Tips For Authors #2: When Your Career Is In a Tailspin
"This is a lovely proposal you've sent me, Lee, but the author's
sales track record isn't strong enough for us to make an offer."
- Every major publisher that has ever turned down one of my author's books.
Hello and welcome to my second tips for authors entry. This is mainly intended for authors who have already had books published but it may be a helpful learning experience for new authors as well. Let me warn you right now that you might not like reading this. It's sobering at best and at worst you might think it's a slap in the face. The publishing business has been experiencing changes for the past few decades and it is not an easy one to navigate. It's become, much like the rest of the entertainment world, a bottom line industry -- if there's the slightest risk that a book won't be profitable, the major publishers are totally disinterested. I'm certainly open to discussing the contents of this post (see my email address below) but this information is based on firsthand experience, as I am in the trenches pitching and selling books to publishers every day. Here's how a recent conversation went between me and a Big 5 publisher at their office:
Big 5 Publisher: "There's one reason why I haven't bought anything from you yet..."
Lee Sobel: "Let me guess what that is, because I've heard it so many times: the author's sales track record."
Big 5 Publisher (nodding): "The first person I have to speak with when I am interested in a project is the finance department and the first thing they look up is the author's Bookscan numbers on their last books. If those numbers aren't strong enough, it's an immediate pass."
If you're unfamiliar with Bookscan, it is a data provider for the book publishing industry that compiles comprehensive sales tracking information about physical and digital book sales in the U.S. I've heard that it's imperfect and if your last book was published two months ago they might not yet have that data in their system. Nevertheless, publishers use Bookscan like an industry Bible.
So, let's assume for a moment that you are a published author and you have written several books. Perhaps some, or all, of them, received healthy advances. That's great. But now it's been some time since you landed a book deal and your agent has become very slow to respond to your emails and phone calls. Is your agent ruining your career? Is your career as an author in a tailspin?
I represent authors ranging from those working toward their first book deal to ones who have been writing books for decades. It isn't uncommon that some of the ones who have been at it for a long time have something of a sour disposition. I get it -- you've been a professional author for a long time, you've made lots of money on some of your book deals but the well seems to have run dry. What to do now?
As a literary agent who is still pretty new to the book business (although I sold my first book as an agent in 1992 I didn't actually start my current agency until 2016), I am still building my client list and I sell most of the books I rep to independent publishers. Most new authors want to know if I work with "The Big Five," the major publishers which includes Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster (soon to merge with PRH). Yes, I pitch all of my projects to these companies but they generally pass either because they don't feel the book will sell enough copies ("too niche") or the author's sales track record isn't strong enough. Almost always it is the latter, unless it's a new author and then the former is the reason. Sometimes it's both.
Authors who have written multiple books and find their career has stalled will blame their publisher, the industry itself or maybe their current literary agent. I have even had conversations with some of my clients trying to explain what an impediment a "sales track" can be for them, but sometimes they don't want to hear it and just want to get upset and come up with reasons they can't get more books deals such as, "So and so at that company doesn't like me and they had me blacklisted," or "My last agent pissed off the company and they won't work with me anymore."
As I have sold many books to independent publishers, it does sting when a major house criticizes the sales track record of an author whose previous work came out from a small press that lacked The Big 5's level of distribution. I've even had editors at big houses agree with me, but it doesn't matter - the finance department is going to look at your sales numbers no matter who published you. Let's face it - the world isn't fair. The big publishers have high overhead and they need books that will sell big numbers to keep their lights on. That's reality.
Sadly, some authors who have hit a dry spell sometimes really do need to switch agents. I've heard that some agents seem to give up on their clients when they can no longer sell their books, and in some instances the agent seems to just vanish and stop returning calls and emails to their client, as if they are hoping the author will just disappear. Now that is unethical in my opinion. If an agent no longer wants to work with a client, they owe it to the author to say they are really struggling to sell their work and if they have lost faith in their client then they should encourage them to find another agent that might be more motivated to try to sell their next book. I think it's better to be open and honest with authors, even if you're telling them things they might not want to hear.
So if your sales track record isn't strong enough and maybe those six figure advances you once received have dried up, keep working as an author if you can. An independent press might be all too happy to publish you and I love independent publishers -- they may not pay as much as the bigger houses but in my experience they give my clients and their books a lot of attention and love. I would be stupid to say I don't want to make money, but money isn't what motivated me to start my agency. It's a love of books and the satisfaction of nurturing books to come to life that fuels my engine. And you never know what might happen with your next book, even if it comes out from an independent press -- it might break out and put you back on top. So please don't lose hope. Email me at LeeSobel15@gmail.com if I may be of any help to you -- even if it's just someone to lend an ear to what you are going through.