When I knew my agent liked the manuscript of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ enough to send it out to publishers, and when I knew a couple of places liked it enough to bid – I emailed him to say something like this:
"In the unlikely event of a two-book deal being on any agendas, please can you stop the discussions before they start. I could not go down that route."
I have no idea whether either publisher suggested such a thing, but I was and am absolutely serious. I would not have accepted one, even if the figures looked marvellous. And there are good reasons for my taking that stance.
‘But it is everyone’s dream, a two book deal! What’s wrong with you?!’
So, I will try to explain, if only to make people think about their own processes, their own strengths and weaknesses as creators.
But before I do, read this feature by Robert McCrum writing in The Guardian some years back, Caught Between Two Books - basically, he says:
"two-book deals are bad deals, bad for the publisher and often worse for the author."
And he goes on to explain why. Two scenarios – first, the successful first book, and then the unsuccessful one that does not quite live up to its hype.
McCrum says that if the first book does not succeed, the author may write the second novel poorly:
"all the writer wants to do is fulfil the second half of the contract as fast as possible, and be shot of the whole thing. Inferior work is delivered too quickly, contributing to a generally low standard among second books."
And if, in contrast, the first book turns into a bestseller..
"the author ... feels hard done by. In an ideal world, a successful first contract should lead to better terms for the second book. Not in the two-book deal. The author, tied to terms that cannot be varied, feels resentful, at odds with the publisher."
Jennifer Laughran, literary agent, on her blog Jennifer Represents, makes the point that some writers work best to a deadline, in the knowledge that a publisher has guaranteed to publish book two, even if number one flops. But she says, there are three very good reasons not to go for a two book deal.
1. You are locked in...You may deserve a lot more money for book two, but the book is already sold.
2. If you .... think the first book is published badly... you are stuck for another book, with an potentially expensive and hassle-filled nightmare if you want to get out of the contract.
3. There is a sense of ... freedom knowing that you don't have a contract for the next book. You could do anything you want! Some authors work better if they "stay hungry" and free in this fashion. And some authors panic under a deadline.
Yes, I understand that last point! But also, I experienced real downs after successes, whilst building whatever writing career this is. It was not only the bad times that caused long periods of non-writing, but good times too. Win a competition, and I froze. Get a book published? Aagh! A pit of non-production. And that will continue, only worse, I am sure, when ‘The Coward’ comes out.
Anther agent calling herself Kristin, blogging at Pub Rants (Publishing Rants – not drinking-type pubs!) sees a genre divide in the multiple book deal stakes. Multiple book contracts, she says, are good for genre novels, especially romances, and single contracts are best for literary or literary/commercial books. Now that is interesting – I hadn’t really considered that genre writers work differently, but obviously, they do – a colleague - a very successful romance writer who has landed a lucrative three book deal – talks about sitting down with her editor to discuss plans for the next novel, and I am left shaking my head. I don’t get how you can do that – how anyone else can have that much input into a project – but then I am sure she doesn’t get how I work, either.
Kristin of Pub Rants sets out her points for single book deals in another list –
1. Literary fiction takes longer to write. Sometimes it’s not feasible to write a second book on a prescribed deadline ...
2. A one-book contract can alleviate the pressure on the author. The sophomore effort can be a tricky thing. I know from experience that every author hits a stumbling block with that second novel ...
3. Literary fiction—especially those that lean commercial—often get undersold initially and then break out big later. If there is a sense that that could happen, why lock the author in for a certain amount of money?
4. The author might not have a second novel to propose and ...the author might take 10 years to write next literary novel. It happens.
5. If the author’s editor leaves and there is just a one-book contract, it can make it cleaner for the author to follow his/her editor to a new house.
She alo sets out the pros and cons of multiple deals and discusses the genre issue, in another post.
Of course, these scenarios do not work for everyone. But I’m old and ugly enough to know my own processes... I took a long time to write 'The Coward'. I don’t know what I am going to write next yet, even though I may already be following my obsessions. It may take me ten years. I just don’t want any pressure to deliver, thanks.
And if anyone thinks this is an academic argument, I would send you to read the blog of Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, whose collection ‘Elegy for Easterly’ won the Guardian First Book Award among other accolades. (Reviewed by Tania Hershman on The Short Review)
Gappah is to be thanked for sharing the less than kind turn of events when she submitted book two to her editor. Having experienced the highs of success, prizes and so forth for Elegy for Easterly, was she able to enjoy writing book two? No. She puts it like this:
"in the last year, even as I was enjoying public success, I lived every day with private failure. I felt that I was held hostage by this damn book that was blighting my life."
You can read her experience in greater depth on her blog, and discover the happier turn the subsequent discussions led to. I wish the third book, now the second, a happy genesis.
It is not easy, this writing and publishing stuff. And it is both interesting and sad, to note that what sounds like a perfect dream, sometimes turns into nightmare. I did myself a favour, unwittingly, thanks to knowing the weaknesses of my own creative process.
Edited to add this, sent to me by a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. I'd like to thank them for their generosity in sharing their experience.
This is timely and directly relevant to my situation, Vanessa.
My two-book deal quickly became a nightmare. My editor asked for a sequel, and I lept into the writing, but it wasn't long before I saw the possibility of the "bad second book" phenom hanging over every word I wrote. (I wrote seventeen partially-completed versions, with over 150K words of notes. All freshness and joy was sucked from the doing. I hated it.) I worked my day job. Life pushed in, with family concerns, a death, two major geographical moves, and ever-present financial difficulties. I pushed back book deadlines. I wrote more new beginnings that died too young. I'd never felt quite so stifled and guilty and unhealthy.
Finally, in December, I had a bit of a breakdown. It was probably a bad reaction to the anti-depressant I'd begun taking, but the pressure certainly played a role. When I could speak in complete sentences again, I told the sordid story of my "progress on book #2" to my agent.
And my agent is an angel. She contacted my editor and called me back and offered two options: Cancel the second book entirely, or remain obligated to produce it, but with NO DEADLINE at all. I chose option #2. And, as too much time has passed for the publisher to market a direct sequel to the first book, I can write whatever I choose.
I'm coming alive again, and free-writing again - it might be a few more months before I set out to seriously write another book.
I need to say, I am not a raw new writer. I'd been at this game for more than twenty years, pushing past the dreaded novel-in-the-drawer syndrome and receiving at least 1,000 rejections. I'm extrememly grateful to have landed a wonderful agent and understanding editor. But yes, two-book deals are not for everyone.