Sunday, 20 February 2011

THE TWO BOOK DEAL - Is it always a good thing??

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.


  1. From the minute I read the title of this post, I immediately thought 'Petina Gappah'. I guess what might seem as a a platinum necklace of an opportunity to an author when presented with a two or three book deal could end up turning into a noose that would hold the author and her/his creativity in a stranglehold.

  2. You are so wise to know yourself as youbdo, and so generous to share that knowledge with us. The lure of fame and money and prestige is such a strong one, especially for people like writers who spend most of their careers howling alone in the wind. But I'm sure you're right to hold your nerve and do only what feels right for you. This writing process is hard enough without the industry nightmares turning the private process into a nightmare as well.

  3. hello Ayodele, thanks for dropping in!
    Yes, absolutely - I only heard about Gappah's predicament recently, and it got me thinking - I googled for the pros and cons of two book deals to see what helpful articles were waiting out there. There are surprisingly few.

    Of course, it depends on the writer - but I know 100%, if I now had a noose the size of my first advance tightening a little day by day round my soul - I may write, but my goodness, it would not be coming from the right place.

    We so often hear about 'one novel wonders' or 'the 'problems with novel number two', without looking at why.

    Hope all is well.

  4. Hi Sue - I love that phrase, and it describes us so well 'Howling alone in the wind'!

    "Writer, know thyself" - is a good standpoint, I guess!

  5. This is such an interesting and important topic to raise, and I want to mention another point. V, you felt able to make such a strong demand because you are not a first-time author desperate to be published at any cost (which I was, and I am sure I am not alone!) I cannot imagine that when I got my book deal I would have said "No" to anything at all. Would a literary agent have advised me to? What are agents' opinions on the 2-book deal? Does it depend on the agent?

    I think you made a very wise decision, because you know yourself, you have several books under your belt, you don't "need" what a 2-book deal represents in the best-case scenario. Thanks for bringing this out into the open!

  6. I think a two-book deal is one I would go for as an author with a publisher I'm happy to be with. We don't offer two-book deals at Ward Wood, and authors are free to leave for their next book. Some contracts actually tie authors into offering first refusal for the next book, and we don't do that either.

    The negatives you're mentioning do depend on what the publisher would actually want. They might not want a tight deadline on the second book. They may want to let you take the time you need to write it well, and there may be the help of an editor to get it as good as it can possibly get.

    I know people without two-book deals and I also have a friend with a major publisher who does have a two-book deal. I'm sure he wishes he had a three-book deal as he could relax and concentrate on writing, safe in the knowledge that he didn't have to go hunting for a publisher. It no doubt also helped him get paid work related to being with such a high profile publisher, so he didn't have the same problem balancing paid work and writing.

    As for the question about 'What if it's a bestseller and you could get paid more by a new publisher?' Well, the thing is that it probably took investment by the first publisher to get it to bestseller status, along with talent and a good book. So I don't think I'd begrudge putting a second book with a publisher who has put in the investment in time and money to help me achieve that.

    My friend is, in my opinion, as good as McEwan, but it's not easy for mid-list authors and you can still feel like a well kept secret. The risk is that now his two-book deal is over they may not take a third book, so he was much happier while he was able to write and not worry about that. He still wrote an excellent second book - better than the first.

    Quite a few writers are already well into a second book by the time they find a publisher for the first one, so the two-book deal is good. As I remember, the major publisher gave my friend years to write the second book - I'm not sure if there was a deadline and how long it was. The editor was fantastic, he says.

    A lot also depends on the author's financial situation. It's incredibly hard balancing earning a living, perhaps being the main wage earner in your family without a high income, and finding time to write. A two-book deal is then a good choice, and helps you get other kinds of work around it such as teaching and giving talks.

    A two-book deal gives you time to establish yourself even if it's hard for the publisher to get high sales from your first book. It means they invest more time and money on you as an author, giving you more time to try to become that bestseller or established name.

  7. Hi Tania - thanks for such good points.

    To address the first - the bit about first timers 'desperate to be published at any cost' - I think that's the writer I would most like to talk to, through this discussion. To ask them to consider, at least, the pros and cons of multiple book deals for themselves, so that in the happy event of a publisher waving chequebooks about (Ha!!) the writer does not jump without looking at the ground the other side of the hedge.

    You ask what agents think...It was interesting to find two such brilliant and useful blogs (see main post above), both written by literary agents, airing this topic. Both of them seem to be sensitive to the potentially damaging effect of the pressure of the TBD on the second book, from experience.

    My own agent listened, and did exactly the right thing as far as I am concerned. He represented my interests as a writer and not only the interests of my bank balance! The two can be at odds with each other, as I know only too well.

    And my book is a literary one -maybe with commercial leanings. So the model of single deal is more normal, it seems.

    It was interesting to read about the genre difference here - and having just celebrated remotely with Jane Holland, her three book deal for romance novels - it began to make sense.

    I am sure the good agent thinks of it as a case of 'horses for courses' - and gets the best deal for their client, taking their future career into account. It can't be simply a question of getting as big a cheque as he can, without considering what might be best fit for that particular writer.

    Or can it???

  8. I used to be an editor at one of the big publishing houses, and we would always tend to go for two-book deals - we thought it was better for us and better for the author and it showed our commitment to the author's career. But from an author's perspective, I can see how that could feel stifling. My advice to authors in a two-book deal is always to start the second book before publication of the first - otherwise pressures from all angles (reviews, sales figures, prizes or the lack thereof, and even your publisher's schedule) can mount up and take away from the creative space you had when writing your first novel. But I think the second book is harder than the first anyway, regardless of whether you have a contract for it or not - you had your whole life to write the first and then only a year or two to deliver the second. Not easy. Now I run a digital short story publishing house and we only do one-offs, which makes things easier!

  9. Helo to Adele from Ward Wood Publishing, and to Clare. Thank you for joining in, and for giving the publisher's viewpoint.

    Adele - I am interested to hear about your colleague who has completed (it looks like) his two book deal - and is now finding it tough to concentrate on number three, in the knowledge that the existing publisher might not take the book... I understand that. But you then go on to imply that those first two books have not sold as well as their author might like. So isn't that a perfect case where he might relish the thought of submitting to a fresh publisher, through his agent? The chance to work with fresh marketing initiatives - rather than submit book 3 to the same old same old? Or is that naive?

    I also dont follow this: "It no doubt also helped him get paid work related to being with such a high profile publisher, so he didn't have the same problem balancing paid work and writing." - surely the same would go of a single deal... you are 'with' a publisher - how many potential suppliers of paid work want to know the ins and outs of the specific contracts?

    Thank you for raising the issue of the writer's financial circumstances. Obviously, being given a future stream of income might make all the difference to the genesis of a book - where the writer needs to 'buy' time to write.

    And it is interesting to see Clare's point about the writers in her old publishing house being advised to have already started on book 2, while book 1 is on the publishing production line. I believe, but am not sure, Gappah had done that very thing - and it was still an issue for her. But it is lovely to know about the commitment to writer-careers - and that it is not all commercial decision-making!

  10. My friend is with one of the very best publishers so he'd want to stay with them. I'm not sure if the worry over whether they'll take book number 3 hinders him from writing, but I certainly know I can focus more on writing if I have a publishing deal. I think any worry can stop us writing and it's nice to feel secure then sit back and concentrate on our books.

    There's nothing wrong with what his publisher is doing, so he's not unhappy with that. He seems to love the way they work with him. It's not easy to get books into shops and to establish an author as one of the best known names. Bookshops only take a book for a season and then the book is old news, unless you're an established bestseller, so you have very little time to make that impact.

    I have a feeling that having a number of books with one of the very best publishers (as he does) can help you gradually establish your name, and it does take time. Yes, you could get work by having one book with a good publisher, but if you have a deal for a good number of years you can really settle down to your life as a writer with that extra income coming in too.

    If you only have a one book deal it's not long before that book will be old news, work related to it will fade out, and you're with your agent trying to place the next book. That can take years and the book can go out of date while you're trying.

    I would always go with the two-book deal myself, as an author. It's not an issue with Ward Wood Publishing as we don't offer two book deals and leave authors free to stay with us or leave, and I still talk through their next book with them if they want feedback on the plot and structure even without a contract to tie them to us.

  11. Such a good topic and discussion. I had never really considered whether two book deals (or three!) were good things.
    I suspect before I engaged with the reality of publishing offers and contracts I would have thought they were wonderful - a guaranteed paid writing career for the next couple of years. But that's possibly because before publication becomes a reality, certainly for many aspiring novelists, we do not necessarily value ourselves as highly as we should, thinking only how we can get an agent or publisher to take us on and not on what terms we would be willing to engage with them. If only we were all so self-possessed and forward thinking as you were!
    In some ways it's another reflection on how the book industry is so different to other industries - I've never taken such a long term/multiple contract with any of my day jobs (I suspect there must be some equivalents but I can't think of any). I can see though, how genre such as romance (and I'm just delighted for Jane Holland) could be different to literary fiction in this respect.
    Thanks for raising this topic, Vanessa.

  12. One thing I didn't mention is that having a two-book deal can make you feel justified in treating writing as your 'main work'.

    For many people it's a real luxury to sit and write regularly, and they tell me they just can't justify it to their spouses and partners. They take time off here and there to finish books.

    However, a two-book deal from a major publisher really changes that. It really is the author's work, the contract is there waiting to be fulfilled. Nobody can begrudge you the time spent at your writing desk.

    So much depends on the personal situation of the author.

  13. Hi Claire - thanks for joining in.

    I don't think I would have had the same insights into my own strengths and weaknesses a few years ago. Remember, I am on my fourth book - I have three, one a year from 2008 to 2010 with Salt Publishing.

    I am sure you are right, that so many of us, when we are wet behind the ears, in writing/publishing terms, charge headlong at all opportunities with eyes firmly shut! And pound signs give us much-needed public validation - " The more the merrier thanks very much!" - without us pausing to consider what it actually means.

    Adele makes the point, that for her, having the security of a multiple book deal would be terrific. And that economic circumstances can conspire to make the writing persona slip to second or third (or worse) place.

    I gave up working on anything other than writing, and was able to do so because my husband earned. Now, unfortunately, he is retired. His pension has been slashed by various nasties in the last couple of years, so my advance is not only wonderful to have, but badly needed.

    Needed or not - I have to put writing first, or what's the point in doing it at all? - and a second sum assured, even though that would look great for the family bank balance, would not work for me. On the contrary - well, we've aired all that above.

  14. I'd like to thank the writer who sent this - they wish to remain anonymous.

    "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...."

    I have added the whole message to the end of the main post. but it gives the downside of the TBD, rather seriously...

    It would be lovely to hear from writers who found their actual multiple deals worked well for them.

  15. Call me stupid, but I never think about the deal, the lack of a deal, the audience, the lack of one. I just write what I burn to write. The rest is paper.

  16. Hi N - thanks for that. I know you figured I was daft to take that attitude - it was partly that which got me thinking, how different are everyone's processes, and how important it is to look oneself in the eye.

    Good luck with the current burning, and the forthcoming paper!!

  17. VERY interesting blog post, Vanessa, and it's generated some fascinating responses. Would you mind if I linked to it from my own blog at some point? I'm writing in the crime genre, as you know, and the book I most want to write after the first one (which will go back to the agent mid-March) is a second book about the same characters. So a two-book deal would suit me very well, if I was to be offered one. That said, your post alerted me to all sorts of issues I hadn't previously considered, so thank you. Pause for thought, definitely.

  18. Hi Sarah - thanks for popping in. Of course, I'd be delighted if you linked - I hope it is a useful thing - and as I said, I could find very little about the pros and cons in a quick search. The message I had from a colleague (added at the bottom of the main post) showed the very real trouble a writer can get into if things don't go right.
    On the other hand, the agents blogs seem to be saying that if you write genre fiction - (I think the implication is, you can plot in advance - and are happy to do that perhaps after discussion) in general, TBDs usually work very well for all concerned. But a caveat - that is a generalisation - the whole point for me was asking newer writers to examine their own processes.

  19. Very interesting post, and I'm glad you've raised it. It'd be too easy to assume a two-book, three-book deal is better - more money! But your point about knowing yourself and the way you work is so important.

    I think I'd be like you, should I ever get a book deal (though I don't write literary). My current WIP is historical, but I suspect I'd want to write something contemporary next. A two-book deal would tie me into another historical novel.

    How brave of you to be upfront and say to your agent to nip any talk of two-book deals in the bud. However I strongly suspect The Coward won't be your only published novel.

  20. hello womagwriter - thank you for having faith - Its an uncertain road, thats for sure. Glad the discussion has been useful, in making you think. My next piece of work, whatever it be, might be a historical thing... we'll have to compare notes!

  21. Hi Vanessa

    Well, it’s been a hectic few weeks but at last I’ve got the chance to read and reply to this properly. Lots of people have posted lots of interesting things. I will only add a few words from my own experience.

    I have to say the whole two-book deal is an issue close to my heart. I initially felt like you did and had no urge to sign a multiple book deal (at one point, with a different publisher who I eventually didn’t go with, there was even talk of a three-books). However, with AFRIKA REICH I was caught in a conundrum. The book is the first part in a trilogy, so I wanted a publisher who was prepared to commit to at least one other book in the sequence.

    Also, because I spent years working in the ‘unpublished vacuum’ I didn’t much relish the thought of having to work on Book 2 without knowing if it would ever be published.

    So did I make the right decision in agreeing to a two-book deal with Hodder? Yes and no. It’s certainly given me a degree of security and at least I know I get to write TAR2. However, I am feeling the pressure of the looming deadline… and I don’t work well to deadlines. At least not deadlines imposed by other people. I’m also a slow writer which doesn’t help.

    All of which brings me to what happens after my current contract. Part of me would like to write Book 3 (whatever it is) on spec and go at my own pace. However that might not be practical. I suppose this is the issue at the heart of two-and-three book deals. Creative needs vs financial ones. There’s no answer to it… I suppose the only solution is to write something that is such a big hit you call the shots! We can all live in hope…