Friday, August 12, 2011

Don’t Want to be a “One Book Wonder”

by Sophie Perinot

Much of our time as newbie writers is spent worrying about breaking in. We work like demons to polish our manuscripts and then to come up with a query letter that will have agents salivating to see pages. (Doesn’t the image if agents salivating make you giddy?) Once we have a trusty agent at our sides we spend weeks on submission with publishers, torn between avoiding our in-boxes (fearing news), and checking them every 30 seconds (hoping for news).

Without for a moment suggesting that any of our efforts to land that debut book deal are wasted (okay, the maniacal email checking IS a waste but most of us simply cannot stop), it is never too early to look beyond our initial deal. If we want our writing to be a career, we need to work towards long term goals. We need to keep this thought on the edge of our mind from the beginning—one is NOT enough.

I know what you are thinking—“gosh darn it she’s greedy.” But seriously, I can’t be the only one who wants to turn this published author gig into a regular thing and not just a fluke. And decisions we make and actions we take NOW, as debut authors, are essential to avoiding the dreaded “one book wonder” syndrome. The key to subsequent book contracts is sales. The key to sales is building an audience who looks forward to you next book and retaining that audience. And the key to that, in my opinion, is disciplining our “author image” (aka our brand), something that requires a good deal of SELF-DISCIPLINE and SELF-CONTROL. We can start by remembering...

The muse works for us, not vice versa. Writing novels may be art but it is also business. We need to plan our brand at the starting line and run a smart race. We should not let “inspiration,” fate, indecision, or anything else push us around. So, before we query our first book, pick up an agent and (hopefully) a book deal we need to ask ourselves, “What type of books do I want to write for the next five years?” Because make no mistake...

A jack of all genres is the master of none. Agent Rachelle Gardner addressed this issue recently in this excellent post. Read it. My favorite quote: “once I’m interested and we’re in conversations about representation, I want to hear about the other books you have ... that would serve the same audience as the first one. I need you to have a ‘brand.’” So if your debut novel is historical fiction (as mine is) you’d better be prepared to work in that genre exclusively (and work hard) for the foreseeable future.

Now you can whine and say, “but that’s not f-a-i-r I have an awesome manuscript for a YA paranormal, and terrific ideas for an adult cozy mystery.” No one (certainly not me) doubts the brilliance of your ideas or your ability to write publishable books in more than one genre. But the truth is, it’s a tough market out there. These are not the old days when you could debut and then spend years building an audience (building a career) while hanging out on your publisher’s mid-list under contract. These are the “sell-through or perish” days. And if you do the social networking and marketing necessary to make your debut novel a solid seller—if you create a veritable “legion of fans”—you would be CRAZY not to capitalize on that by producing another book for that audience. And you aren’t crazy. So tell the muse “I am the boss here,” tuck away all those ideas for projects in other genres and give your fan base what they crave.

And long before you are are writing that second or third novel (building yourself as a top brand in the world of thrillers or YA or, ahem, historical fiction), remember that a disciplined author image is also important. Starting before your first novel debuts. Starting before you send that first query letter. Starting, in point of fact, the moment you post anything, anywhere as the writer you hope to become.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen or heard an author comment “inappropriately” (on Twitter, or Facebook, over drinks at a conference, or in some other public setting) I wouldn’t need to write my next book. Okay, that’s hyperbole, but I see ill-advised comments often—too often. How, you may ask, can a comment be inappropriate or ill-advised if it represents the genuine thought or opinion of said writer? This is America after all. We say what we think. We have First Amendment rights. Sure do. But nothing—not even in the First Amendment—suggests that speech doesn’t have consequences and as a writer you do NOT want one of those consequences to be loss of audience. Remember, to be successful authors with multiple book deals we need to be able to sell books to people who are NOT LIKE US.

You want to argue politics? Ream other writers? Tell someone about yucky or intimate details of your life? Fine, but get a room—or rather keep that stuff in the private sphere of your life (virtual or other). When you have your “author hat” on, think smart and speak smart. Is your publisher going to be thrilled if you badmouth another author in your genre or at your imprint—nope. Is making fun of people from rural settings going to help you sell books in Iowa or Nebraska—nope. Ask yourself, ultimately do you care whether the people who by your novels vote the same way as you do, or practice the same religion, or support the same causes? I don’t.

I want everyone to feel comfortable buying and my work and I want them to judge that work on its own merits, NOT on how they feel about who I am personally when the author hat comes off. Once I’ve built an audience (fingers crossed) I don’t want to lose a single member. So when I am posting a comment on twitter, or sitting next to a fellow author at lunch I practice “dinner party behavior” (as such behavior existed before so many of us forgot our etiquette). Everything I think does not need to come out of my mouth in a professional setting. This is particularly true in the virtual world because remember the internet is forever—those twitter posts we toss out there so lightly are searchable and eventually they are going to the library of Congress.

Bottom line: When you are an author audience is everything—they are the key to making writing a career (and to showing up at signings to find your Aunt Irma has a little company for once). If we start early and exercise a little self-discipline while building our author image we can attract an audience of readers who will be back for more, and MORE IS BETTER.

12 comments:

Matt Sinclair said...

Exactly! I'll admit, I have ideas for genres other than what I've been writing, and it may turn out that I'll end up there. But your point about developing an audience that loves to hear your consistent, identifiable voice is right on target. Personally, I think it's the voice that ultimately enables a writer to cross genres. I'd love to develop an audience of people who would say things like "I'd read his take on the phone book. I just love what he writes!" Alas, back to the word mines.

Sophie Perinot said...

Matt, Excellent thought! I think that is what many syndicated columnists do (at least the good ones). They have SUCH voice that people will read them no matter the subject they are currently tackling and even if they rather stridently disagree with their point of view on certain matters.

JeffO said...

Great post, Sophie, thanks. I think the caution regarding Twitter/blogs/forums is especially important in this day and age. Most (note I say 'most') people self-edit when they speak; far too many fire off e-mails, facebook posts, tweets, etc., without a second thought.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Sophie! I've backed off on querying for the last year because I'm dabbling around in several genres. I want to find which works best for me, which one I'm happiest with before I start again. I read very widely and like to write very widely so it's tough! :)

Matt Sinclair said...

My understanding is that some writers have different agents for different genres -- perhaps within the same agency -- with all agents being aware of the situation. So it's not impossible. Pen names can be involved, too, to keep reader confusion to a minimum. Still, for those starting out, it's best to have a focus.

Kelley said...

This whole post is full of awesome, needed-to-be said advice. <3 a new follower

A.M.Supinger said...

To be honest, I never thought of sticking to a genre that way before. Thanks for the post :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Matt -- you are already hedging, lol.

Of course EVENTUALLY you could use different pen names and write different generes, but I would venture to say there are very few writers who pull that off successfully (even mid-career) in these times of increasing sales pressure. I actually heard author who is pretty much a household name at a conference telling the story of how her publisher basically told her "no more genre B" (something she loved writing and that was selling decently) so that she could go back to concentrating on genre A (her biggest seller). If this woman hadn't "earned" the right to do something for fun on the side I don't know who has.

I guess what I am saying is building one audience is hard enough (and takes lots of time away from writing). How much extra work do you want to make for yourself?

Sophie Perinot said...

Kelley, a warm welcome to the blog from the whole team :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Jemi -- I think you are wise to give the issue serious consideration. Yes, it is difficult to pick only one genre (sort of like picking only one flavor of ice cream), but lots of people in other fields have to make similar choices. For example one of my daughters has a friend who is a marvelous musician. Come high school she needed to pick ONE instrument if she really wanted to win contests and play with major orchestras (and also for college application purposes). When you get into law or medicine you generally specialize. It's just a hard fact of life that to get really good and be a top performer in any field you generally have to focus your efforts.

Leslie Rose said...

You made the "branding swirl" make sense. I agree with Jemi that it's important to pick the piece in the genre where your passion lies and bring that to the table first.

Laura Pauling said...

I do understand that concept and agree with it after your first book is sold. But until that happens I think writers should explore genres. And that was never made more clean until WriteOnCon and Jay Asher said that he set out to write humorous middle grade yet when he finally tried something different - a serious YA - that's what broke him in.