Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You Only Get One Debut

This morning, I tweeted, "You only get one debut. Use it wisely." It's short, it's sweet, it's great for Twitter, but when Alina Borger pushed me for a more detailed explanation (oh, wait, I have to explain?), I thought it would be easier to address her question on the blog.

A thread on Absolute Write was what got me ruminating on this topic. A writer published a book with a small--very small--press, but even though she only sold a handful of copies, she didn't regret it. The manuscript was never going to attract the attention of a major publisher, so she didn't see the harm in publishing with a small press now and pursuing her dream of major trade publication later.

But you only get one debut. There have been a few exceptions--Ally Condie comes to mind (though you probably didn't know MATCHED wasn't her first book)--but for the most part, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Stated another way, you can only be a variable when you're actually a variable. If you don't have a sales record, publishers have to rely on a set of complicated formulas--and possibly their tea leaves--to determine how much your book is worth. If you don't have a sales record, a publishing team can go completely crazy--editors drop everything and read your book in twenty minutes, publicists start booking your spot on the Today show--and then the dollars fly. You are the Next Big Thing. Your book is going to outsell Harry Potter and Twilight COMBINED.

But once you have a sales record, it will follow you around for the rest of your career. Publishers no longer have to guess how much your books are worth; your sales figures will tell them.

Now, is it possible for your next book to outperform your previous ones? Of course. (Just ask Suzanne Collins.) But is it probable? Maybe not. So if you want to land a book deal with a major publisher in the future, it might not be in your best interest to accept one with a smaller publisher now.


Susan Adrian said...

Also, this may not be important to some people, but we've had to turn down a couple authors to join the '15 debut group because they published a handful of copies with a small press years earlier. Only one debut.

Ellie Heller said...

Wow. I have to say I am biased for small presses - even read submissions for one - but I think this is entirely skewed thinking and detrimental to a lot of authors.
First, there are several authors who have been with 'small' presses who have gone on to commercial success major publishers:
Lora Leigh
Shelly Laurenston
Lauren Dane
Maya Banks
to name a few. Do you need to be careful to choose the right press? Absolutely. But assuming that going with a small press **automatically** means you've blown any chance at catching the eye of a major publisher is just wrong.
Secondly, there are stories that are not ever going to catch the eye of the big guys, for what ever reason. What you're advocating here is basically 'don't be published unless you can be published by the big guys.' So someone who has a story that is unique, interesting, but not quite what a major publisher is looking for should not pursue publication with a small press? Are you really advising to NOT pursue publication at all? I'm not saying don't pursue the big guys, I'm saying recognize their limitations and understand your story may not be a good fit for them and that there may be independent presses who are willing to take it on.
Finally, there have been presses who have had horrible marketing, etc, which was not the fault of the author. Are you also saying you don't think publishing houses are aware of this? That there are great stories that haven't done well through no fault of the authors? Do you really think large presses are that oblivious?
Yes, numbers are a big factor in this industry, there is no denying it. However, they are not the only factor. In the end it is the STORY that will attract the attention of a publishing house. It is not whether you have a sales record that will make 'a publishing team go completely crazy' - it's the STORY.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I agree with the fact that everyone has just one debut, but I have to disagree with you on the small publisher thing. As you know, I went with a small publisher for my first book. I don't regret it. Do I wish I could have gotten a bigger publisher? Of course! But I had just left my agent and honestly didn't think I'd ever get another one. My book was very different, so I shopped it around and got a deal with a small press. (I actually got three offers, and had to turn two down.) My book didn't sell thousands of copies, but I've had some really nice fan mail from people who have enjoyed my book. And that means the WORLD to me. After I published that book I decided I wanted to try and go bigger. Since then I've gotten another agent and she just sold my YA contemporary to a bigger press. I am thrilled! But I don't regret signing with that first publisher at all. Also, when I was querying agents, AND when I was on submission, no one asked about my sales records. No one really cared. My story spoke for itself. I don't think you just have one shot in publishing. You can try again if you don't like a certain path you chose or if you want to go bigger. Just like I did. I think publishers are careful on what they do buy now, but having a small press publish your first novel or a few isn't going to make them tell you no right off. The story you write speaks louder than previous sales. at least in my experience. (And I swear I'm not trying to pick a fight. Just thought I'd add my two cents.) :)

Adam Heine said...

I definitely agree with this principle. It is currently the one thing stopping me from making certain career decisions (well, not "stopping" so much as "putting off"). People -- especially publishers -- put a heck of a lot more stock in an unknown than an already-ran.

That said, I have to say something about this bit: "Now, is it possible for your next book to outperform your previous ones? Of course. (Just ask Suzanne Collins.) But is it probable? Maybe not."

I 100% agree that publishers will assume previous sales predict future sales. And I'll agree that that's a good predictor most of the time.

However, I would argue that a breakout bestseller is more likely to be one's 2nd or 3rd or 10th book than it is their 1st. Take a look at most bestsellers, and then do some research for what their debut novel was. I'd bet something like 80% wrote a debut novel most people have never heard of.

So I agree that you only get one debut, and that you should be careful with it. The "untapped potential" of an unknown has a powerful effect on publishers and the market at large.

But realistically, know that your stride may hit long after your debut, and so long as you can keep trucking until then, that's totally cool.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I do agree that you only have one debut and however you get published, you should make it special. And yes, publishers will look at it. But I have to agree with the others that a small press doesn't have to be fatal.

And for some authors, being mid-list with so-so sales can be okay. Another later book can still take off. Another example is Robin LaFevers.

Tudor said...

I really enjoy your blog and, yes, absolutely, agree you only have one debut. And I think everyone should take this a step further and think, every time they put anything out, it's their reputation (brand, if you like) on the line. However, I also have to ask you to think twice about your comments on small presses, for a few reasons.

First of all, it's hard enough to get a publishing contract full stop. To start narrowing the publishers you'll consider based on their size, becomes crippling (especially when the larger presses won't even look at your work without agent representation).

Secondly - and this is based on my experience - my small press treated me like a big deal. I was assigned an amazing editor who worked intensely with me as a true partner in creating a book I will always be proud to have out under my name.

Thirdly, this book, even if not a runaway bestseller, has put me into an entirely new network. I've met people who have been impressed with the quality of my writing (partly thanks to all that editing from point number two), and have, in turn, recommended me to other influential people in the publishing world. These are connections I never could have made as an unpublished author.

I think my recommendation would be do what feels right to you and align yourself with people who share your vision for your work. That will be the right decision for you and your work.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

All right, I'm going to tackle these responses one at a time instead of all at once, just so I can take my time and make sure I say exactly what I mean to say (which I obviously didn't do when I dashed off this post in twenty minutes--my apologies!).

Susan, your comment reminded me that my post was specifically directed at the children's market, especially the YA and MG categories, though I didn't make that clear from the outset. I know next to nothing about the adult market, so I shouldn't have assumed all my thoughts would transfer over.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Ellie, thank you for these thoughts. I Googled the authors you listed and discovered that most of them write romance or erotic romance. I must admit, I'm very unfamiliar with those markets, but I do agree that it seems to be much easier to make the leap from relatively small release (and by "small release," I mean a less publicized release with a smaller publisher) to a breakout hit. And of course, once you start to sell tens of thousands of copies, the larger publishers take note. (I'm not saying that's necessarily what happened with any of these authors, but I know that's what happened with authors like Amanda Hocking and E.L. James.)

The e-book revolution has definitely facilitated those meteoric rises, but I think other categories/genres haven't experienced quite as dramatic a shift. And I think some writers, especially some newer writers, have it in their heads that starting small and working your way up the food chain, so to speak, is the only way to land a book deal with the so-called bigwigs. Which isn't true.

To that end, I wasn't advocating that no one pursue publication with a small press; I was simply saying that if you think publishing with a small press is going to be a stepping stone to publishing with a larger one, you'll probably be disappointed. There are plenty of writers who publish happily and well with small presses, and that's great. But if your goal is to publish with the Big Five (or to publish in the way the Big Five publish, with widely distributed hardcover releases, since the Big Five aren't the only publishers who publish that way), then selling your debut to a small press could be a missed opportunity.

(For the record, I queried four manuscripts before I finally found an agent and, eventually, a book deal. The first two had major flaws, but I felt--and still feel--really good about the third. Could I have published it with a smaller press? Perhaps. But I didn't want to do anything that could possibly jeopardize my chances of selling to a larger publisher down the road. Now, publishing that third manuscript with a smaller press might have actually HELPED me, but I feared it had a greater chance of hurting me, so I held off.)

I agree that, in the end, it's all about the story. Editors fall in love with characters and the journeys they experience, not the author's publishing credentials. But if the author has had prior sales (and if those sales haven't been as robust), I do think the editor is going to have a harder time selling it to his/her team (especially the sales department). The acquisitions process is a beast, and it's their job to spot red flags. If your previous book(s) had weaker sales, that's going to be a huge red flag.

Lastly, if I offended you, I'm sorry. It occurred to me last night that this post could be read with a tone of elitism and disdain, and that certainly wasn't what I intended. I just want writers to be able to make decisions with their eyes wide open. Thank YOU for helping me set the record straight.

Alexa D. said...

Loved this post, Krista! Like you, I mostly know about the YA/MG markets (YA especially) and you're absolutely right. You can extend small press to also cover indie publishing--publishers absolutely do look at those numbers, and selling tens of thousands of copies is a challenge even with a big publisher. I've seen a lot of people wonder about what you mentioned in your comment--that indie/small press are stepping stones to big publishers; something they *need* to do, when in actuality, it's easier for a big publisher to take a chance on, and construct a brand around, a complete unknown.

I think it's a matter of knowing your genre and having a good sense of the career you want to have. Just like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, the first choice you make will affect the flow of the rest of your career story. People can and do make leaps from small press to Big Six, Big Six to small press, indie to Big Six or Big Six to indie... but the more common thing, in terms of author brand, is to stay in one arena. The different career paths suit different kinds of authors/books/voices. Research and knowing yourself is key!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Chantele, your story just goes to show that there isn't one piece of advice that fits every situation. I still think, in general, it's perhaps wiser to hold out for the reasons Alexa mentioned (because I suspect it's harder to make the leap from one publishing track to another than you make it seem:) ), but obviously, things worked out for you, and that's fantastic.

The biggest takeaway point from your comment for me is that you have to make decisions with your eyes wide open. You'd been around the block, so you knew your options and the possible risks and benefits. In that way, I'm really glad we're having this conversation, because your and everybody else's comments are far more informative than a single post could be.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Excellent point, Adam. And since I thought the commentary and examples you included in your own post on the topic were especially informative, I'm including a link here:

Ryan Hancock said...

Tell me about it.
Those Overlander books are so bad. I keep going back to them, thinking that somehow they will get better, looking for an extension of the Katniss greatness. It's not there. The books are LAAAAME. Great post. Totally makes sense to me.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for your comment, Natalie. I hadn't realized that Robin LaFevers broke out of the mid-list. She's another great example of the phenomenon Adam mentioned.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Great perspective, Tudor. I'm happy to hear that your experience was so positive. My perspective's colored by the fact that I've heard a lot more horror stories from authors with smaller presses than authors with larger ones, but I will say that a lot of those horror stories occurred with NEW smaller presses. More established smaller presses are a much safer bet.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for your comment, Alexa. You said everything I wanted to say in a much clearer, more direct way. Like you said, the key is knowing yourself and going into any business decision with your eyes wide open.

Ryan, you're certainly never afraid to share your opinion about books:) I read the first in the Overlander series, but it didn't really grab me. Luckily, THE HUNGER GAMES did:)

Molly said...

This is probably a silly question, but if you choose to publish with a small press using a pen name, then can you choose to use your own writing name to publish with a larger press in the future? Can that be a different debut?

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Molly, that's a great question, and one I don't feel qualified to answer. I'll ask the Twitterverse!

Molly said...

Thanks, Krista!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Molly, I didn't get a ton of feedback on Twitter the other day, but I've been thinking about this a bit, and I have had some thoughts. I will preface them by saying that I really don't know what I'm talking about, so consider yourself warned:)

I do think pen names make it possible to start over, if you will. Readers don't have to know they're connected at all (though in this Internet age, it's going to be a lot harder to keep such things under wraps, as J.K. Rowling can attest), and they allow writers to write across genres and cultivate multiple brands, much like a publisher cultivates multiple imprints. That said, your publisher(s) are going to know who you are (and who you've been), so I don't know if using a pen name would be enough to overcome the potential hurdle that a weaker track record could produce.

Now, that's my mostly uninformed opinion, so take it with a grain of salt. I just think it's important to have a clear idea of your publishing goals and only pursue those opportunities that will help you reach those specific goals. Writers have a lot more options now, which is good, but that also means they'll face a lot more choices, and you just want to make sure you make those choices well.