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Almost finished, or Part 5

I have, in previous posts, made one assumption in general which I should now address a bit.

When I first started working in a bookstore <mumble mumble> years ago you could count the number of hardcovers published in genre in a year, by non-book club or specialty presses like Arkham, on two hands. This has demonstrably changed. Back in my day (she says, joints creaking) an author achieved hardcover status after reaching a certain level of sales in mass market paperback. The attitude toward hardcover has shifted with time. I'm not entirely certain why. Part of it is reviews; even a small print run of a book in hardcover will give it a much better shot at Publisher's Weekly or Kirkus, which in turn can help sell a book in a later incarnation (mass market, paperback, sub-rights). Part of it, I think, is foreign sales, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the bookstore itself.

The effect of this in the bookstore is sort of interesting. Although by no means universal, for a certain type of book, reader reaction has grown to be "how good can this be if it wasn't published in hardcover when so much garbage is?" This is more true of big fat fantasy series than of other types of books. And it doesn't mean that the people who ask this question are necessarily buying the hardcovers; it just implies that there's status.

Trade paperbacks have also grown in number, although probably for different reasons; I think it's just more financially feasible to keep a trade paperback in print than a mass market, if the numbers aren't high, but are steady. Without question, though, the mass market paperback is the one in easiest financial reach of most readers. If you're published for the first time (i.e. your first novel) in hardcover, sales will often be to libraries and people who regularly buy hardcovers; it's the paperback version that will decide how the series sells. If the paperback is widely sold and bought by readers, and the book is liked, the next hardcover will get a larger run, etc. As in all things, hardcover publication isn't a guarantee of success, and a lack of a hardcover, no guarantee of failure.

There are exceptions to this, of course. If you're someone like Ted Chiang, or Connie Willis, or Charles Stross, there are expectations, based on the reaction to your short fiction, from readers about the quality of the novel you produce, and those are much more likely to be bought as a result of that expectation and curiosity.

Hardcovers and trade paperbacks aren't stripped; they're returned. If a large amount of inventory, or even a smallish one, remains, it will often be sold as a remainder, for a small amount per book. Remainders are often a way of making a higher margin on a "new" book, although I see less of those now than I used to when I first started. Keeping on top of interesting remainders takes a lot of leg work. One small chain in Toronto does a fabulous job with remainders (Book City). An author doesn't get much benefit from this, however.

So. You're now an author. And the book that you've worked on for years is now a real book. There's a very special glow, a very special sense of achievement, that comes out of that first book. Hold on to it. You'll likely need it. Two part ramble.

The first:

An agent of my acquaintance said that it's after the second book that things tend to sour. When an author realizes that her secret dreams of becoming the next Stephen King (or J.K. Rowling) aren't going to materialize, they can feel very bitter, and because they write with heart and passion and intense love for their creation, it's hard to accept that the books failed -- for whatever reason -- to reach a wide audience. The natural pain of this is a loss that is articulated in different ways. Whichever form it takes, if you can avoid giving in to it, avoid it at all costs. It poisons the well.

One of the best things about working for so long in a bookstore is the inability to take the process -- and the loss -- personally. It's not that I -- or any of us on that front line -- feel less disappointed, or less grieved, when the books simply fail to be the next Jordan, etc.; of course we do. It's not that we don't wonder why our books weren't considered worth the same marketing attention, because of course we do. But having seen so many worthy books flounder for no good reason, we realize that we're in good, and even great, company.

You know, or probably know, that not many writers make a real living writing. Some of us manage. Some of us used to manage better, when the market was different. Some of us don't, but don't want to or need to. The realistic approach is to realize that most of the books that you see published this year will be out of print in a year and a half. Some of those books, you will -love-. I can think of far too many that disappeared this way, and it makes my teeth ache, largely because I'm grinding them.

It's not about -you-. It's not a personal reflection of you. There are more individual titles published now than there were ten years ago, and the sales numbers for individual titles have dipped drastically as a result. I remember when a lay down (initial order/shipment) of 25K was considered a disaster. Now, 16K is considered acceptable. This is before returns. I've seen numbers from major mass market publishers as low as 9K. And again, some of these books I've adored. It's not the book alone; it's the system. But sometimes it does work.

Sometimes you have to reinvent yourself to make it work.

The second:

No one cares how long it took you to write your first novel. Truly. If it took you ten years of writing, revising, rewriting -- no one cares. If it took you three days, ditto. They've bought the book, (editor, publisher, reader), they're happy with it -- and they want the -next- book in a year. And if it's humanly possible, and the first book did well, you really, really want to deliver the book on time, because the front-list (which is the new releases) also drive the backlist.

Some people have no problems with this. Lucky them. Some people have the world's worst trouble with this. It causes them to freeze in place. It causes them to panic. It causes them to write a book that is far less a good novel than the first book was. My second novel? It had problems. (It was eventually the third published). I sent it to my editor, unhappy with it, and she told me why it didn't work. And when she told me why, I realized that I would have to throw it all out and start over, and told her as much. Her response? A very quiet, "I think so, yes." That taught me everything I needed to know about structure and it was a very humbling experience, but she also said, in her chipper, cheery way (don't you sometimes want to strangle cheerful people??) "There are no good writers. Only good re-writers."

[Oh -- I forgot to mention something else, which I should. The vast majority of all returns will be front-list books. The new books that have come out. Backlist books should have a much smaller rate of return because in theory the bookstore knows how those sell, and can order accordingly.]