My Career as Cautionary Tale?
Even on a clear day, the publishing business can be murky. Clarity is always there for some writers, those who sell books and make a profit for their houses. Sometimes those are actually well-written books, often not. But a book in print that makes dollars always makes sense.
A few years ago, I was paid a big advance for my first novel, The Flamingo Rising. It recouped its advances through subsequent re-sells for paperback and foreign language rights. Thus, the writer and first publisher made money. After that, the abyss. Nobody made any money, especially the foreign publishers.
That publisher is still there, making money, publishing good and great books. My second novel, Athens, America, about two fathers dealing with the death of their daughters, was published by a tiny southern press, a now defunct tiny southern press, may it rest in piece. It got an A for effort, an D for success. A hundred review copies were sent to the usual media suspects, whose response was a deafening, “And we should care?” Not a single national review, not even in Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. The book did not exist.
So, is this a cautionary tale?
I told my woeful story on the web. All about going from giant publisher to dwarfish (but loving) publisher, about Barnes and Noble refusing to stock my book because they did not like the cover, about me then finding a niche in my hometown grocery stores and selling a thousand hardcover copies in two months. A riches to rags back to low-income story.
I got some attention. The story was linked to other websites. Individual writers and several book publications contacted me, wanting to know more about my status in that growing club of writers who were paid handsomely for their first works, and who even got great reviews, but whose works were box-office...bookstore…failures, thus making it difficult to get a second book in print.
Thank God, I told myself, I don’t have to write about me and my book being hawked next to the frozen yogurt in an Iowa City grocery store. I can write about me as literary symbol, a poster-child for the One and Done Syndrome.
Trouble is, I might not be the best candidate for the role. It would be comforting, in a perverse way, to think of myself as a budding cliché, that my second novel struggle was the result of market forces beyond my control.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, aren’t all these cases unique? How is any writer responsible for his or her own plight?
I don’t know any of the other writers in this pigeonhole. But I would guess that we all do the same thing: ask ourselves what we could have done differently.
Me? I can start taking a lot of blame. My agent told me that my second book was not as good as my first, although he had hurried me to show it to him before I thought it was ready. Fair enough, honesty any writer would want from his agent. But I was already very unhappy with that agent for other reasons, reasons which led me to believe, perhaps unfairly, that I could not trust him, so we parted company.
My new agent, with my encouragement, sent that flawed manuscript to my first publisher, and it was rejected. It eventually went to other publishers, who knew the sales record of my first book as well as the advance I was paid, and who had no obligation or inclination to invest in my future.
So, basic question: if a publisher pays a lot for a well-written book that does not sell, why should it pay for a second book by an author without an established reader fan base? Especially if, like was done for me, the publisher did a good job promoting the first book.
Sure, you can blame the publisher for creating false expectations by a large first book advance, since that large advance is itself part of the buzz about a book, regardless of the literary merit. And no unpublished writer is going to turn down a mega-advance, insisting that, “I want to earn my fortune the old-fashioned way, one book at a time.”
I cashed my check. The first book should have sold more. But it would not have made that subsequent book any better.
Perhaps I should have done what Marilynne Robinson did, wait until the right second book came along. I had the money. I had the time. I did not have the patience.
Athens, America is my true second novel, not as warm and fuzzy as my first. More adult, more relevant to American life today. A story about dead teenagers, college town politics, Harry Chapin music, and a white woman who becomes a Black Angel. Nine years after the first. I’m starting over. Life goes on.
Causes Larry Baker Supports
Holt International Adoption Services
Harry Chapin Foundation
National Public Radio