Saturday, November 15, 2008

No Guarantees or
The Sophomore Principle
By John Ramsey Miller

When I speak to book clubs, writing students in high schools and colleges, I often tell them the story of my pre-career and payment of dues, but not my fall from grace and resurrection.

I wrote four books in my low-rent apartment bedroom on a computer set on a door supported by sawhorses. I spent five years writing my fiction full time while my wife worked at a bank. Our family car was a 1981 Camaro with 200,000 miles on it. To accommodate our youngest of three I made a jump seat of foam to go over the center hump in the back and I installed a seat belt for him since the car was designed for four people, not five. Most people who knew us during those years thought I was a parasitic deadbeat until I sold my first novel. My wife believed in me and she insisted that I give writing everything I had for a few years, and that I would know when it was time to move on. She never doubted that I would succeed, and that trust in my ability was my fuel and my inspiration.

After the first attempt at a novel, I acquired an agent who schlepped my first four around to the major and minor houses. I accumulated over 100 rejection slips before I sold The Last Family to Beverly Lewis at Bantam. She had my first three, rejected them all, but she saw something in them she liked, and she called and told me that if I would rewrite the draft taking into consideration her concerns, that she would like to see it again. I did and she made an offer on THE LAST FAMILY.

THE LAST FAMILY was something of a hit. It sold 40,000 copies in Hardcover, did amazingly well in paper back, was a Literary Guild Main Selection, was translated into a dozen languages, was optioned for a film, and gathered a stack of glowing reviews. The publisher offered a money-back-if-not-satisfied guarantee on the HC and they ran full-page ads in USA Today. I went on a 13-city tour at the request of Books A Million. I was wined and dined by the publisher and was offered a three book, seven-figure contract. After years of working hard, I thought I’d been escorted to the front of the line, and I was going to be right up there with my literary heroes.

I was no longer a deadbeat. Our friends said they’d always known I was a talent and that I’d eventually sell a book. I was an honest-to-God-fiction author with a big contract. I bought a four-bedroom house, wrote checks for a minivan and a Honda Accord, and the Millers moved to a wonderful and small southern town with good schools for my sons and nice neighbors. I had a large comfortable office in the new house, but I was so swept up in being a successful author, that I failed to concentrate on my writing. I had a deadline for my second book, and I made the date easily with a nice thick manuscript entitled THE DOWN DOGS. The trouble was, my editor didn’t think it was up to snuff (or more likely up to my pay grade), and to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t a worthy follow-up. I tried and tried to get it right. It was a book with decent enough characters, but structurally it had weak bones and I couldn’t make it work because I couldn’t see that I just wasn’t thinking hard enough and writing before I had thought things through. It was so frustrating that my editor suggested we scrap it and start from scratch with a new book. The publisher flew me to New York so I could pitch a new book idea, which was not bad at all, and so I went back to work. My contract was in jeopardy and I knew it. Now I was working in panic mode, and fear is a killer of creativity. I sent in a first draft and the publisher decided to pull the plug and I was released from my contract. Luckily I had earned out the advance, so there was no financial ugliness. Nobody was happy about it, and my editor and I kept in touch and she never stopped pulling for me, and I’ll never forget her continuing encouragement and the fact that she was always willing to talk to me about what I was working on.

After a few years spent actually writing every day and thinking about my work and being supported emotionally by friends like John Gilstrap, I got a new agent and went back in search of a publisher. As fate would have it, a highly respected editor at my old house read INSIDE OUT and wanted to buy it. Due to the publisher’s less-than-positive experience with me, she fought an uphill battle, but after a rewrite and an outline for a follow up novel, I signed another three-book contract. After those books were completed, I signed another. I have just delivered the last book under that last contract and I’m not sure I’ll be offered another one. My publisher loves the books, they even like me, but it’s the bean count that matters in the end. If I write this next book without a commitment from a publisher, so it goes. I’ll survive, and write without knowing if it will sell.

Being under contract actually only means the publisher has first refusal on the books in that contract, so I never know from one book to the next if I’ll be able to interest the publisher in the book I’ve just written. It’s been psychologically preferable to selling one book at a time, and usually the publisher does publish the books under the contract. It also allows an author to work with the same people book after book. Some think a publisher's level of interest lags with familiarity––especially if the author doesn't break out as soon as they would like. So I guess the question is whether changing publishers and sales teams a good thing or a bad thing?

7 comments:

  1. John, I feel like we should have written your blog entry together. Those were some dark days, and whatever support I lent to you was more than paid back when my dark days arrived soon after. They were awful times. Here's to never seeing the likes of them again.

    As for switching publishing teams, it's scary. I think the trigger for my Dark Days was rooted in the way my then-agent traded me among publishing houses like a baseball card, with each experience being worse than the one that preceded it. I remember bending your ear about how I didn't think she liked me or my work, and that she seemed intent on trying to intimidate me. It wasn't until I left that high-profile famous agent, where my career was an afterthought, and hooked up with an agent who genuinely likes me and my work--as opposed to my revenue potential--that I found some level of peace. Now I'm at a smaller publisher for less money that I made at HC and Warner and S&S, but my new team genuinely loves my work and they toil hard to help me succeed. The bigger houses didn't seem to care one way or the other.

    I was just talking to my agent (our agent) yesterday about how pleasant and rewarding the process has become. I can say without doubt that for me, change was good.

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  2. Quite a revealing backstory, John. If I were you, I won’t hesitate to include the “fall and resurrection” portion when you speak to wannabe writers. It may give them a bit more insight as to what they’re up against. The ones that keep going despite the threat of dark days are the ones that will still be writing and getting published 10 or 20 years from now.

    BTW, you think you had dark days. Back in the early eighties when I first started writing, I had to use an old hand-me-down, wireless laptop to write while I walked to work in the snow, uphill, both ways. :-)

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  3. I think ideally, it's probably better to change up teams, including agents and publishers, once in a while. The scary prospect is that there's so much consolidation in the publishing business today. One might end up endlesslessly pitching to the same mega-publisher's door.

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  4. Great story, John, thanks for sharing. It's a crazy business we're in.

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  5. John (and John G!)
    Your story is inspiring as I face my own God-only-knows what will happen moment. I say you have to go with change if that's what the fates throw at you but your experience has shown that perserverance is key and that you can survive (and thrive) with change. Though your story also shows the need an agent and editor that will champion the cause. I'm on number three editor (four of you count the sub I had while number two was on maternity leave) and never was that more evident.

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  6. Wow...great story...but what stress.

    Makes me wonder if I should just consider $300 a year in donations to my podcast as acceptable and stay on the less stress side of life.


    Nah...

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  7. John G. We sure should have written this one together. We've been on a teeter-totter, you and me.

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