Newsflash via the NYT: Things are Tough for New Novelists

If you don’t laugh at this, you’ll really have to cry. If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may find yourself weeping.

The New York Times has an article about the pseudo-anonymous novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling. If you’re not aware: Rowling wanted to see how publishing feels for the rest of us, so she used a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith)  to sell a mystery novel, which got only a few mediocre reviews and sold few copies. She planned to reveal herself as the true author but was sad that it got leaked so soon:

“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” (quoted in The Author’s Guild article on this same phenomenon).

I don’t know how to feel about this. The Queen dresses as a peasant and goes out to wander the city, and is surprised when her cover is blown. She intended to blow her own cover, but gosh, somebody beat her to it.  What’s that about? The theories in my head are not complementary, so I’ll let this aside for the moment after pointing out that Rowling stood to make no money from the novel, all the proceeds go to charity. The thing you need to know is, she wrote a mystery. It did not sell, and got mediocre reviews. Somebody leaked the fact that she was in fact the author, and sales are now through the roof. And positive reviews are pouring in. A lot of negative ones, too, but quite a few that glow on the page.

In my last post I talked about the fact that a first class novel, one with both critical and commercial success, is  rare. There are some wild cards:; an indifferent novel can dance at the top of the best-seller list  for weeks with the right marketing or name on the cover. And the NYT kindly provides an example of this exact thing happening, but starts by pointing out the painfully obvious::

In any event, a publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success. Much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher.

Thanks for clearing that up, NYT.  My own rather jaded version of this can be found here.

The example they provide is for the 2010 novel Matterhorn  by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes. A prominent editor with deep pockets  found one of the 300 printed copies of the book, and set out to make a star of it. This really was excellent news for Marlantes, but the odds of this happening were astronomical.

First time novelists should be realistic about the chances going in, of course. But it’s still frustrating to see concrete examples of how very stacked the deck is.  I believe that there are many hundreds of really excellent novels out there that their authors will have to fight for before they see the light of day. I hope they persevere.

Now I have to say one more thing about JK Rowling. Somebody made up a bio for her alter-ego Galbraith, which appeared on one of the publisher’s websites (this is also from The Authors Guild article):

Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the  plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world.  Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym.

This sits wrong with me. Authors who claim authority that they don’t really possess are viewed askance by readers and critics both. Or am I’m being too critical?

never buy a pig in a poke: the bookish adaptation

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.

Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. Continue reading…

the midlist/midlife crisis

Original post date: 14 July 2007

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

And I was doing so well…

Well, hell.

This sometimes happen towards the end of a novel. 200,000+ and I realize I have to start all over from scratch. Dump the whole thing.

I’ll try to get it done within a year.

Okay, I’m kidding. But I do have to rewrite three chapters. That’s better than the whole thing, no?

In the meantime, the trade paper release of Pajama Girls is just around the corner, and the marketing people are starting to rouse themselves. If you plan on ordering it from Amazon at some point, why not preorder it now? It would certainly help if folks showed an early interest.

Click the cover to be magically transported to Amazon:

[asa book]0425225917[/asa] I realize that this cover does not show up well on a white background; when I have a chance I’ll give it a frame.