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

M.J. Rose

What’s the Problem?
Part of the problem is the fact that it is so damn hard to get published.

“I felt a groveling attitude not only toward my first publisher, but toward my first agent, a woman who sold every one of my novels, but who nevertheless told me at every turn that I was lucky to be published at all, let alone to have an agent,” said Ada L., the author of six published books.

It took years of prodding from Ada’s writer friends before Ada found the courage to ditch her agent and find a new one. Why? She was afraid to call her original agent because the agent couldn’t have a conversation with Ada without getting in that “luck factor” phrase at least once.

Is it any wonder that writers’ primary attitude is one of gratitude when our agents, editors, and countless other writers who are desperate to be published all keep telling us how lucky we are? Even seemingly positive news reemphasizes the luck factor. When Oprah picked a book for her book club, other writers talked about how lucky that newly anoint-ed author had been to be plucked from obscurity. When Today and Good Morning America choose a book for their book clubs, every publicist and editor—and again, every writer—talks about the luck of the chosen one. After all, with more than 130,000 books published every year, you have to be more than a damn good writer to be anointed by reviews. You have to be lucky.

Ada L. suggested to me that writers don’t always feel empowered because they aren’t really in on the process. “We don’t negotiate, we don’t know which editor is looking for which product. We’re removed.” For some reason these are the rules and protocols writers have always followed.

Here’s a thought: We’re the writers, aren’t we? Let’s rewrite the rules!

“I was told I would never get a review in a major newspaper and not to even try,” Jane T., a midlist author, said. “I tried anyway, contacting the paper myself, and when I got the review—a rave—guess what I was told by my publicist? I was lucky. ‘And please don’t do it again’ because I was making the publicist’s job harder.”

ICM literary agent Lisa Bankoff points out that there is also a fear factor exacerbating the problem. She reports having phone conversations with dissatisfied authors who complain about unresponsive publicists, ill-conceived book jackets, or a lack of advertising. “Often, they’re absolutely right to feel that the publisher could be doing a better job of it, paying closer attention, offering more meaningful consultation. That said, I’ve had many of those same phone conversations end with the client begging me not to repeat any of it to the editor. God forbid, the squeaky wheel might get replaced instead of oiled.”

That fear is part of why we crawl away, convincing ourselves we should be grateful instead of acting on our anger. If we get anything—one ad in a major newspaper, a four-city tour, three weeks of decent co-op placement in the chains—we consider ourselves blessed. We’ve heard of too many cases where books—sometimes despite a big advance—are dropped or just die from a publisher’s lack of interest.

So, like neglected children, we’re thankful for every small favor.

In Their Defense
John Glusman, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, sympathizes with authors and blames a marketplace that is more competitive than ever. “As a result of consolidation in the industry, there is less of an emphasis on quality and more attention paid to the bottom line. That makes the stakes higher and puts more expectation on certain books to perform,” Glusman says.

Publishers aren’t out to destroy writers, but publishing a successful book is very much a guessing game. Agents don’t mean not to return our calls, they are just overworked. And publicists aren’t the devil’s spawn who think we are lunatics. They are for the most part overburdened with too many books to push each month. At the same time, the amount of review space in magazines and newspapers has been cut by 25 to 50 percent in the last two years. There isn’t time to do a good PR job on every book, which is why writers should learn to do some of their own, or save some of their advance to hire an outside PR firm.

Glusman reminds authors that sometimes decisions seem personal when they aren’t. There are actual problems in publishing today. “There is less and less media attention for books, and everyone is becoming anxious. The shelf life and book review space and the attention span of the general public are shorter. And the relatively long time it takes to produce a book makes it even more difficult.”

Author Elizabeth Benedict (Almost, Houghton Mifflin, 2001) says that while your book is the center of your world, to an editor it’s one of two dozen books she’s working on that season, and she knows that not all of those books are going to be smashing successes.

“I imagine that editors keep some distance between themselves and writers so that if a book doesn’t take off, the editor can retreat a bit more gracefully, instead of having an author who feels as though the moon has been promised but not delivered. Maybe this feels to some authors as though the publisher wants them to feel ‘grateful’ instead of involved,” she says.

One way to combat this feeling as an author is to have realistic expectations. Simon Lipskar, a literary agent with Writers House Literary Agency, suggests that when a publisher has paid less than a $25,000 advance to an author for a first novel, it’s foolish, no matter how great one’s fantasies, to hope that the publisher will print 50,000 copies in hardcover, run an expensive (and often pointless) ad campaign, send the author on an expensive (and often pointless) author tour, and so on. “It’s the author’s part of the bargain as a professional to know that, in most cases, these things will simply not happen. Asking for them, begging for them, demanding them: This is part of what leads publishers to react with an attitude that implies that the author should shut up and take what’s being given.”

If an author can instead balance expectations against the realities of what the publisher will or won’t do for his book, then the cycle that leads to feelings of resentment and frustration can be put off from the start.

Lipskar is not suggesting that authors should simply stand back and let publishers do what they’re going to do. Rather, he says, one has to be realistic about what the publisher is going to bring to the table and then say to oneself, “Okay, so what am I going to do to sell copies of this book?” Authors who are less frustrated with the process and their publishers are usually of two camps, the best-sellers and those who get beyond this us-versus-them mentality.

This latter group of authors—who do take control—realize that a book is not dead after three months as publishing wisdom dictates, and they get creative. The authors who do not rely on luck tend to have more positive publishing experiences and feel less angry at the outcome.

What to Do?
Ultimately, we all have to realize this basic truth: If writers don’t write, publishers have nothing to publish. And if they don’t publish they don’t have a business, and we don’t have a career.

They can’t do it without us and we can’t do it without them.

“Without the fruits of your labor, none of us would have jobs,” says ICM’s Bankoff. “I’d have no deals to commission, editors would have time to do nothing but refine their own prose, and the legion of promotion, marketing, publicity, and sales people would be forced to invest their energies in other pursuits.” The editor and the agent, Bankoff says, are on a shared quest, and it’s one only the writer can satisfy. And yet all too often what should be a partnership is just not treated as such.

It begins with the very way that authors communicate (or rather don’t communicate) with their publishers: An author deals with an agent who deals with an editor. The editor in turn deals with the rest of the house, and then reports back to either the agent (if it’s business) or to the author (if it’s editorial).

The channels are not very clear.

FSG’s Glusman suggests that the author rely on her agent to make this process go more smoothly. “It’s a big universe, with a lot of different players in it,” he says. “The process itself is fairly simple, but there is a lot of competition, and every author feels it. An author’s agent should be his or her champion, run interference, and get involved when there are issues.”

Amy Bloom (Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites With Attitude, Random House, 2002) suggests we not be fooled by the nice stuff that precedes signing a contract and that we should proceed through the publishing process with the right attitude. “One can be appreciative without being subservient. Objectively this is a business, and publishers are not our parents or our friends. We sell them our goods, and they pay for them. We all need to concentrate on doing business in a positive and supportive way. In a way that does not cause pain.”

Whomever you talk to—authors, publishers, or agents—everyone agrees: It all goes back to the agent. You must have an agent whom you trust.

Being Grateful is a Two-Way Street
If all the parties involved can have respect for one another’s roles, then the idea of being grateful doesn’t seem as onerous or troublesome.

In an ideal world, editors and publishers would be genuinely grateful to be publishing and authors would be genuinely grateful to be published by the people and companies who publish them and agents would be genuinely grateful to be working on behalf of the talented authors they represent.

In fact, many people are. Lipskar, for one, says he is. “Yes, relationships sometimes get strained, and I certainly know high-handed editors, agents, and authors who all think they’re bigger than the process. And authors should absolutely be leery of agents and editors who from the outset treat them with disdain. But ‘being grateful’ can be a positive way of approaching a process that is often fraught with tension, as opposed to a sign of codependency and weakness.”

I am the author of more than 150 articles on the publishing industry, but I have never written an article for which so few authors and publishing professionals were willing to speak for the record. More than 50 agents, editors, and authors I contacted refused.

We are in the business of communicating, and so this silence is alarming. The widespread hesitancy to speak about these issues is almost as significant as the issues themselves.

“I don’t think I have any right to complain about the things that are wrong—and there is a lot wrong— because I’ve been so lucky with how my career has gone,” says one best-selling writer whose name every reader and every bookseller knows. “I’d be afraid to jinx it.”

Not enough said, but as clear a communication as I’ve ever read.

M.J. Rose ( is lucky to have a wonderful agent and has no complaints at all about her marvelous editor. Her newest novel is Sheet Music (Ballantine, May 2003).