March 15, 2007 | Written by admin
Stan wrote in to say, "I only sold 8000 copies of my first novel. Do you think I’ll ever get published again?"
My response: Not if you ask such purple questions. But good grief, have some perspective. There’s nothing wrong with selling 8000 copies of your first novel. The average first novel with a major publisher sells about 4000 copies, give or take a few hundred. In fact, take a look at the bigger picture… Last year Bookscan tracked the sales of about 1.2 million titles in this country. A million of them sold fewer than 100 copies. [Go ahead and read that sentence again, in case you weren't paying attention.] The bulk of the other titles sold fewer than 1000 copies. There were fewer than 25,000 books that sold more than 5000 copies in 2006…so you’re defnitely in the successful minority. This stuff can get confusing, since Bookscan doesn’t track things like romance book clubs, Costco sales, and the occasional bestselling self-published book that is supported by seminars and TV infomercials. Still, it’s a great tool, and the best method we have for tracking sales. And it basically tells us that the average book in America can expect to sell about 500 copies in its first year. (It also reveals that there were only a dozen books that sold a million copies last year…meaning the aren’t many super-successful authors in this business.) My point is just that you have no reason to be ashamed of selling 8000 copies of your first novel. It’s a great start! Now get out there and start working to sell more of your next book.
Cheryl wrote to say, "I’ve heard ‘a writing credit is a writing credit,’ but I’m not sure that’s true. Is the length of an author’s location list better than the location? What does an editor or agent look for in terms of publishing credits? Or do they look at all?"
They certainly look. Every editor I know is interested in discovering if you’ve got experience in the world of publishing, because that suggests your level of understanding the business side. I recently received a proposal from a writer who hasn’t authored a book before, but she had published in Redbook, Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, Parenting, and numerous other national magazines, plus a number of feature articles in a big-city newspaper. Wow. I started in magazines, and I understand that world. You’ve got to write to a topic, meet your deadline, and be fairly exact in your word count. So I paid close attention to her work. Did I represent it? No…because she had yet to make the leap from writing magazine articles to writing books. But I gave her special consideration because of the location of her work. (And I have her permission to tell this story.) That said, if you haven’t published in those magazines, where HAVE you published? That’s they key. Put your best work out there — show the editor what you’ve written. It won’t get you the job automatically, but it’s better than bringing in a proposal with no credits. (And this all points to something I’ve said numerous times: Writers need a place to be bad. If you’re starting out, by all means work to get some writing credits. It’s the only way you’re going to improve.)
A friend of mine, who runs a great editorial service, brought up the question of having "likable" versus "sympathetic" characters in our novels: "You recently wrote that you have to like my protagonist. But I just finished reading This Heavy Silence, which I loved, and which happens to have a distinctly unlikable yet completely sympathetic protagonist. My experience tells me that in fiction that’s more literary, serious, dramatic, or tragic, an unlikable character can work. But in lighter fiction, such as chick-lit, it’s not going to work."
I agree completely. In my earlier post, I was thinking of writing popular fiction, which pretty much relies on a likable character. In fact, I’d argue that most fiction relies on likable characters if we expect readers to stay with it. But occasionally we’ll find a novelist who can keep us reading through an interesting or intruiging or delightfully wicked lead. But it’s rare. Really hard to make it work. My guess is that the author will rely on the situation and conflict to keep the reader moving forward, or they’ll offer a sympathetic supporting character. And I’d agree that it has a tendency to work better in more literary or tragic works. Sometimes a popular novelist can do it successfully (the novels of Mario Puzo come to mind), but he keeps you turning pages based on plot and action. A great discussion topic, by the way.
News of the Weird: I saw this in the paper today, and just had to share it. The first line of a newspaper story, picked up from the Lodi News-Sentinel: "A naked jazz musician was injured Friday after jumping from a burning motor home driven by a one-time roller-skating stripper."
Um…as leads go, you’ve got to admit this one sort of grabs you.
My advice: Inject more naked musicians with interesting friends into vehicles that are burning while on the move. That always makes for a bestseller. It’s the first rule of fiction.