KEITH: A thriller writer.
Keith’s career opened like a television ad for a European sports car: Zero to Sixty in Under Five Seconds. He was “an absolutely unknown 28 year-old” when his novel caught the attention of a powerful literary agent. The novel—an upmarket thriller featuring a female protagonist—went out to key New York editors. Keith was a publisher’s dream come true: a young, attractive thriller writer with commercial storytelling instincts, literary chops and—Halleluiah first novelists!—absolutely no prior sales track to have to contend with.
The submission generated instant buzz; an auction date was quickly set; and in the end, seven U.S. publishers came to the table. Novel #1 sold to a top editor at a venerated house for a hefty six-figure advance, along with “heady marketing promises”: an extensive tour, end caps at major chain bookstores, and national media appearances. The book quickly sold in numerous foreign countries. It seemed almost too easy—a dream score
Here's my story. I call it a cautionary tale about the trouble that big advances can lead to.
Though the editor under whose imprint I was to be published was one of the pillars of her house, I was assigned to her assistant, who was just beginning to come into his own. He was very excited about the book, and worked, I honestly believe, his hardest to promote it in house. (How much weight he had to throw around, however, is less clear.)
The book received a two-page spread in the catalog, and the first printing was in keeping with the sizeable advance. Yet there were problems from the start. The cover my publisher finally settled on was hideous—and though I had approval of the cover art written into my contract, the process was so belabored and fractious that by time the final cover was decided, it was way too late to do anything about it.
The book came out to stellar reviews, and many—from a starred PW to a glowing NYTBR, and pretty much everything in between. Yet the cover was so hideous that the major chains refused to feature it. In the end, despite the glowing reviews, my sales were disappointing. The mass market team (the publisher's sister house) took its cues from the hardcover performance, didn’t position it aggressively etc., and the results were exactly what you’d expect. r.
[For the record, I was sent on a book tour for the hardcover—an absolute waste of time and money, in my opinion.]
The same publisher acquired my second book as well, with the advance being a third less than the first advance; I saw it as a vote of confidence that they wanted to stick with me. But with the lackluster sales of the first book dogging them, the marketing department decided to position the next book less as a thriller than as a mystery, and focusing their promotion exclusively on mystery book stores. They said it was their way of finding a niche. Again, my book came out to perfect reviews—we picked up PEOPLE this time, one of the few who’d given us a pass on Book One. But they shipped a much smaller number; I went on a dismal book tour to mystery book stores; and hardcover sales were even lower than for the first book. At the time I didn’t grasp just how significant this downward track would prove to be. As before, there was zero marketing on the part of the paperback house, which made its (dismal) publication a self-fulfilling prophecy.
BOOKS THREE AND FOUR
My original publisher offered me a two book contract for books three and four, though once more at a diminishing advance: I got the same advance for books three and four combined as I’d received for book two. By now the junior editor had moved on to greener pastures, but I’d formed a close relationship with the woman under whose imprint I was published, so we decided to proceed without another editor, with the implicit understanding that I wouldn’t get quite the same level of attention regarding the day-to-day as I had in the past.
Again, there were the same stellar reviews, the same dismal tours to mystery bookstores and appearances at Bouchercon, the annual mystery writers' convention. Only now the focus on the mystery world was seeming more and more like a bad idea: I write political thrillers, not mysteries. My third book was published just after 9/11, as we were poised to go to war with Iraq. This may sound heartless, but the fact remains that my book couldn’t have been more topical; had it been nonfiction, it might well have been a bestseller. The publisher made absolutely no attempt to tie the marketing in with current events; on the other hand I can't blame marketing entirely, as distribution was by now my real enemy.
Everyone—authors and editors both—has a story about how 9/11 took the legs out from underneath a promising publication. Yet unlike so many, I continued to get terrific media—all for naught. Here’s an example: one of the stops on my book tour was Minneapolis, and came immediately on the heels of three separate articles about me and the book in the Star-Tribune (a review, an interview, and a profile). But my publisher had managed to book an event in the Twin Cities; instead I wound up a tiny mystery bookstore thirty five miles away. Worse yet, the bookstore had NO STOCK. So my escort and I had to go to every bookstore in the area and buy them out of their few copies.
My fourth book also dealt with timely, trenchant subject matter, and had a terrifically exotic setting—and received no marketing support whatsoever. It was only now that I came to realize that my editor, fantastic though she was on the page, and as a human being, had little interest in or grasp of the ins and outs of marketing a book, or even generating excitement for it in house. As my British editor once remarked, "J. is from the old school, and sees marketing as something altogether vulgar." Had I known then what I know now…
What had been obvious to my agent for some time now became plain to me: I had to find a new publisher. Yet this would prove much easier said than done. Many top editors at large New York houses were itching to read my manuscript, and I traveled to New York to meet with potential new editors, who were consistently "blown away" by the book, and "very excited to work with me." However, not a single one of these editors would be allowed by their marketing departments to make an offer, because of my sales track.
Moral: there really is such a thing a too-high an advance, and mine is a case in point. Had I started smaller and earned-out, it's possible that, in the aggregate, I wouldn't have made quite as much money. But I wouldn't be in the insane position I find myself in now. I've been published in a dozen different languages. All four of my books have received near perfect reviews. My European sales are respectable enough that I have made two promotional trips abroad this year alone. I have a contract with a major British publisher for two books. And yet if I'm going to continue publishing in this country, I'm going to have to do so under a different name.
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS OF
THE MAD MAX SURVEY:
A BAKER'S DOZEN: OVERVIEW
VOL I: PAPERBACK WRITER
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
- ▼ April (7)