How Lucky Can You Get?: What Can Happen After You Sign a Contract

M.J. Rose
From the May/June 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

No question about it, Carl P. was one lucky writer. At 33, four weeks after sending out two dozen queries, four agents called asking to read the manuscript of his first novel, Lucky Boy. Two weeks after that, his first-choice agent offered to represent him.

Let’s call the agent Lucy. Typically, Lucy gets more than 200 queries a week, so this was indeed a lucky break for Carl. Within a month of signing with Lucy, Carl had a $75,000 offer for Lucky Boy from one of the better publishing houses. At Lucy’s recommendation, and with excitement, Carl accepted the offer.

To celebrate, Carl’s editor—let’s call her Pandora—took him to lunch at Michael’s in midtown Manhattan (where everyone in the biz lunches). Over sparkling water, she spoke of her vision of Carl’s novel, how much faith she had in his talent, and how excited she was to launch his career. Pandora promised Carl that her imprint was devoted to “building a writer’s career,” not just “buying one book.” And that the marketing and promotion budget for his book was high and designed to build him a readership.

And then they talked about how hard it is to get published and how tens of thousands of manuscripts a year go unsold. In the last two years alone, 70,000 authors have self-published, and who knows how many have just given up because they couldn’t get that one big break that Carl had been handed on a china platter along with his roasted free-range chicken.

He felt as lucky as the boy in the title of his book. But Carl’s luck was about to change.

The first sign of a reversal of fortune came three months later, when Pandora’s assistant called Carl to discuss the edits on his manuscript.

“I thought I was going to be working on this book with Pandora,” Carl complained to his agent after the first few working sessions with Julie, the twentysomething junior assistant, went badly.

Lucy calmed Carl down, convinced him that the assistant was Pandora’s pet and not to worry. “Not a word goes out without Pandora’s approval,” she promised. But as time went on, it became clear that Julie didn’t understand the book. Most of the changes she wanted didn’t make editorial sense to Carl.

And then Carl saw his cover, which he felt misrepresented the book.

Lucy agreed, but convinced Carl to accept the cover anyway because the publisher was excited about it, and Carl was lucky that the publisher was excited. It just wouldn’t be smart to make a fuss at this point in the process.

Two months later Carl saw his book’s listing in the publisher’s catalogue for the forthcoming season. It wasn’t the full page that Pandora had told him he’d be getting. Nor did it list the 10-city tour or the national advertising campaign that also had been promised at lunch.

When he called Lucy to complain about this treatment, she didn’t return his phone call or e-mail for two days, and when she finally did it was to tell him not to panic. Everyone at the house loved the book, and he was worrying for nothing. “This is a tough business; you are so lucky. Now’s not the time to complain,” Lucy said.

This was not the last time he’d hear those words in the next eight months. No matter what the problem—the publisher only making 100 advance reading copies instead of the 500 promised, the book’s launch being postponed to the next quarter, yet another edit from the junior assistant—no matter how upset he got, the refrain he heard over and over was: “But you are so lucky. Your book is being published. That’s what you need to remember.”

Except Carl didn’t feel lucky anymore and when he pleaded with Lucy to get on the phone and call his editor and straighten out the various messes, Lucy finally admitted that she didn’t want to put her relationship with Pandora in jeopardy.

When Lucky Boy came out there was little review attention and initial sales were less than stellar. Carl felt anything but lucky. “I turned into the redheaded stepchild and my book just disappeared,” he told me.

As authors, are we just so lucky to be published that we should shut up and stop complaining? Or should we be angry? Or is there a more productive way to navigate this strange land called publishing that does not resemble any other business model out there?