Monday, March 15, 2010

Big Advances are No Guarantee of Success

As I get ready to enter the labyrinth of pursuing an agent to represent my novel and then, fingers crossed, the lion’s den of publication, I’ve been doing some research. One project is tracking the success of a group of six debut novels that were featured last summer in Poets & Writers Magazine’s annual first fiction survey.

Several of the novels received lucrative deals by major publishing houses including Reif Larsen’s $900,000 deal for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Another, Swimming by Nicola Keegan, garnered a six-figure deal somewhere between $250 and $500 million with an initial print run of 100,000 copies. Of the remaining, two others signed two-book contracts with their publishers with similar print runs, and a third signed a two-book deal with a small press and a limited print run of 3,500. I could not find details on the sixth book, other than that the initial print run was 25,000.

These six writers probably represent the last books bought before the economic melt-down changed the way in which the publishing industry works. This fact was actually the main focus of every review of Larsen’s book, that his nearly $1 million advance represents a publishing world that no longer exists. And, indeed, that assessment looks pretty accurate. There seems to have been no major publicity campaign for either of those books and, a quick look through the book store revealed only one copy of Spivet on the bookshelves and, though Keegan’s book was initially included in an end-of-aisle display, it was quickly relegated to the shelves where the three copies have remained. Neither of these books showed up on the New York Times bestseller list, though Larsen’s did make it to number seventeen on the extended list. His book also rose to #3 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s best seller list about a month after its release, falling to #9 the next week, and then disappearing.

Only three of the books generated major reviews. As I said above, each of Larsen’s four reviews focused on the size of his advance and the likelihood that such advances are a thing of the past. The best reviewed of the six, A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff, received five reviews including one in the New York Times, but it failed to show up on any of the major best seller lists. Rakoff’s book was released the month prior to the Poets & Writers article, while the remaining five were released several months after the feature.

The sales figures for all the novels look dismal. Larsen’s book was the only one to rise above a sales rank of 1,000 on any online seller’s list, clocking in at #636 on the Barnes and Noble list. Its best week on Amazon was a jump in mid-November from #7,205 to #2,289, quickly falling back to its original rank and dropping from there. Keegan’s book never rose much higher than around the #6,000 mark. And the remaining novels have risen no higher than the mid-20,000 in sales rank.

Far from being dismayed by these figures, I’m actually heartened because it takes the pressure off of thinking that a large advance means instant success. What it shows me is that a small advance with a modest print run coupled with a lot of work on my part to promote the book will probably serve me in the long run better than a stunning six-figure advance.

I am also following the progress of one of my professors as she makes her way through the labyrinth of publishing. Her first novel did receive one of those six-figure deals and is currently being considered by a major Hollywood actress with serious box office and critical cred (you know who I mean. Yes, her.), which, if the deal goes through for the screen rights, will help the publishers get behind the novel with major publicity.

It has been interesting following these six novels and looking at the fate of a debut novel. It’s a rough world out there and, I think, it’s more important than ever for a writer to take a proactive stance in regards to promoting their work and finding ways to reach readers directly.

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