Making a Case for Knowing Your Place

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.


Lark said…
Good post. I appreciate that you're so willing to share the reality of the publishing world with those of us just getting our foot in the door.

The media is full of stories of superstar authors who seemed to get to the heights in a fireworks blast right out of the gate. It's hard to know what we should realistically do/expect/hope for. Coming from another successful career, I tend to forget I didn't start out with a nice office and a very comfortable salary.

So does this mean I should wait until the third book in my series hits the NYTs before pushing for an HBO deal? :)
Suzan Harden said…
And this is why Colleen is a Jedi Master. . .
LOL, both of you!

And I'm having that Jedi Master thing inscribed on my tombstone, just so you know. :)
Anonymous said…
Suzan said it all!!!

Lara Chapman said…
AWESOME post... a really necessary read for all writers, regardless of the state of your writing career. I'd say that even if my agent didn't write it (grin).
I didn't know he was your agent. Cool beans. :)

His post really was terrific.
Lara Chapman said…
Actually, Holly Root with Waxman is my agent... I *think* she actually wrote that post... but don't quote me on that! :-) Holly's amazing. I am blessed!
Christie Craig said…
Great post, Colleen, and so true. Finding our way is hard and often times we think just getting there is enough. For sure it's the first big step, but then the stepping continues.

Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said…
Dear Colleen,

It seems "logical" that fiction writers create not only their stories but also their potential career with the same imanginative, happily-ever-after brush.

Great column!

Linda Warren said…
Great post. And so true. I love the last line (the squeeky wheel can be replaced). And they are, all too often.

Thanks for the realistic post.
Vicky said…
Interesting post. For some reason, it made me think of the cocky guy, a new-hire right out of grad school, who had an office next to mine years ago. I guess he thought that MBA made him Mr. Star, when in fact he was just a guppy in the F500 company ocean we worked for. He spent a great deal of time trying to impress me and some of his swaggering hot-shot buddies. I, who only had a *lowly* (snort) bachelor's degree, spent a great deal of time with my nose to the grindstone. Mr. Star lasted 6 months. I'm still there.

Sometimes there is poetic justice. ;-)
Thanks everyone for the terrific comments.

If Holly Root wrote the original post before, I stand corrected. Sorry for the error. It wasn't clear on the blog.
purpledinotype said…
Great follow up to Holly Root's blog post. I'm new to the literary world and am taking it one step at a time. My book is done now I'm looking for an agent while working on my proposal. I'm in the entertainment industry and you bet your sweet bippy that I'm calling in all my favors to all my friends that work on talk shows.
Baby steps.
Thanks for keeping it real Colleen.
Excellent post, Colleen. I think I had the opposite problem when I started--I expected to be the lowest person on the totem pole, have the book tank, and watch my career die with book one. Happily that didn't happen.

My career has grown quite a lot since that first book, but it's been through hard work, learning the market, trying to make each book better than the last, luck (yes!), working with people without demanding they be all about me, me, me; and other many complicated factors.

My career isn't growing fast enough to suit *me* (Gimme that TV series! The hardcover bestseller!) but I have learned what I need to do to get there without compromising the stories I want to tell. One step at a time!

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