A novel by any other name….

matociquala said over in her description of how the sale of her novel Hammered came to be (found here):

What happened in my particular case is that I had queried arcaedia on the first novel of the trilogy and been requested to send her my synop and three. She read that, asked for the full MS, and then contacted me and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t sell this as a first novel. But do you have anything else finished?”

In comments, bixxy was seen to say:

“I’m sorry, but I can’t sell this as a first novel.”

What exactly does that mean? It sounds rather qualified — “I can’t sell this as a first novel, but let’s go back to it after you’ve published something else as your first novel.” Or something.

Why was that ms. not saleable as a first novel?

I replied (and then cross-posted it here for my own purposes….):

…what I meant when I said that to her was more of – “it’s not time for this book yet.” (And, she did somewhat oversimplify my response – heh.) There are a lot of factors that went into my saying that. I liked the writing. I liked the character. I liked the challenges in the book. It was certainly enough to get me to ask for more (which is very telling in its own way these days considering my volume of submissions). But I thought it would be a very difficult book to sell for a number of the reasons eBear mentions herself. The crux of the matter, I think, is that part of an agent’s job these days is to balance between art and commerce (e.g. author and publisher) in an attempt to maximize the potential for both. In the case of a first novel, I need to put the author in the strongest position possible in order to beat out the competition. Why take a long shot, when we can take another project out and have a stronger advantage? Just out of curiousity — I jotted a quick note off to eBear’s editor and asked her how many first novels she acquired in 2003, the year in which Hammered sold. She told me in the last two years, she’s bought five. I’ve been in her office, and I’ve seen the stack of submissions — and those are just the partials and fulls requested, not the myriad of queries. It’s a long shot just to sell a first novel to start with.

Selling something non-traditional and different isn’t impossible. It’s just tougher. And what you also have to consider is where that author is going to go down the road. If their first novel is something that doesn’t lend itself to a large readership out of the gate, will their numbers suffer and will the publisher then find it necessary to not pick up their next novel? Far better, I think, to establish a readership first, in that case.

So, what would have happened if she’d come back and told me that was all she had? I can only speculate. It’s entirely possible I might have given it a shot anyway. I’m stubborn. I know what I like. I just have to keep going until I find the other people who like it. It once took me two and a half years to sell a novel. But I knew it had something. I just had to find the editor that agreed. Sometimes you just have to dig in your heels until art wins out. On the other hand, I have a crowded list of clients and I’m competing for a limited number of publication slots with a lot of other agented writers and, in some cases, unagented writers. I have to maximize my potential too. So, I might have left it at — show me something else when you’ve got it, let’s stay in touch. I did that with someone else once after rejecting their first book, and roughly three years later, I ended up taking on a different book and selling it.

Hmmmm…..rambling…..Did it answer the question?


Addendum (4/15/2004, 1:58pm): Since I could, I asked the editors who were my 2nd and 3rd choices for submissions on Hammered how many first novels they bought last year. One of them is apparently out of the office today. The other said she bought one (only one!) in 2003 and that her counterpart at the same line bought none. How’s them odds? Eep.

19 responses to “A novel by any other name….

  1. First novel difficulties
    What are the stats like? Something like “3 in every 1000 novelists gets published, and of those, 1 in 10 makes enough at it to make a living.” It was those stats that drove Jim Butcher to take the moniker Longshot online. He’s still working toward getting that 1 in 10 bit. 🙂

    • Re: First novel difficulties
      I don’t know what the exact odds are — or whether one includes every small publisher or e-publisher or only the so-called traditional publishers in attempting to figure them. In any case, I think your numbers might actually be on the generous side.

    • Re: First novel difficulties
      1 in 10 selling writers making a living sounds a bit high, actually–but I don’t know the stats.
      And there’s also the question of whether you count folks for whom fiction is one part of how they make their freelance living, but not the whole picture. Many of us seem to do a mix of odd jobs to hold it together, ultimately.

      • Re: First novel difficulties
        I wonder why it is that only 1 in 10 selling writers makes a living at the fictional game, though. Is it because the market can’t take more than a certain amount of their work at a time? Is it because they don’t produce enough work to keep themselves afloat? Is it because they’re too narrowly specialized to sell often? Some other reason?

        • Others will have more detailed answers, but essentially I think of it as a matter of the time needed to produce a novel versus the amounts advances tend to run. A beginning writer who produces a novel a year is probably earning under 10K, possibly quite a bit under. If you can produce two novels a year you might be able to approach something you can support yourself on–which you’d need to do, since not many people can write two novels a year and hold down a full-time day job.
          If one’s books do well, these figures can grow–but one has to work out the economics of writing to get to that point, which usually involves doing other things alongside one’s writing, possibly for quite some years, possibly forever.

        • Re: First novel difficulties
          Gah. That’s a lot of questions with a lot of varied answers.
          Most authors only publish one book per year. Sometimes, it’s because that’s all they can produce (writing speed is vastly varied just on my own client list). Sometimes that’s because it’s all their publisher will schedule. Many of the smaller publishers will do more, but don’t have the distribution or sales numbers to support an author full-time. The major publishers (i.e. mostly in NYC) have a certain number of books they publish per month (for example, most of the major science fiction and fantasy lines only publish 2-3 books per month). So, the limited market is a reason.
          Another reason, though, is that the pay is crappy for most writers. *wry smile* It takes a long time to build enough of a reputation to become, say, the next Stephen King or the next Nora Roberts.
          The average advance, I believe (blockbusters and first novels aside) is usually somewhere between 10-15K (and I’m not going to break that down by genre — in some of those it’s much lower). Let’s be optimistic, and go with the 15K. You’re likely to get 1/2 of that on signing the contract, and 1/2 of that on delivery and approval of the manuscript (though some publishers also divide it further with deliveries of proposals or even, payment due on publication). So, you have $7500 to live on while you write the book (if you were lucky enough to sell on proposal), with another $7500 while you wait for it to be published (and start the next one). Roughly. After that theoretical 15K, you have to “earn out” — That is, make that amount in royalties – for paperbacks, typically around 6-8% of the cover price, to equal the advance. Ergo, if you have a $6.99 paperback, you’re making about 56 cents per book if you have an 8% royalty. So, you’ll break even shortly before 27,000 copies before you see another cent. For a lot of authors, this means the advance is all they can count on for income.
          Ergo, it’s really hard to make a living just writing novels. You usually have to supplement it with some other income, whether freelance writing or the dreaded day job. Not that I want to be a wet blanket, but those are the cold figures, and we usually advise our clients to wait until they have five novels simultaneously in print and shipping in reorder before they *consider* relying just on their publishing income.

          • Re: First novel difficulties
            *nod* This is a helpful break-down, similar to those I’ve seen from some published authors who want to be helpful to those of us still looking at the novel part of the industry with new eyes.
            The fact that your writing output actually has a measurable effect on how much you earn really is a comfort to me; I can do (and have done, while working full-time) two novels a year easily, and as I’ve gotten more practice I’m beginning to branch out into other genres; it sounds like diversification is also a handy way to ensure your living, so I might investigate those avenues more.
            As for not quitting until you have five books in print–the numbers have always seemed to suggest waiting, and this is good confirmation of that in particular.
            Still, it’s nice to hear this re-iterated. Occasionally I become discouraged. Now that some of my short stories have gotten award attention, though, it might be time for me to go agent-shopping again for the manuscripts I’ve put aside until I’ve felt I had a little more to offer than my name. 🙂

  2. Selling something non-traditional and different isn’t impossible. It’s just tougher.
    I found this interesting. Last year I was at a writing workshop lead by a published British fantasy writer and her comment on my WIP at the time was that it was too similar to a lot of already published novels or novels in the slushpile. I thought her comments valid, so started work on something completely different, i.e. a comic fantasy.
    So is it a case of author and agent finding that delicate balance between too samey and too different?

    • Both are good points. And thanks for bringing it up. It boils down to this (and I’m oversimplifying, but it’s Friday and I’m supposed to be working) — if you’re too much like everything else, how will you get noticed; if you’re too different from everything else, how will you get sold.
      Okay….not enough; shalt ramble a bit more. If I get 10 fantasy proposals in one day and they all have a boy in them who finds a magic sword, defeats the dragon (gotta have a dragon on the cover if at all possible) and gets the girl (tongue planted firmly in cheek during this, er, summary), how do I choose which *one* I publish (or represent) *this* year (see above for previous notes on how many first novels editors acquired recently). I look for that indefinable thing called “voice” (oh, a dissertation on that would make this more than just a ramble); suffice to say, something that makes it stand out some from all the rest. But you don’t necessarily want it *too* different. Because….
      ….if I, as an agent, know that certain editors are seeking a new epic fantasy (this was in fact put to me a couple years ago, and I set out to find exactly that) which fits certain genre conventions – but all I get are quirky manuscripts that don’t really fit any of them squarely…the risk for me, the risk for the author, the risk for potential sale – is plainly greater.
      Again, we are back to the balance between art and commerce. Readers (and ergo, editors and agents, who are really just readers in the endgame) have certain expectations. They may want another book in a long series of favorites; they may want something that’s a challenge to their intellect; they may want not just the same-old Tolkien look-alike — ultimately, though, they want an enjoyable read. The bean-counters, though, what do they want? They want something that will guarantee a certain number of unit sales so they can look at the profit and loss statement for that book and see more of the former and not so much of the latter. To do that they need to be able to pitch the book to the sales force, who turns around and pitches the book to the buyers for the bookstores and other chains (like Walmart or some such). In that case, they’re competing for spots too — so they have to get it in there. A lot easier to do when one can point to verifiable selling points (e.g. it’s got a dragon on the cover) than the artistic value of the story. Sad, but too often, true.
      This contributes why there are bad books that sometimes get published and too many good books that are overlooked. A circumstance that often leaves me fuming. Grr. Argh. Another long essay that I shouldn’t take time off from work for…. (Go ahead, someone else rant about this one.)

      • Thanks, that was very informative. You’ve confirmed my suspicions and also reassured me that I was right to switch novels. The previous WIP was a “guy from our world is sucked into an alternate world and gets swept up into a war in the defence of a tiny kingdom under attack by a mysterious evil sorceror”. I still think I have a sufficiently different take on the… ahem, I like to think of them as “popular narrative elements” (rather than cliches), to make the story work, but I don’t think it would attract an editor’s (or agent’s) eye as a 3 chapters and outline in the slushpile.
        But there is a recognised sub-genre of “comic fantasy”, certainly over here in the UK, with Pratchett leading the field, of course. So the current WIP should fit into the “similar but different enough” niche. Or at least I hope so…

  3. Found you via and just wanted to leave a note that I’ve added you to my friends list, if it’s alright.

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