First Round Picks…and BustsWhy Big Advances Can Be Bad

By PJ Parrish

I was thinking yesterday how much two of my favorite icons — Dan Marino and John Grisham — have in common. Stay with me on this.

I love the NFL. From the start of training camp in July through Super Bowl Sunday in February, I am in hog heaven. And the fact that my Dolphins and my auxiliary team the Lions are doing well makes things even better. But when football season is over, like many NFL geeks I resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Oregon QB Marcus Mariota go No. 1? Will the Jets take another QB flyer on controversial Seminole Jameis Winston? Will my Dolphins go for tackle La’El Collins to beef up their O line?

Yeah, I know. I need a life.

On a recent Sunday, after the games were over, I turned to the New York Times. There I read about Stephanie Danler. (That’s her at left). She is a young waitress in a upscale French bistro in the West Village. One day, while serving Random House vice president Peter Gethers his steak tartare, she talked him into reading her manuscript about a young waitress who works in an upscale New York bistro. Gethers, used to getting hit on after 30 years in publishing, deflected her with a polite “have your agent sent it to me.”

I bet you know where this plot is going.

Gethers was smitten after reading 10 pages and, to make a long story short (click here to read it), Danler’s novel Bittersweet was acquired by Knopf for “a pre-emptive high six-figure two book deal.”

Now you’d think that with all the challenges traditional publishing is facing these days, that Danler’s dream deal is rare. It’s not. There has been a string of debut novel big deals lately. Random House recently paid $2 million for 25-year-old debut novelist Emma Cline’s The Girls. St. Martins just picked up New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford’s debut novel Everybody Rise for over $1 million. And first-timer Imbolo Mbue got a seven-figure deal with Random House for her book about a West African immigrant who works as a chauffeur for Lehmann Brothers.

Which leads me to wonder: Are Knopf and Random House making shaky bets on future prospects?

Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses. Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn’t sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O’Brien.

Now let’s look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book A Time To Kill while working fulltime as a lawyer. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. “Everybody said no,” he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold A Time to Kill to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them by Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, The Firm. But then a bootlegged manuscript of The Firm surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: “Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it.”

But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.

Traditional publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a pretty face and a “media platform” any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?

No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who’s going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who — despite all the money they throw around — is going to be the next John Twelve Hawks. (Remember him?)

Or how about Jonathan Littell? A couple years ago, Harper paid him a cool million for the rights to publish his first novel The Kindly Ones in the U.S. It was published in France first where it won prizes and sold well. But it’s 1,000 pages long, Michiko Kakutani hated it, and the book sold only 17,000 copies out of a 150,000 print run.

Then there’s Gordon Dahlquist. Bantam inked him to a $2 million two book deal but his debut thriller The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters sold only 22,000 copies of a 120,000 print run, earning the publisher about $851,500 back on its gamble.

Now, I am not suggesting that all big-buck debuts are bad. Two of my favorite books of all time were expensive debuts: Chad Harbach got $650,000 for The Art of Fielding. It was named a ten best books of the year by the New York Times, shortlisted for the Guardian first book prize, and almost made it to an HBO series. It sold 117,954 hardcover copies so it made back its advance. Another book I adore is Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. He was 26 when he got $1.2 million advance for it. It was a bestseller and Werner Herzog optioned it for film.

But here’s the bottom line: According to Time Magazine 70 percent of novels do not earn back their advance, so the higher the advance the greater the sales expectations. And when a debut writer gets a huge deal and sales fall short, well, the writer is less likely to score a big second deal. I have a dear friend who found this out the hard way: She scored a seven-figure deal on her second contract and didn’t come close to earning out.  Her career never recovered. (Click here to read a good overview of the economics of book advances.)

Truth is, the people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they’ll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they’ll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.

So will Stephanie Danler bring home the Lombardi for Knopf? Or will she just be this year’s Stephen Carter? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I’d be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with — as the sports cliche goes — a good upside. But what do I know?

*   *  *

And now, as my other favorite cultural icon Monty Python says, for something completely different:

Kelly and I got some great news Saturday morning. Our latest Louis Kincaid thriller HEART OF ICE won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original at Bouchercon. The award is given out by the Private Eye Writers of America and we are, to say the least, thrilled and honored. Especially since this book was Louis’s swan song as a PI.  Yup, he’s hanging up his gumshoes. (But returning in a new book with a badge again). What a great note to go out on.

The Two Things Every Novel Needs

“Trouble is my business.” – Raymond Chandler
So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you’re thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you’ll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.
Well, you won’t. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.
Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an “experimental novel,” and that’s okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that’s your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).
But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.
They are Conflict and Suspense.
What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.
And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post).
That’s where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that’s too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!)
In The Silence of the Lambs,it’s professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
That’s why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren’t going to care enough to finish the book.
The second element is suspense,and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel. 
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.

[Insert short commercial here!]
For the PRINT version:
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]

I could go on and on about this subject, but we don’t want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about. Try it and see.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.

The Book Price Wars

by Michelle Gagnon

I stumbled across this article yesterday:

“The cost of John Grisham’s “Ford County,” officially released Tuesday, moved up and down like stock market shares as rivals and extended, then rescinded, their high discounts for top-selling pre-orders. Early in the day, Amazon was selling Grisham’s book of short stories for $9, the same price it had offered for “Ford County” before publication and a sign that Amazon was ready to continue the cost competition beyond the release date. was selling “Ford County” for $12 early Tuesday, then cut the price to the pre-order discount of $8.98.”

The larger booksellers like Amazon did something similar for Dan Brown’s last release. While most hardcovers retail for $24.95, chances were you could find The Lost Symbol on Amazon for $16, or even less.

But cheap books are a good thing, right?
Wrong, and here’s why.

This type of price fixing devastates independent booksellers, who can’t possibly compete with those discounts. Already under pressure from the big box stores, this trend of offering the most popular releases at huge discounts almost guarantees their demise. I spoke with one independent bookseller the other day who confessed that for some books, she sends her staff to Costco or Wal-mart, because the discount there is far greater than what they receive from their regular distributors. Wal-mart and Amazon are slowly but surely tightening their grip around the throats of the indies with this practice. Although there will always be some consumers who are willing to spend a bit more to support their local bookstore, in a tight economy, it’s unrealistic to expect people to spend two or three times as much for the same product they can order from the comfort of their home.

Right now, the publishing industry has quite literally put all their eggs in one proverbial basket. Fewer than fifty authors are currently propping the industry up. Their books already receive the lion’s share of the marketing budget, and now those books are being offered at previously unheard of discounts. So a typical consumer wanders into a bookstore. What’s the likelihood that they’ll purchase a hardcover by an author they’ve never heard of, when the latest James Patterson opus at the front of the store is selling for half the price? The top of the pyramid will continue to shrink, as the publishers place all their bets on a few proven writers. The likelihood of breaking out, or building an audience, in the face of that is daunting to say the least.

In addition to that, here’s another excerpt from the article, “Authors, publishers and rival booksellers worry that cutting the price so low will harm competition and force down the cost of books overall, leading to a reduction in author advances.” Advances have already shrunk by up to a third this year for many authors. While the writers who are considered “bankable” will still receive six and seven figure advances, most authors will end up working for less than minimum wage. Which means that fewer people will be able to afford pursuing a publishing career, shrinking the talent pool even further.

I’ll confess to not knowing exactly how much it costs to produce a hardcover once editing, marketing, typesetting, printing, and distribution costs are factored into the equation. However, now that Amazon, Walmart, and Target are conditioning consumers to expect lower prices, the margins for publishers will shrink. They simply won’t be able to afford to publish as many books each year. Titles that might be viewed as riskier will be avoided entirely. So there will be fewer options out there for readers. Grisham himself acknowledged as much in a recent interview with Matt Lauer, in which he criticized predatory pricing and said it was going to make it much more difficult for aspiring writers to be published, and for publishers and booksellers to survive.

Last week, the ABA sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting that they investigate the predatory pricing practices of vendors like Amazon, Wal-mart, and Target.
Price fixing is never a good thing. The bookselling industry is facing an impending monopoly, with a few retailers gradually eliminating the competition. And if they succeed, it’s bad news for everyone.

Casting For New Readers Is A Rough Job, But It’s Just Fishing, More Or Less.

By John Ramsey Miller

With five authors (and guests) blogging on this site, there is going to be some overlapping since we are all thinking about similar things; our creative process, problems and the obstacles writers face on a daily basis including expanding our reader base. I’ve been thinking about the most important question after who is going to publish my book––how will I connect with my readers and what can I do to add more? How do I get a chance to sell my story to readers? How do I get through and make an impression they will act on?

Mind pictures help me, so I might imagine readers as fish swimming in a vast ocean. Each species of fish are fans of a genre, and they often swim through many schools of other fish of differing specie, eating what they are eating and then moving on to feed with various other sorts of fish. Food in the ocean is plentiful, and for the fish it becomes a question of which food they decide to open their mouths to take in. Imagine authors as a navy of fisher people, each in boats, trying to catch as many fish as possible. Each fisherman has to put their bait in front of constantly moving, well-fed fish who can eat whatever and as much as they like. Our dilemma is that the fish don’t need our bait, so we have to use some other way to entice them to try our bait, which frankly to the fish looks to be pretty much like the familiar bait they usually eat, and keep returning to. I love fish stories.

Given that there are tens of thousands of new stories to choose from, and readers are barraged with choices and they can only select so many, and the challenge is capturing their attention. I learned in advertising that it takes (I’ll say nine) impressions for a potential customer to act on an advertisement. This is more complex since most of us pass about a hundred thousand messages daily, and our brain (which sees them all) simply blocks out the ones that do not pertain to our needs or wants as a form of protection and I suppose to keep our brains from filling up (think computer ram). So if I am open to new tires, brain will tell me when it sees something related to the tires I’ve decided I want. If I like Good Time Tires, when I read the newspaper or watch TV or pass a Good Time Tires sign, my brain will shout, “Look, they have your tires right there! DO something!” And then I may buy, or I might just be nearing the time I have to make a decision, and my brain says, “Oh, they sell your tires. We’ll have to remember that.” Now at some point my brain will know that it is time and I’ll act and actually call someone who sells my tires, or pull into a dealer with the sign over the building. So, it’s the same with reading material. If I admire President Jimmy Carter, when I see a book by him or about him I might be more open to buying a book on him, and not one about Hoover, McKinley, or my favorite president, Jefferson Davis.

So, if you read the whole fish thing, it is a matter of finding our readers by capturing their attention, and at the present time everybody is thinking about a lot of things besides what to read. Our products are medicine for the mind and offer the client a way to escape their own problems and fears by getting involved and invested in someone else’s life or death dilemma, and best of all someone who doesn’t actually exist. And in most cases they get to see an underdog face impossible odds and actually come out on top, which gives them hope.

So how do we get to potential fans and convince them that our story is preferable to that of someone they know already, or several someones who have pleased them? How many of us have heard a reader say, “I loved Art Goobertug’s first book, but I haven’t enjoyed any of the last six he wrote.” After you close your mouth, you might well ask, “Why do you continue to buy books you don’t like. There are thousands of choices of authors who write good books, and maybe authors who write better books every time they write another.” These loyalists may say any number of things, and I have heard most of them, but it boils down to the experience they had the first time they read them, and they sincerely want to recreate that (might I use the word) experience again. I think it boils down to this––they bonded with that author, and, although they have been disappointed by the subsequent offerings, they haven’t given up on that author, and they hate to face searching the stacks for another author to enter into a relationship with.

Why are some authors more successful than others? Some few authors will become a James Patterson and others will remain Fred Futzwiggin. What’s the difference? You tell me. If you can, you’ll be rich… As best I can tell it’s a matter of bonding with readers and you can’t explain that.

The question I want to ask is, do you as a writer know how to form a mutually beneficial relationship with readers––and more importantly and firstly a way to get them to open your book for the first time and let your story into their minds? Can you do what Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and other successful authors have done and continue to do? The answer is, perhaps. Well, you have their kind of talent, but can’t seem to connect with large numbers of potential readers on a meaningful level, and then, as they do, figure out new and innovative ways to get your work out of the stacks and piles, and into hands. The worst part is even though successful authors will often share their secrets, but the formula is always shifting.

We all have to keep trying new things and methods to better our chances in an ever-changing world, and we have to do that ourselves because the plain truth is, nobody else will. Any secrets to share?