By Paula Guran
Explaining the chances of getting a first novel published usually means
bursting a writer's optimistic balloon with the sharp prick of reality.
I'm not handing out hits of free helium to re-inflate any collapsed
metaphorical latex, but I may have some good news. First fiction was
surprising strong in 2002 and 2003 looks like a continuation of the
trend. Unknown writers may actually be (somewhat) sought after right
Some figures from 2002: Random House Inc.'s seven book divisions
published 103 first novels or first short-story collections. St.
Martin's Press published 63 debut fiction titles. Out of its 50-title
list, Little, Brown & Co. published eight first novels or debut
Editors and publishers really do love to discover and publish new
authors. In a "New York Times" article on 2002's first novel bounty,
Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, was quoted: "There's
nothing publishers love more than first novels: opening up that box with
a manuscript in it and discovering a new novelist."
Chairman and chief executive of Random House Inc., Peter Olson, was also
quoted in the article: "Contrary to the cynics who believe publishing is
focused mainly on best sellers and big advances, for our editors author
development is a privilege and a truly passionate undertaking."
Ah yes, even in these tough economic times, publishing is still taking
risks on unknown talent. Admirable. Brave. The last bastion of
civilization. Before we all hyperventilate from our deep sighs of relief
and happiness, let's set this idealistic scenario straight.
I won't deny the passion exists and I remain thankful for it. But if
American publishing ever put ideas and ideals first, it certainly
doesn't now. Publishing is first and foremost a business and passion
must be quantified in relation to profit.
There's very little real financial risk involved in publishing most
first novels. Authors making their debut usually receive infinitesimally
small advances. Some smaller houses, like St Martin's, routinely produce
first printings of only three or four thousand copies and larger houses
may squawk that they "must" have larger runs for a hardcover, but
chances are they can (and do) manage a reasonably small first printing
when they wish. Next to nothing is spent on promotion.
In fact, first novels have quite a promotional advantage. They can gain
considerable no-cost publicity that repeat writers don't have a chance
at. Part of this is due to the press, public, and reviewer infatuation
with virgin writers. Books are now part of the "entertainment" world
where the young and the fresh is always preferred. (And if an author can
manage beautiful or charismatic, it helps.) As Trent Reznor wrote:
"nothing quite like the feel of something new" -- at least not for our
society. Consequently new writers get a far larger share of pixels and
ink than is proportionate to their number. Feature articles are devoted
to groups of first-timers in Publishers Weekly, Time, Pages, The
and other publications. Newspapers devote special
"round-ups" to them. Local and regional media are often eager to feature
the "hometown writer breaks in" story.
Reviewers are just as passionate about discovering new talent as
editors. They tend toward intentionally overlooking flaws, or at least
forgiving them, in first works. Librarians are always on the lookout for
new writers, too. Barnes and Noble has a Discover Great New Writers
program and award, Borders has a similar New Voices program. Signings at
specialty and smaller bookstores are simpler to set up. Some genre and
literary awards have special categories for first novels. Established
"name" authors will often be more forthcoming with a positive "blurb."
The authors themselves are often indefatigable in promoting their own
work. Established novelists often have already been burned by their
media experiences and lack enthusiasm for the entire undertaking. Not
the newbie. Many spend far more than they will ever make on the book in
promoting it themselves. They set up their own interviews, reading
groups, and signings. They travel to conventions where they can glory in
being newly published. They tell everyone they know in every conceivable
way possible that they have a book. Some of the better heeled invest
considerable amounts in their own publicists, ads, radio campaigns, and
other pricey publicity. They invest time and sometimes money in trying
to garner attention online.
First-timers have not "grown-up" in the same publishing world as authors
who made their mark even as few as ten years ago and certainly those who
have been professionals for a number of years. The "old way" shunned
self-promotion as vain and crass whereas the "new way" accepts it as a
necessity. Nor do they feel -- at least as much as an author who once
received such attention -- it is "the publicity department's job" to
promote a title.
In other words: One way or another, first fiction has a better chance of
getting a buzz going than the average book. And buzz -- what used to be
called "word of mouth" -- is the only truly identifiable element in what
really sells a book. Vague as any definition is, buzz sells and
publishers know it. If it really gets buzzing, *then* they put more
effort (and money) into a book's promotion. But, at that point, it is a
good investment, not a risk.
Any investment made in a debuter can be made with some optimism. Book
virgins are pure. Bad reviews have yet to be written. Past sales records
don't exist. Instead of being a negative, this purity inspires publisher
optimisms. Editors can convince themselves and their marketing
departments that the book will sell. A book from an unknown or slightly
known author is one of the few chances an editor gets to really make a
decision based on their own taste or gut instinct. Many decisions in
modern publishing are based on previous sales figures and a non-virgin
author brings along that sales-baggage.
First novelists -- for one short space in time -- can be judged only on
this one effort, an effort that has taken their entire lives to produce.
They embody the future and there's always a hope that it will be a great
Everything changes, of course, when the reviews start coming in and the
sales figures are reported. For those who are mildly successful as first
novelists, it often means they get another shot at establishing a
career. But they are never "pure" again, they can't be "promising" or
"have potential" or be "surprisingly accomplished." The next novel may
be judged more harshly than the first. Was it beginner's luck? Is there
another novel in her? There may be pressure to write another novel "just
like the first" or stick with a genre they had no intention of living
with the rest of their literary lives.
And there's negative expectation: As David Gates, a novelist who covers
books and music for Newsweek
magazine once said, "[T]here is an
expectation now that the writer's first effort must be their best or at
least spectacular... that you must cash in while you can... and that
the whole culture is rooting against you when you're established in your
Even a mildly successful first novel usually pays off in some way for a
publisher. First novelists are far more likely to allow a publisher, for
instance, to have a bigger percentage of subsidiary rights including
film rights and foreign language rights. It is standard for a first
novel contract to include, at least, a right of first refusal on the
writer's next novel, but debuters often stay with a publisher for future
successful books out of loyalty and a sense of comfort. Unlike
mega-success, modest success may mean continued solid-if-not-spectacular
sales over the years for both author and publisher.
If a first novel first edition loses money, but garners good reviews,
awards, or other indications that an author has potential, a publisher
can still win. It's a longer-term bet, but it can pay off with author
who will earn money in the future. If the book was published in
hardcover, there may even be a second shot at earnings from a tradepaper
or mass market paperback edition -- promoted with good reviews. Good
reviews may mean better foreign language deals or even a film option.
Unfortunately, many first-timers sink back into obscurity without a
ripple. No mild success. No gold stars. There are many working,
respected authors who wrote a few clunkers when they first started. But
these days a writer is seldom allowed a mistake or two. Unless a debut
novel is either a commercial or critical success there is a very real
chance there will never be a second novel.
What has the publisher lost by publishing the unsuccessful book? The
writer's advance wasn't much, and next to nothing was spent on
promotion. Although I don't have figures solid enough to publish here,
my educated guess is that it takes more than a dozen first novels to
lose as much money as a single $1 million advance flop.
Then there are the times publishers win big, the rare red-hots --
virgins who are pre-ordained by the literati as hot or those who catch
fire from reviews and buzz then go on to burn down the barn in a big
way. This possibility was enormously well fulfilled in 2002 with Alice
Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES, a first novel that's sold over a million
copies in hardcover since last June.
As long as we are talking *big* first novels, let us note that
Jacqueline Susann's first novel, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, has long been
considered the bestselling novel of all time with something like
30,000,000 copies sold in all formats. The last time anyone bothered to
count. J.K. Rowling's debut novel, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S
STONE, had sold more than 45 million copies since 1997 (and I think that
count came *before* the first movie came out.) In fact, of the fifteen
novels that are estimated to have sold over ten million copies (and thus
get listed as the top fiction bestsellers), an astounding eight of them
were first novels. In addition to Susann, they are: Richard Bach
(JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL), Peter Benchley (JAWS), Joseph Heller
(CATCH-22), Harper Lee (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Grace Metalious (PEYTON
PLACE), Margaret Mitchell (GONE WITH THE WIND), and J.D. Salinger
(CATCHER IN THE RYE).
Subsequent fiction does not always do as well as barnburner first
fiction. It certainly didn't in the cases just mentioned. Lee and
Mitchell never published another novel; Metalious and Salinger only
barely did; quick, name a single subsequent title by Bach or Heller
(they have at least 17 more between them). The odds are, however, that a
first-timer who does well will at least remain somewhat profitable.
Risk? My bet is that publishers finally realized there's very little
risk with most first fiction. The risk lies in giving a six-figure
advance for a debut novel simply because it got a movie deal (Think: How
many books have you seen in your reading life decked with the word "soon
to be a major motion picture" then never heard another word about the
movie?) The bad bets are first novels bought at auction when crazed with
"bidding fever," high-advance celebrity debut authors, misguided
attempts to clone bestsellers and create another silk purse
(purse="another Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Stephen King, etc.") from a
sow's ear (ear=clueless unknown writer), and all the other ways
publishers lose millions on "sure deals."
Good luck newbies! A brief breeze of common sense may be wafting through
publishing's usual fog of senselessness. Let's hope you benefit before
someone shuts the window to avoid the draft
Copyright (c) 2004 Writers on the Net.
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