Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol. II: Keith, A Thriller Writer

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.

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.



Frances said...

That was painful to read. I hope that you take greater charge of your own marketing and publicity with your next book. It sounds like that will be the only way for you to make sure the book connects with its proper audience.

Zornhau said...

A terrifying and salutary read. Just shows you how on the ball you have to be if you make it into the ring.

Anonymous said...

The author says there was no effort from the publisher to tie the book into current events, for marketing purposes. So I have to ask the question - did the AUTHOR attempt to do so? There is no mention at all of any effort by the author to steer the course of events. He said he was dissatisfied with the mystery categorization, and was frustrated by being booked into small mystery bookstores. Again I have to ask, though, what, if anything, he did himself to promote the book in any way - least of all the way he saw it.

My sympathies to the author but I do have little patience with those who don't attempt to help themselves, if that is the case.

Ovation Leader said...

Creative individuals are not always adept in the nuts and bolts of the publishing business. That's what we have agents for, isn't it? Where was Keith's agent during the pre-pub time? It's easy to blame things like cover art and store placement when a book doesn't sell. Yet the point of this piece is the question of inflated advances. My first novel is on submission and I wonder if I would have the insight to say, "Oh please, can you lower that figure just a bit. I don't want to live up to that expectation."

giana d. said...

Quite frankly, I have no sympathy for anyone who's got a 5 book deal when I know people who've been struggling writing for years and haven't even gotten that first nibble. Be grateful for what you've got...honestly!

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I've heard a few similar stories, and I have to wonder, why are publishers still offering such large advances for books by unknowns, then failing to follow through--on decent cover art and marketing in this case? Have the companies become so large they can't keep track of projects well enough to take action to fix problems when they arise? Have they lost all flexibility?

A six figure advance (translate "gamble"), as well as the huge initial printing, could be divided up to give five to ten unknowns a decent chance--and spread out the company's risk.

A smaller, more responsive publisher, once they learned the chain stores wouldn't feature the hideous cover art, could likely have had a new dustjacket printed up in a hurry. I mean, this is business, not a shot in the dark. Their responsiveness might've made booksellers more willing to handsell the book.

In both editing and customer services with technical manuals we learned: If one customer says he doesn't like something, you figure you can't please everyone. But when customers reject something en masse, you change it. We weren't even trying to make a profit and we figured that out.

Instead this reads more like someone taking a huge wad (of stockholders' money) to Vegas and blowing it on one spin of the roulette wheel. Okay, in this case five spins. At the same time they may have gambled away a budding author's career. I hope he paid off his house with the first advance.

Anonymous said...

giana d's comments are not very helpful. What? No one has a right to complain about food poisoning because people in Afghanistan are starving and they should consider themselves lucky to get food in the first place? Maybe so, but if that's your logic then it's pretty tricky to have a conversation about anything.

This writer was not well handled by their publishing house or agent and didn't know enough to do something on their own. Though what a writer on their own can do to make sense of the byzantine relationships between editorial and the other parts of a large publishing house, such as sales and marking, and publicity etc., I don't know.

The fact is that it's difficult for writers at all levels of the publishing game. It's hard getting into print, it's hard staying in print, it's hard getting all departments of your publisher to notice you, let alone rally behind you.

The difficulties many writers have getting into the game doesn't mean the game itself isn't difficult. At all levels. And one person's success doesn't mean there's less for others to go around.

jessica said...

“One person's success doesn't mean there's less for others to go around.” God, how I love the generosity behind that statement! Thank you, anonymous, for what you said.

Kevin said...

Obvious question. Did this man have a website?

Anonymous said...

This whole line of thinking is insane: Yeah, blame the advance because marketing were idiots.

When actors were faced with the problem of capitalists cutting them off from the fruits of their endeavors, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists. I supposed writing is too singular an activity to allow for such collective effort, but one can dream . . .

M.J. said...

What strikes me over and over is that there is no effort on the part of the publisher or the agent to bring the author into the process and try to work towards success together. This story is not unusual. I don't blame the author. We are not educated in the business of publishing. And until very recently, no one was opening up and being honest about how much authors needed to become savvy business people. Which is a shame. It's not the same talent - to write a novel and market a novel.

Anonymous said...

It is easy to blame the publisher and especially the marketing department, but I don't know of any publisher that won't put effort in a book that they gave a large advance. A 2 page spread in a catalog is a big deal, most publishers don't do many 2 page spreads in a season. A lot of things go into making a book a success. If we had all the answers...

TL said...

Far too many writers face all of these very same issues WITHOUT the benefit of a six figure advance. Trust me, if you start out with a lower advance, publishing is an even greater hill to climb. The publisher has far less reason to chase the money. If this writer thinks his publisher didn't do much for him after receiving his large, life changing advance, he should consider that the effort would have been far less if his advance had been small - and he wouldn't have had the money that allowed him the luxury of writing four more books.

He won the lottery right off the bat. Now he'll have to work hard to stay in the game. Many writers have toiled for years in the basement of publishing because their first deal was small and it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on many fronts. We're not in a growth industry anymore. It's a shrinkage industry and the chains are the main culprit. Their insane policy of ordering the same number of books on book #2 as they sold (not ordered, but actually sold) of book #1 of any specific author is a policy of dwindling returns. The end number can only eventually be zero, although no publisher will wait around that long.

I've heard this "I got too large of an advance" story before and it defies logic. Sure, he didn't earn out. But who's to say he would have earned out with the smaller advance? Smaller advance would have certainly meant smaller effort by the publisher, smaller interest by the media, and smaller sales all around. He probably wouldn't have the name brand clout that gets editors interested at other houses now. The difference is, he's been playing with the casino's money - money he may never have seen if the publishers (including the other original bidders) had been frugal in the first place. He got a shot that many authors never get. It didn't work out the way he wished. But at least he got a shot. I know people right now who have published 6-10 novels and never received the big push he got at the very beginning. And their cumulative advances are probably not what this writer got for his first advance. Would they trade careers with this writer? In a second.

He also has built a healthy foreign sales career off the initial boost his book got. He can build on that and publish here with a smaller publisher who will probably be delighted to have a former big time player in their roster. It's hard to feel sorry for this writer. He's swimming in the same water we all swim in, but he's got a yacht to climb into when he gets tired of doing the backstroke.

And btw, the publishers would love us all to believe that big advances are a bad thing. A really, really bad thing.

Anonymous said...


I hope you're still reading comments. I'm in the same position ... except I'm on Book One, which will hit bookstores this fall. And I'm terrified.

Would very much appreciate if you'd post some numbers for the first book: what were sales like in the months before publication? How many hardcovers sold in, say, the first year? What would you say were the earliest warning signs?

Scared in Scarsdale

Kevin Wignall said...

I've been in an almost identical position - in fact, in some ways, things went even more spectacularly wrong for me, but frankly, thems the breaks. You just dust yourself off, learn from it, and move on. Or alternatively, you can wail and grind your teeth and shout "why me"? But thems still the breaks.

"Keith" said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Yes, I am the real "Keith," and I thought I would put my two cents into the mix. First, to Scared in Scarsdale, I'm sorry, but I can't furnish you with exact numbers. Part of my problem was that I failed to educate myself about all of that stuff. Though I do think the system discourages authors from educating themselves. Just look at the way royalty statements or written up. Some of you pointed out that my lack of initiative may have been what got me into this situation in the first place, and I don't deny that I could have done more. I wasn't really even an adult when my first book was published, and I allowed my agent and my publisher to do a lot of things I disagreed with. In hindsight it's perfectly clear that we should have had a better overall plan. And it's clear that I should have put my foot down about certain things. But, hey, I figured the professionals in my life (one of whom I was paying large sums of money to) knew what they were doing. And I refuse to be too hard on myself for thinking that. Afterall, I was a bartender from Seattle, and they had decades of experience in the publishing world. In any case, I'm not whining about my situation, just trying to educate others. I've learned a tremendous amount from this whole process, both about myself and the business, and though I've been tempted at times in this last year to give up, I've finally decided to fight this one out.

"Keith" said...

One last comment, to Anonymous, who wondered if I did anything to promote the book or to "steer the course of event." Though I said earlier that I often left decisions up to my editor and publisher, I was never shy about voicing my opinions. Unfortunately, I was routinely shot down by people who thought they knew better than I. Worse, often I was told changes would be made according to my suggestions, and then those changes never materialized. Unless you've been on the inside, it's very hard to understand just how little control authors have over the process. And as far as promoting the book is concerned, I did what I could. I never ever say no to an event, no matter how small. I contribute to web sites and anthologies, and I routinely make local appearances that I have arranged. Unfortunately, unless an author has an established platform (such as celebrity or notoriety in a field) it's very very difficult to have the kind of impact a book of my size needs. That's why so many publishers today will only publish authors who have their own built-in platforms.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the response. I, too, have been quite accomodating ... because that's the only appropriate approach. My editor and agent know more about the business than I do: distribution and marketing and jacket copy and covers. That's their _job_. Yes, writers should educate ourselves--but we should shoot for 'informed layman' status, and expect the professionals to be professional. (And I imagine that the only thing worse than a writer who leaves business decisions to the editor and agent is a writer who doesn't.)

Anyway, keep fighting and keep writing. Sounds like you got a real education, at least, and the -next- time you get a big deal, you'll know exactly where you stand.

And if any of you professionals are out there, and want to tell me what it means to have pre-sold 30,000 copies feel free to chime in.

Trace said...

Keith, I'm so sorry you had such a crap time of it. And I don't think it's your fault. Especially for a new writer who doesn't know any better. How are you supposed to know what will help you? You put your faith and trust in those who are supposed to know what to do.

Anyway, I want to read your books. Any way I can get your real name, or the one you write under? Your books sound awesome!

Maybe somebody could inconspiously recommend your books to me on my blog or you can email me. I promise to keep your identity a secret.

Anonymous said...

To Scared in Scarsdale (and other newbies)

Read what MJ said. Read it again.

I've got my fourth book coming out this summer from my fourth publisher. Small advances -- but my sales have steadily grown from book to book. Why? Because I do the work that publishing houses used to. Now, some are good and mean well. You should talk to your publicist about what they will and can do. But these days you've got to be willing to do the outreach (mailing, postcards, readings, whatever) because most of the time they send to reviewers and that's it and review pages are shrinking. There are a lot of resources there, but you can't sit back and expect the publisher to sell your book. Not anymore. And, yes, if you worked that hard on the book then this extra effort is worth it.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"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."