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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
Over at the Scott Waxman Literary Agency blog the other day, agent Holly Root wrote a marvelous post about the scourge of cart-before-horse-itis afflicting far too many prepublished and early career writers. I recommend you check it out, but to summarize, Ms. Root is referring to those newly or not-yet sold writers who have mapped out their whole career arc (usually based on some icon's success) and too soon demand that their agent (or worse yet, potential agent) get cracking fulfilling their wish list.
Ambition's important. Without drive, the writer may be content with far too little and unmotivated to make necessary changes. But when she charges in with expectations of instantaneous TV or movie options, sub-right sales (translation, audio, etc.), or appearances on Oprah, she risks alienating (or at least inspiring eye-rolls from) the very allies capable of helping her achieve her goals.
Or helping her achieve them within reason...
The trouble is, as a new or newish writer, you have no idea what's reasonable to expect for your unique material and skill level, at this particular moment in the marketplace. Don't beat yourself up. You really can't know, unless you work in publishing every day and have a grasp on the wriggling trout-in-hand that represents the ever-changing popular taste of consumers.
As a newbie, I used to subscribe to the "if you build it, they will come" theory, and I sank heart and soul into crafting the most perfect gem of a story I could each time out. Yes, they sold, and most were reviewed well, but for whatever reason (remember, there is no fair in publishing) they didn't accurately reflect what the market wanted (in large numbers, anyway) at the moment of publication. So it would have be delusional for me to call my agent and/or publisher demanding a lot of expensive co-op support, advertising, and all the other goodies mentioned above.
So how did I know what to realistically expect? At first, of course, I didn't, but after chatting with authors of similarly themed and positioned books and conferring with my then-agent (whom I didn't listen to nearly often enough) I was able to moderate my expectations. My early royalty statements (once someone was kind enough to explain them to me) helped bring me down to earth, too. But mainly, I started paying attention to which authors my publisher and competing publishers were expending most of their efforts to promote.
Using all this information, I gradually pieced together where I fell within the pantheon of published authors. Not at the bottom of the pile, thank goodness, but nowhere near the stratosphere, either.
Thankfully, however, publishing's not the kind of caste system that consigns an author for life to whatever station she's first published. As an author becomes more skillful and more aware of what's going on in the day-to-day marketplace, lightning can definitely strike in the form of a manuscript so strong, it catapults her to the "heavens."
Is there a guaranteed way to achieve this? Sorry, but the game's definitely more art than science, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the luck factor, too, of having your consciousness tuned to the right cultural frequency at the right moment. But I can tell you what won't work: hounding your agent/publishing house with the kind of unreasonable, unrealistic demands that label you an amateur or beating the dead horse of self-promotion until readers are sick of hearing your name.
I know some of you have heard that the squeaky wheel's always the one to get the grease, but if it's sufficiently annoying, that wheel can/will be replaced.
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