Ask the Secret Agent: the transference installment

Secret AgentIn the therapist/therapee (heh) relationship, there’s the common experience of transference, where the patient falls in love with the therapist or assigns her/him various other familial roles. Do people sometimes think you’re Mom/Dad/THE Ultimate Lover? Do they haunt your office at night, calling repeatedly, feeling betrayed that you represent “other authors”? Or are they mostly just asking you to get them more money?

Some authors do need more ::ahem:: attention than others. Often I find the amount of attention many authors require to be inversely proportional to their value to the agency, but don’t tell them I said so. And if they need a mommy/daddy/Ultimate Lover, I refer them to Belle de Jour.

I feel a little embarrassed that I don’t know the answer to this, but if an author’s book doesn’t make back its advance, does the author actually owe the publisher money? Also, could you illuminate what would be considered a forget-it vs. decent vs. amazing advance for a first-time author who has stories, say, in a handful of literary magazines but not anything, for example, in The New Yorker?

No, thankfully the author is not required to pay the publisher back the remainder of an unearned advance. What a nightmare that would be. Can you imagine being offered $100,000 for your book and asking the publisher to lower the offer because you know damn well it won’t promote the book enough to help earn all the money back? Or a publisher deciding it needs that last $100,000 it paid you so it takes your book out of print even though it’s selling a solid 2,000 copies every six months (no decent agent would ever allow this to be contractually possible, by the way)?

Seeing as how The New Yorker generally sticks to Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates stories (enough already Remnick. Give somebody new a chance), I wouldn’t use it as a measuring stick. But if you’re broke, then I’d call getting $15,000 for writing a book pretty fantastic. It’s all relative.

It seems that all my friends who write have been stymied of late. One sank all the proceeds of his advance into promotion, then found he would not even get a PW review. Another has been told that the publisher wants yet another book “like” his first three. I observe my own so-called “career” as moving in this direction: I managed to get a good agent and a top literary publisher. I didn’t manage to be “lead” book. There’s no “push,” no way for the books to become visible, even when they get good reviews here and there in this great big country. Seven books on, I’m wondering what to do. What practical advice can you give a mid-list writer who has never gotten any push? Is there anything he can do? It seems to me that a writer can drive himself crazy attempting to make up for what a publisher doesn’t do–and never make a dent.

Publishers take what works for them and try to replicate it ad infinitum, so it’s not surprising to hear your publisher wants more of the same from you. Actually, it would seem to say that you are indeed a successful author if you’ve published seven books. But with over 150,000 books published last year in the US, it is a challenge, to say the least, to get any one book much attention, and clearly only a very few can be “lead” books. So what then? Be creative. That’s both the lamest and best advice I can give. Start a Web site, have a contest, streak at Wimbledon, buy a billboard, self-publish. There’s no easy answer. The one piece of practical advice I always give an author is to hire an outside publicist if he or she can afford it, because the publisher will only be able to afford to do so much in most cases.

How well does a first novel have to sell in order to guarantee publication of a second novel?

There’s really no simple answer for this question. Ideally an author will have a publisher that believes in her and will be willing to stick with her even if one of her books doesn’t meet expectations financially or critically (one usually taking precedence over the other of course). If a novel sells 20,000 copies and earns back its entire advance, then the author can reasonably expect a deal for at least one more novel (and a better advance). But if a publisher pays a million dollars for a novel and it sells 20,000 copies, then it’s less likely that the publisher will want to continue with the author. It’s also not likely the publisher would be able to stay in business for very long making those types of decisions, but you get my point.

What percentage of manuscripts simply don’t sell after an agent takes them on? How many rejections does it take before you fold? Does the quality of the rejection have anything to do with it? And finally, do you believe the platitude that all good writers will eventually be published?

It depends on how your agent works. Does he take on dozens of projects, big and small, do little or no editorial work and pepper publishers in a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” style? If this is his method, then his sell through rate in all likelihood will be fairly low. Or is the agent more selective, choosing projects she feels a connection to and putting time into development before submission? In that case, the agent’s sell-through rate would probably be much higher than with the scattershot technique. As for how many rejections it takes before giving up: if all of the rejections are saying the same thing editorially, then the project is probably flawed and should either be scrapped or re-worked. But if the rejection is based more on subjective taste, and an agent really believes in it, she could go on submitting it indefinitely.

Lastly, no, I don’t believe that all good writers will be published, because not all of them are writing for publication, if they’re even writing at all.

Thanks for all the questions — keep ’em coming. And to Rtd. Lt. Col. Henry Khomu of Nigeria, who has been innundating my inbox: I’m not giving you my banking information. Try Andrew Wylie.

The Secret Agent is an agent with a literary agency in Manhattan.

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