The Breakthrough; The Making And Breaking Of A Career

An article every novelist, and aspiring novelist, should read.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Author. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author who, understandably, wishes not to be identified.
‘Don’t worry, your next book will be your breakthrough book.’

In my 26 year career as a writer, this sentence became a sinister mantra, one of the worse prophecies a writer can hear. And yet I always bought into it. Until the end, when I realised that the more often publishers use the word ‘breakthrough’ alongside a future-tense verb, the more it’s equivalent to a man telling you you’re lousy in bed - but hey, who knows? He’ll give it another shot and maybe the next time you’ll actually perform.

I was a smug 35-year-old when my first book was published: a straight-to-paperback chick lit romantic comedy. The publishers gave me a launch party, there was Champagne. It was a night full of promise. That book sold well enough to enable me to trade up to a more prestigious publisher and a hardback, which hit the shelves in Sainsbury’s and got more than a few good reviews. However, the sales weren’t great. What I needed, I was told, was a book that would get me on TV and radio, a book that would make me known to the mass market.

Becoming a mass-market-seeking slut, I switched agents, switched publishers again and came up with an idea that I wanted to write about and which might plug into the reading public’s zeitgeist. It worked. I was on the Richard and Judy early morning show, Sky TV, radio all over the place. And again, great reviews.

This time, as the sales figures dribbled in, no one could explain why I hadn’t done it, why I hadn’t broken through. But that was OK, I shouldn’t worry, the next one would.

The downward slope is a humiliating one. There soon came a point when I was no longer invited to speak at sales conferences or even attend them. Advances dropped. Once, when my editor left her job, I had lunch with her successor who spent the entire time telling me how great her other authors were. At some point, she nonchalantly informed me, she would get around to reading one of my books. At meetings with my publishers, the people who showed up weren’t the Premiership players anymore. They were very nice, gave me cups of coffee, and explained why the higher-ups weren’t going to spend any money on advertising. And that’s when I heard the second most loathsome phrase to a writer’s ears: ‘No need to worry. We know this book will get a lot of word-of-mouth publicity’. Which translates into: ‘Don’t even think we might shell out any money to promote you’.

‘Word-of-mouth’ are the last words out of publishers’ mouths before: ‘We’re not renewing your contract’. Altogether, I’d had seven novels published, been translated into twelve languages, garnered praise from all the big newspapers - as well as one review which had me cowering in bed for a week - and still managed not to earn out my advances. Of course my contract wasn’t renewed.

In a way, it was a relief to be dropped. I was getting too old to do chick lit, and I dreaded every visit I made to the publishers, knowing I’d see posters on the wall and books in all the bookshelves, none of which would have anything to do with my work. Coffee became a glass of mineral water. I began to dream of working in a dry cleaning place, figuring it would be fairly difficult to envy other dry cleaners.

But then I had a great idea for a book. Not chick lit, but a psychological thriller. Everyone said it was a brilliant idea. I knew this was the one. All I had to do was change my name so no one would be looking at previous sales figures. I wrote it, without a contract. My agent loved it. There was that momentary pang of ‘uh oh’ when it didn’t go to auction, because I knew: if there had been a bidding war, they’d have spent money promoting it. But I deep-sixed that fear. I’d sold it to a great publisher, my editor thought it was terrific, other people in the building had stayed up all night reading it, Tesco’s took it, not only took it but made it their Tesco Book of the Month. Breakthrough time.

Otherwise known as Catch 22 time. The little Tesco Book of the Month sticker didn’t make people buy a book they’d never heard of. One which had no reviews and hadn’t been advertised anywhere, because, as I was told, I’d changed my name; ‘new’ writers with straight-to-paperback thrillers almost never got reviews. And all the money allocated to promoting it had gone on getting it into Tesco’s in the first place. There I was, right back to word-of-mouth. Apparently the book-reading public had taken a vow of silence.

Three months later it was published in America. I happened to be in New York when I picked up a copy of People magazine and found a rave review of my book in it. Ecstatic, I emailed my American editor and said wow! People magazine, this is great. She emailed back saying she had no idea it was in People. Which issue of People?

Which issue? It was Thanksgiving weekend, when more Americans travel than they do at any other point in the year. They’d buy magazines for those train and plane trips, they’d read this review. Everyone in the US reads People. By the time I got to my laptop to email her, I’d had 50 emails from friends congratulating me. My editor didn’t say she’d been in rehab or dogsledding in Lapland; all she said was which issue? My disbelief quotient at that point was nothing compared to what it was when I subsequently checked US Amazon and found that the only way to get a copy of my book was to pay $100 for it. My editor explained that they’d sold out of their ‘whopping’ 8,000 print-run and it would take some time to reprint. It took three weeks.

Their next print-run, all of 2000 copies, sold out immediately again. The price ratcheted up to 100 bucks a copy for another two weeks, by which time that issue of People had disappeared - even from dentist’s waiting rooms. ‘We dropped the ball on that one,’ my editor subsequently told my agent. No, they didn’t drop the ball. They dropped a five ton block of cement on my career.

The second of my two-book deal with my English publisher lies peacefully inert somewhere on the ocean floor. I’d transitioned from the woman who wasn’t good enough in bed to the man who couldn’t get it up. Four publishers, four agents and six editors later, I’m finished. And now positively basking in the pleasure of not receiving royalty statements with a zero at the end and in the pure joy of never having to hear the following:

‘August is a good month to publish, really.’
‘October is a good month to publish - it isn’t August.’
‘February’s a great month - it’s not August or October’.
‘In retrospect, maybe it should have been a hardcover.’
‘In retrospect, it should have been an original paperback.’
‘In retrospect maybe the jacket was wrong.’
‘You’re going to get great word-of-mouth on this one.’
‘This one’s your breakthrough’.
‘Sorry, we’re out of mineral water, but here’s a glass of tap.’

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