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Object lesson: I see, all the time, queries from unpublished authors that say: “I am a very prolific writer and want an agent who can get me four to five books a year under contract for two or more houses.”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.)
Filed under: Holly Root | 30 Comments