Tuesday, August 22, 2017

You're going to need a bigger boat

My game plan has always been to write something for the larger publishing market and to eventually seek a literary agent, but I deliberately started with smaller publishers: partly because of my confidence, partly because some of the things I want to put out probably wouldn't work for anything but a niche publisher (esoteric bits of history and fiction, not anything obscene or illegal like penguin erotica).

I'm signed to put a number of things out over the next two years. The publisher and editor are people I hugely respect, and who I think are very good at their jobs. I got a full length novel out electronically this year, with a print edition to follow next spring. I have two children's books out under a pseudonym that is deliberately easy to link to my other work.

However, my sales are fairly low. I'm aware that you've mentioned on your blog that you do check the sales of authors' other works. I'm trying to improve things, but my publishers are small and I find self promotion really difficult.

Could this sabotage my future attempts to seek representation?


Yes.
You're no longer a blank slate. You have sales numbers. And they're probably terrible because a lot of small publishers sell direct to readers, and thus the sales aren't recorded on Bookscan.

However.
It's entirely possible to have backlist with a small press and still secure a deal with a larger publisher. You just need a better, faster, stronger, smarter, and more enticing book than everyone else.

In other words, you can hook an agent but you're gonna need a bigger boat.




If an agent/editor/publisher gets excited about a book and thinks they can rake in the cash, nothing silly like a track record is going to hinder them.

Your job, Ishmael, is to get a whale of a project before you start querying agents.


27 comments:

Susan said...

OP: Try. Try and keep trying. If this book doesn't catch an agent's interest despite the luggage, try the next. Hopefully once you secure representation and sell your book, your backlist will work wonders for you as far as readership.

If there's one thing I'm finally getting about life is that we've just got to keep trying. You never know what's right around the corner.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

And I thought any reference to Chief Brody on this blog would never happen.
Good luck OP.

Kitty said...

Chief Brody: “I used to hate the water.”
Hooper: “I can’t imagine why.”

Colin Smith said...

Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but if my goal is to ultimately get an agent and get published with a big publisher, I don't think I would have ever gone the small publisher route first. Is that a lesson here for the rest of us? After all, if the first couple of books seems a bit esoteric or "odd" for mainstream publication, an agent will soon let me know. Eventually I'd hit upon something saleable, and then I can go back to these other works.

I get it though, Opie. Your confidence is probably the main reason you didn't do this. My question to you is this: if you didn't have confidence to query the first couple of books, when will you be confident enough to ever query anything? I daresay the low sales of your books so far hasn't done much to bolster that confidence (even though low sales could be due to bad marketing, and no reflection on the quality of your work). How will you know when you've written that book?

As with self/indie publishing, don't go to a small press because it's "easier." Make a plan and go for it. Some people go with small presses because they prefer the close attention, the flexibility, working directly with the publisher--not through an agent, and don't care too much about the limited resources available. And that's okay, if that's what you want. But if you don't want those limitations, if you want the power of a big publisher behind you and an agent by your side every step of the way, then don't go that path!

You've got to believe that if your work is publishable by anyone, it's query-able. Don't sell yourself short! Even if you think the story a bit odd for the market, put yourself out there. Give it a shot with agents. You never know what might happen...! :)

Timothy Lowe said...

I thought that this was the default goal of any novel? Write something huge? I know they don't all come out that way (sometimes your kids don't do what you want them to, no matter how hard you try) but I assumed that every kernel of inspiration started with a certainty that it was going to be tremendous when done. Otherwise, why start? You can't have a six-month love affair with an idea you think is second rate. The words just don't come.

Keep going, OP. You never know. Something that you think is "small" might wind up being hugely popular. If you look at the mega-popular titles, they really only have one thing in common: they have a compelling quality that people buy into. The bright side is that, if you can bottle that magic, you can attract an agent and a big publisher.

A.L. Kander said...

Is today's advice equally true if the small-press books are all poetry, published before querying a debut novel? (Since I'd read that poets are rarely agented, because the money isn't there, I'd thought to go ahead and publish poetry while polishing a novel.)

Thank you for any opinions, lovely commenters and Ms. Reid!

Colin Smith said...

Hey there, A.L.! Consistent with what I said above, if you plan to shop your poetry to small publishers because that's what you want to do, or that's the way the industry works, then I see no problem. If you're avoiding the agent/Big Publishing route because it's hard, or you don't think you're ready, then I'd say re-think. Be Intentional. That's not a Janet rule, but I hope, if she agrees with me, it becomes one. :)

As for whether selling poetry to a small publisher prior to querying a novel will hurt you, my guess is no. First, the two categories and markets are very different, so I don't think your performance in one can predict anything about your performance in the other. Although, if you are a hugely successful poet, that will give you an attractive platform--a built-in audience. And agents/publishers like built-in audiences. Also, if, as you suggest, it's a known phenomenon that poets go direct to small publishers, agents will know and understand that. My 2c for what it's worth.

A.L. Kander said...

Thank you, Colin! I read your post above--and I agree, this might be a category question (poetry vs. novels). Several poetry publishers have a brief, annual window for accepting manuscript submissions--and the window closes in a few days. As I was checking my manuscript for the ninety-seventh time, about to send it, today's post appeared. Thank you again.

Claire Bobrow said...

OP, challenge number one is to try and write "that book" - the one everyone has to have.

Next would be tackling self-promotion for your backlist. It seems like a critical skill to develop in any publishing arena. Janet has previously recommended "Your Book, Your Brand," by Dana Kaye. Perhaps that's a place to start? If you've already published children's books, SCBWI would be another great resource for marketing ideas.

Keep trying, and good luck!

John Davis Frain said...


He was an old writer who wrote alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without finishing a chapter.

Sorry, all that whale talk and bigger boat commentary had me thinking of old men and seas.

Git 'er done, OP. You've got the chops, we can see the evidence. Godspeed!

Susan said...

Colin: Your points are valid, but I find myself in a place where I'm agreeing and disagreeing at the same time (I know, it's weird).

While I completely get where you're coming from, I've been where OP is (albeit with indie publishing as my platform) and can honestly say I have no regrets. My Big Dream was always to land an agent and get a publishing deal, but for several personal reasons--which I've probably talked about here--I went the indie route for my first two books. I loved it. It taught me so much about the publishing industry, how to market my books and myself, and it did help to build my confidence which I think is necessary for any writer embarking on this journey. Publishing isn't for the faint of heart.

My life would look a lot different if I landed an agent/contract with my first book (not the first book I've written, but the first book I published. There are many a manuscript in my proverbial trunk), and I can't say it would be for the better, especially with regards to experience. While my sales don't even compare to what I could be getting with a publishing contract, I am reaching people in other ways, and that snowball is picking up speed. I also have pretty distinct/niche works that seem to have no place in the trad market, but I think my next book might be more commercially viable with that same flair, so I can easily continue to build the brand with readers by pointing to the backlist. I think OP is in a good place to be able to do the same, especially with the right project. To me, it's all building blocks. It's just that sometimes our trajectories can look a little scattered before we realize what's taking shape.

Then again, I do always tend to take the long way around.

I think OPs best bet would be to embrace their choice and focus on building up marketing and self-promotion for their backlist. Relaunch the books with a new marketing plan--at most, you'll get new readers. At least, you'll be able to experiment with marketing and build up some confidence there that will help you with your next books. Then take a look at your new projects and see which has the best chance for traditional success and go for it. It doesn't hurt to take that chance.

Mister Furkles said...

And I always thought it was Captain Ahab who needed a whale of a deal.

Casey Karp said...

Y'know, there's a common thread in most of Janet's answers. (Emphasis on "most".)

"Write the best book you can and have confidence in it."

Do that, and as Alton Brown says, "Your patience will be rewarded."

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

Susan: I get what you're saying. In your case, going indie was not your first choice, but having gone that route you wouldn't have had it any other way. And I'm sure you're not alone. What I'm speaking to, and this is where I think you agree with me, is the idea of going small or indie because either a) you don't think you're good enough/ready for an agent, or b) because the way to your dream seems too hard, and going indie will be close enough to the dream to feel real. I think we agree that neither of these reasons do justice to ourselves nor to indie publishing.

Perhaps where we agree is this: Be Intentional! If you really want to go the trad route, Opie, then go for it. However, as Susan suggests, don't dismiss lightly the path you've already started walking. Don't treat it as a second-best or "it'll do" option. It's simply another path to the same goal: being published. See what you can make of it.

Susan said...

Colin: Yep, more or less in agreement. But I really want to emphasize that any choice is a valid choice, no matter the reason. If a writer doesn't think they're good enough or ready for an agent, those doubts will likely follow them even through representation and the book contract. Only then they'll be second-guessing every success they have which probably won't make for a great experience.

I just think that the be intentional advice is spot on. Whatever reasons--personal or otherwise--a writer has for going indie, small press, or traditional, the key is to commit and make it the best success they can make it.

kathy joyce said...

Casey, thanks for the summary.

"Write the best book you can and have confidence in it."

That's the new quote I'm taping to my laptop.

BJ Muntain said...

Some people claim that writing for traditional publishing is like any job. You start small, and work your way up. Start with small literary journals, and slowly work upwards to a traditional publishing contract. That may work for some people, but mostly for people who aren't interested in publishing Big.

I got some very good advice one time: If you're looking to sell your writing, start big. If you sell a story to a small magazine before trying to sell it to a big magazine, you'll never know if you could have sold it to the big magazine first. The same could be said for publishers.

BJ Muntain said...

For OP: Everyone's publishing journey is different. Yours began with a small publisher. That's okay. You've got experience now, and a track record of being able to finish books. Now write that big novel to sell to big publishers.


A.L.: Have you considered writing the poetry under a slightly different name? Then you wouldn't have to worry about your poetry sales coming up low on BookScan. (Don't worry if you've already sent your poetry manuscript - that can be worked out when negotiating the contract.)

Re Jaws: I'd never heard that story behind that line before. Talk about a perfect fit!

Steve Stubbs said...

Susan said...
You never know what's right around the corner.

I am pessimistic enough to think "what's right around the corner" is probably just another corner, but your point is well taken.

My idea is: THINK COMMERCIAL. If you were a reader would you buy a how-to book on applying skin lotion to an angry rhinoceros? Agents would think it a great idea, but the readers might reject it. Ask yourself on every page, "Would a reader actually read this crap?" If the answer is not just no, but no no no no no no no no no no no no, you might want to forget about What You Want To Write and think instead of What Readers Want To Read. Commercial fiction ain't about you. A marketing expert once sagely said, "It's about them. It's always about them."

Care about the readers. Assume they don't care about you.

Theresa said...

OP: Yes, always the best advice from Janet. Write that whale of a book before you start querying.

Slightly OT, for those of you on Twitter, @rgay (Roxane Gay) has been talking about an apparent trend among [some] agents to ask for blurbs (from established writers) to be submitted with queries. She does not approve.

kathy joyce said...

The time I most love writing fiction is right now, when I'm analyzing interviews and survey results, and writing a report. Gah! I want to sneak in a little spice:

"Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed with the statement. One percent tore away her bodice and swept her into his tattooed arms."

"The respondents with less than two years of experience shoved the stiletto into his flabby midsection and yanked upward until guts rained onto the wet cement."

Thanks, I feel better now. Back to work.

Steve, "Care about the readers. Assume they don't care about you." So blunt (which I always appreciate from you), and very good advice.

Colin Smith said...

"The Tattooed Arms"--that was a pub on Carkoon, wasn't it? Oh, no... I'm thinking of "The Gut-Splashed Tavern." Thanks for the memories, Kathy! ;)

John Davis Frain said...

Hey A.L., remember that Faulkner said a novelist is a failed short story writer, and a short story writer is a failed poet.

So if you've published poetry, an agent will have to tug you down a couple notches just to get an audience. You're in a fine spot, indeed.

On the other hand, I'm not an authority, so if you quote me I'll deny every word of it.

Cynthia Paige Aaron said...

Lots of good points/good advice offered for the OP, but good for anyone to consider.

Gives me hope to keep going on the whale of a story I've been bashing my head against. I'm exaggerating, but not much! Hopefully, it's a whale!

Aim high. Never give up.

Just my 2 cents.

Panda in Chief said...

Never give a inch!

Ahem....

Do your work and make your choices with intention. Best advice ever.

OT: and in other news, I just read a post on the Digital Reader newsletter, speculating that Google may be moving to discontinue its Blogger platform. Yes, right where we are now!
Of course I am assuming that Janet has all the vast archives of this blog backed up somewhere (wharever that means...ha ha! No techno panda am I) Anyway, just thought I'd throw that information out there, in case anyone was interested.

AJ Blythe said...

I had what I am sure was an intelligent and witty comment to make about JR's post, but it vanished when I read Panda's Google/blogger comment.

I read the post Panda referred to, thinking it would probably be a good idea to back up my old blog (I stopped using it this year but I have nearly 8 years of posts on it), and discovered they had a link to a "how to back up blogger" post.

Here's the link for how to "back up blogger" (a read of the post will explain the ""): http://valiantchickendigital.com/blog/backup-blogger-website/