success. As for me – the editor at the Big Publisher rejected the five-week-wonder because it didn’t fit her formula. And I’m definitely putting that horse right back in the barn and taking my time on the next project!

  5. Four to five books a year? That’s not prolific– that’s never eating or sleeping or ever leaving your keyboard. Or do some writers plan on unloading all their trunked novels once they’ve received confirmation that someone likes ONE of their books?

    My worst cases of “cart-before-horse-itis” usually involve the desire to query before my manuscript is ready, which can be just as detrimental to a writing career, but is one that can be outgrown. Not sure if this is possible when the aspiring writer is already too big for his britches. 😉

  6. Well-said. I guess this means that my hope for a book-movie-TV series-five city tour for my first novel is dead. Right?

  7. People really think like this?

    I know it’s easy to get carried away, but I’d be happy with a book a year – even though I think (at the moment) I could do more. Maybe I will, but I doubt I’d ever manage more than two books a year. And certainly not with different houses.

    I mean, it’s good to have that level of self-belief, but I rather think it probably helps to have an offer to publish one first before you get too carried away (and, if you must get carried away, keep it to yourself. Sure, live the dream – in your head).

  8. 8 beckylevine

    Yes! Wonderful. Of course we have to be thoughtful & careful in choosing an agent, but then, FOR PETE”S SAKE, remember why you wanted one. Status? Think again! Because you wanted to work with someone who knows the business, who can give you advice you will listen to.


  9. Great article and a fun read.

    But man, I wish SOMEONE could make it rain gumdrops because we’re swimming in rain here right now and I’d prefer my lawn to be littered in cute colorful treats to big sopping mud puddles. 😉

  10. Nice article. Five books in a year can be done, but I doubt they’d be worth much. And not with editing and promoting. Unless the author already had them written.

    Thanks for the level-set. Richard, looking forward to your movie, but since I faint at the sight of blood I probably wouldn’t see much.

    And the raining gumdrops thing? Anybody here seen Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler? The scene of it raining Gumballs on him is priceless, one of the most memorable scenes I’ve watched.

  11. 11 tobebeautiful

    That most made me laugh so much because it is such an author thing to do! We like to sit and envision and then live life based on that vision…without the work. I know I definitely have a tendency to do that (but I would never write it in a query!)

  12. Awesome post. Thank you!

  13. 13 jdrourke

    What a cool article! Though I must say that writers and patience rarely share time on the dance floor together…


  14. I prefer non-fiction stories. Real life is so much more complex and interesting. The mind evolves and adapts to the events around it over time. What was once forbidden becomes insatiable. What was once unquenchable becomes satisfied. These are the events that intrigue me.

  15. Wise advice, as usual.

  16. Someone once told me that as a writer, I should set goals that depend only on me – i.e. sending out five queries instead of getting requests from five agents. It’s a really great tool for remembering that getting published is hard work, and that, as much work as I need to do, there are other factors involved too. (And so far, it’s working pretty well for me.)

    It must be hard for agents, authors, and other people in the know to explain this stuff sometimes – after all, it’s hard to cut into someone’s dream. I’ve met many writers who don’t revise and think their work is perfect first time ’round, then be devastated when they receive a rejection letter. I don’t know how they/you do it, but more power to you!

    @tobebeautiful & @ Chum Master @ The Minnow Pond – awesome user names.

  17. This post was so terrific, I riffed on it and wrote more about the value of understanding your place in the publishing pantheon. http://bit.ly/1qc1t

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Colleen! Your insight was terrific–I was just about to email you and ask if I could link your post!

  18. great ^_^!

  19. Amen, Holly.

    One of the biggest issues I have to deal with as an editor is managing the unrealistic expectations of authors. Seems like every one of them thinks their book deserves to be excerpted in a national magazine, reviewed by The New York Times Book Review, optioned by Hollywood and earn them a booking on Oprah. And I deal mostly with sportswriters.

  20. 21 Purple Dino Type

    It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the whole process in general. I’m new to the literary world and the best advice I’ve been given by the few writers and other literary types that I do know is, “take it one step at a time. Write well and the rest will follow.” I always enjoy when a person “from the inside” gives honest, albeit harsh, advice and insight. It really helps, thanks Holly.

  21. Good article and one that I think my writing members could benefit by reading. Even the self-published writers I know think they will get on Oprah. It is hard to get them to livein the real-world.

    Kathy Temean

  22. Holly,
    Thanks so much. I’d be happy for the link, and I’ll edit the post to reflect that you wrote it. (One of your author clued me in.)

    Have a great week!

  23. Great perspective, Holly. I think one of the best things we can have in an agent/author relationship is the ability to talk to our agents. Really talk about expectations and where we want our careers to go and what we mutually think the best route may be to get there. There are always twists and turns along the way, but having that open communication makes the journey much less stressful and more enjoyable. 🙂

  24. It is possible to do this. I have three UK publishing deals, for six books. My first book is out in February 2010, my next in May 2010, the next in September 2010 and the fourth in October 2010 and I have no track record at all in book sales, just a few short story magazine sales to my name. I have a day job, I’m a mother and I play lead roles in amdram, so I do have a life. But here’s the thing; I’m really focussed on writing and I work very fast. I deliver way ahead of deadlines because I have to in order to keep the plates spinning. As you rightly point out, you need to be promoting one book, whilst proof-editing another, whilst writing the third and the fourth pretty much simultaneously. I plan to deliver the third and the fourth book for next year two months early so I can whole-heartedly promote the first and second. And then I’ll be working on five, six and seven. It might even be eight if my agent sells the picture book I just wrote. It’s hard work but great fun and I love the turn things have taken. I didn’t plan it this way; I just wrote the books and my agent got me the deals. Luckily, they’re for different markets so there won’t be an over-saturation (I hope!).

    So what I’m saying is it’s possible. Is it usual? No but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream. Just be prepared for the reality to be really, really demanding and be ready to work your socks off.

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