Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing Tips - Until Your Novel Sells


I know many people who are counting on becoming rich and famous "when their novel is published." Well, that might happen to one or two of those persons. For example, J.K. Rowling got super rich with the "Harry Potter" franchise. For many years, Stephen King had the market cornered on the horror novel. John Grisham has certainly made more than a splash with the legal thriller. Alexander McCall Smith and Elizabeth George probably have no money worries with their recurring characters of Precious Ramotswe and Inspector Lynley.

However, consider this: Stephen King was living in a trailer, while his wife worked the third shift at Dunkin' Donuts (or Krispy Kreme, I can't remember which) when his first book, Carrie, was accepted for publication. He was given an advance of $2,500 and sales of the hardcover edition were middling at best. However, Carrie was picked up by Hollywood filmmakers and also distributed as a mass market paperback. Those two facts helped push sales of the book into the millions and King's career was off and running.

Many embarrassed New York agents and publishers told Grisham "no one" would want to read another legal thriller, and they passed on The Firm. With the spectacular success of The Pelican Brief, these same embarrassed agents and publishers realized how very wrong they'd been, however there are stories about Grisham selling copies of The Firm out of the trunk of his car in Mississippi. And we all know J.K. Rowling spent years as a welfare mom, writing the "Harry Potter" books in coffee shops so she could stay warm.

After Dan Brown wrote Deception Point, not many people bought the book and not many people had heard of Brown. However, Brown gambled and poured his advance for The Da Vinci Code right back into promoting that book. His gamble paid off, but there was always the risk that it might have failed.

Elizabeth Kostova sold her debut novel, The Historian in two days for $2.5 million, and Hollywood paid in the vicinity of another $1.5 million for the film rights. In addition, Little, Brown and Co., her publisher, spent something close to $500,000 publicizing the book. They saw it as "The Da Vinci Code Meets Dracula." In some ways, they were right, in some, wrong, however the advertising did pay off, and The Historian, which became a runaway bestseller, is the only novel to date to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. However, what if Dan Brown had never written The Da Vinci Code? What if it hadn't been as spectacularly successful as it was? Kostova spent about a decade researching and writing her book and that time paid off, but as far as advances go, she's the exception, not the rule.

A very well written debut novel that's expected to garner quite a few sales, might get an author an advance of $10,000 to $30,000 from a big publishing house. A smaller house might only offer $1,000 to $5,000, but keep in mind that this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding was turned down by every major and minor traditional publishing house until a small medical press gave Harding a $1,000 advance and published his novella. Then came the Pulitzer. As for the future, well, that remains to be seen.

Because they are expected to garner more sales, mainstream novels generally command higher advances than do literary or genre novels, but not always. The "Harry Potter" books are certainly genre novels, as are the novels of Mary Higgins Clark, but then Mary Higgins Clark, who holds the record for the largest advance in publishing history, also had an excellent track record before she was given that huge advance. (That advance, which was in the vicinity of $45 million was for a five-book deal, so that works out to $9 million/book. The highest single book advance was an estimated $10 million, paid to Bill Clinton for his autobiography, now said to have been broken by Oprah Winfrey for her latest diet and exercise book, co-authored with her personal trainer, Bob Greene.) If you think you can compete with Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Clinton or Oprah, then I wish you lots of luck. I know I can't begin to.

You do hear stories almost every week about a debut author who's garnered a big advance or made it to number one on the bestseller list. One such example is Kathryn Stockett and her wonderful book, The Help. However, Ms. Stockett is very upfront about the fact that it took a long, long time to find a publisher who would take a chance on her book. Not every book sells in two days or even two hundred days. And, it's good to keep in mind that for every novelist whose book does land on the bestseller list, there are many more novelists whose books are published, but for very modest advances and never even see the back end of the bestseller list. Ninety-five percent (95%) of all the money made in book publishing is shared among the top five percent (5%) of authors. In fact, your first novel might never be published. Mine wasn't, but that's fine with me. It was a wonderful learning experience for which I'm very grateful. I had tremendous fun with it.

All this isn't said to deter anyone who really loves writing from doing just that. It's just good to keep the fact in mind that it's more probable than not that you're never going to get rich from novel writing. In fact, there is really only one good reason for deciding to write a book and that reason is because you love writing fiction, you feel happier when you're writing than when you're not writing.

Some of us have more imagination than others. Some of us are better natural storytellers. However, no one is a "born novelist." There's a huge misconception among many aspiring writers that when they want to write a book all they have to do is put pen to paper and the words will magically flow. They won't. Or if they do, they're likely to be terrible. Writers, like painters, dancers, and other artists have to master their craft, and if they are going to master it, they have to work at it every day. Far too few do. Did you know that 199 out of every 200 manuscripts that cross the desk of an agent or an editor are rejected immediately. The most common reason being that the writing is just plain awful, though there are other reasons, too. For example, the manuscript you submit might not "fit" that particular editor's list, or the publishing house might be publishing something similar, so wouldn't be interested in your manuscript no matter how well it's written.

You can help increase the odds of getting published by honing the craft of writing on a daily basis. Never think you "know it all" or that you're "good enough." You aren't. Even Nobel Prize winners can make a mistake or two or three now and then.

Ultimately, no one should write novels to make money. That's a side benefit. Unless you're a celebrity or you're very talented and very lucky both, you probably won't make more than $20,000 to $100,000 during your entire writing career. However, if writing does make you happy, if you're going to be satisfied with a midlist book, but one that is definitely published traditionally, if you're willing to keep your day job to pay the bills, then don't let anything deter you.

I wish you all the best.

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