Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

A Story The Editor Will Never Know

STATUS: Doing all the crazy wrap-up before the three-day holiday weekend. Yes!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? LEAVING LAS VEGAS by Sheryl Crow

I’ve mentioned before what I call The Curse Of The Sophomore Novel. For whatever reason, authors invariably trip when it comes to writing the next novel after their debut.

My hypothesis is that the first novel took many years to write, had lots of feedback and many drafts. Then novel 2 needs to be written on deadline and usually in under a year’s time. With that crunch, a lot of talented authors kind of blank on all the great tools they used in the debut novel that made it so good. By the way, it doesn’t matter how talented the author, what genre the author writes in, or how many previous novels he/she has under her bed. More often than not, a new author will whiff on book 2.

Good agents anticipate and prepare for this—which leads me to a terrific article my author Kristina Riggle just sent me from Poets & Writers. Editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler has been doing a series of articles on editors and agents and every one of them is a gem. If you haven’t seen them before, I suggest tracking all of them down.

What this month’s article tackles is best described in Jofie’s own words. He says: “This is a story about literary agents. It’s a story about good literary agents and bad literary agents and, more specifically, it’s a story about the tireless, often intangible work that good literary agents perform for their clients during the period after the contract is signed but before the book is published.”

Interestingly enough, none of the agents in the article tackled the curse of the sophomore novel so I thought I would in today’s post.

As I mentioned, good agents anticipate the curse. I always strongly recommend that I see the sophomore novel before it’s delivered to the editor. In fact, I encourage our authors to send it to me (if at all possible) 2 months before the delivery deadline to the editor. Just in case. Occasionally, the author does just fine and the sophomore novel is great. No intervention necessary. More often than not, the curse has reared its ugly head.

For the story I want to share, the editor (to this day) does not know—and this is why details will remain anonymous. In fact, I should say “stories” and “editors to this day don’t know” because it’s happened more than once and none of the editors know.

Author delivered the cursed sophomore novel. I read and said “good heaven! This won’t do. The poor overworked editor will blow a coronary if we send this on.”

Called author and delivered the bad news. Then buckled down with the author to, literally, rewrite the entire novel in 6 weeks. (The author sent me 2 chapters every 2 or 3 days. I would edit and turnaround in 2 days to shoot it back. Author would send next batch and while I had that, author reworked already edited chapters until entire novel was revised.)

Author delivered wonderful “first draft” of novel to editor on deadline.

Couple weeks later, editor called just to tell me what a pleasure reading the novel was and how the editor has never had such a clean sophomore novel delivered to her before.

I responded with “I know. Isn’t the author amazing?”

And I’m positive I’m not the only agent to have ever done this.

By the way, this only ever happens to an author once. After the sophomore curse, the author never missteps again.

Happy 4th of July! See y’all back here on Tuesday.

47 Responses

  1. Kristin Laughtin said:

    “By the way, this only ever happens to an author once. After the sophomore curse, the author never missteps again.”

    Ahh, good to know! I haven’t tried to get any novels published yet, but I know my second novel was a real struggle in comparison to my first. I’m glad to hear I’ll be infallible on my third! 😉

  2. Kathryn said:

    Hmm, good to know. I’ve read the same theory on other agents’ blogs. That sophomore novel… Good to hear that it happens only once and after that, some smooth sailing.

    I think my second novel is easier to write than my first though. I think it’s because I changed from 3rd person narrator to 1st. Makes a big difference.

  3. Jessie Mac said:

    ‘I read and said “good heaven! This won’t do. The poor overworked editor will blow a coronary if we send this on.”’

    This got be in stitches. That scene would make a comic short film.

    Please lord, let me get an agent like the one you described, you know that anonymous one.

    Loved it – thanks for sharing Kristin.

  4. Michael K. Reynolds said:


    I’m quite impressed at the level of commitment you had to that author. This sounds like an agent who really cares about their writers.

    Your post (and prior ones) have me working already at developing in earnest Book Two even though the first one in the series is just in the early stages of seeking agent and editor commitment.

    Thank you for covering this important topic. We all like to think we’ll be the exception to the rule and having a second book that betters the first would be a great goal.

  5. KST said:

    It’s definitely something to think on when I get to that step (something to think about for any writer period). And I agree with Kelly, it was a little nerve-wracking to read. =P.

    You seem like a wonderful agent from what I’ve read. Enjoying your posts!


  6. Jess of All Trades said:

    That’s something good to think about… but even more awesome and touching is the amount of work you put in to help your author really make it. I know it’s “your job”, but that kind of work and attention seems like extra special stuff…kudos to you and your author for that.

  7. Marva said:

    Alas, the sophomore, senior, and post-grad novels are left to fend for themselves.

    Books appear to have the opposite life of electronic equipment. First phone, computer, e-thingy is buggy and buyers should wait. First and second book of an author is pretty good. After that, lazy writing and poor editing set in. The 3rd+ in a series is often sludge.

  8. K. E. Carson said:

    Your clients are truly blessed to have an agent as devoted to them as you are. I know many agents love what they do, but the commitment you show through posts like this really puts you over the top in my books.

  9. Lehcarjt said:

    Great post. It would be interesting to hear from an author who had gone through this with you (anonymously) and have them explain what they struggled with on the sophomore book.

  10. Elizabeth said:

    Wow, you really put in a lot of work for that author.

    I’ve heard a lot of aspiring authors say they’d like to have two or even three books ready to go when they sell the first, but I don’t think any of us actually wait before we start to query. (Then, of course, you’re not “supposed” to write the sequel until the first book sells…)

  11. Charity Bradford said:

    You are SOOOO my dream agent as of this very moment. The second book during time crunch is one of my fears that’s keeping me from querying my first book.

    The blurb on the agency site only says “interested in representing fiction”. Any specific area? Like, oh say, science fantasy? 😀

  12. Megan said:

    Great post!

    I have heard from authors about the ‘second child/novel’ problem as well.

    Well done to you and said author about the 2/3 day turn around – amazing!

  13. Isabella_CY said:

    I responded with “I know. Isn’t the author amazing?”

    I’m speechless.

    Hopefully, I would be able to get a ‘good’ agent when I finish my novel. XD

  14. The Editor Devil said:

    Wish more agents would point their clients in the right direction like this. Sometimes “hands off” means they don’t care or don’t know how to help.

    Thanks for caring. It’s good business for everyone! Now if I could only send to you those senior-career authors who don’t get edited anymore and produce mediocre work that debut authors could never get away with… but I’m venting. Woops.
    Smiles, the Editor Devil

  15. Eika said:

    This idea scares me. They really need that much work? Good lork… it’s a good thing it’s only the sophomore novel.

  16. Anonymous said:

    “…And I’m positive I’m not the only agent to have ever done this…”

    You speak too highly of other agents, Kristin. Trust me. Half the authors I know can’t even get their agent to email them back if they have a question OR nudge an editor on a sub after four months.

    Not to kiss your ass or anything, but there’s a reason you’re a highly queried agent (you’ve already rejected me, I have nothing to gain by saying it).

  17. Cholisose said:

    Very interesting blog post. I had not heard this sophomore syndrome before. Nice to hear there are agents willing to help with this step.

  18. Casey Lybrand said:

    “I responded with ‘I know. Isn’t the author amazing?'”

    Wow! I guess amazing works out better when someone’s got your back!

    I’m working on finishing the first draft of my first non-drawer novel, and I’m already thinking about how it will go with the second novel. Thank you for this post! Equal parts unnerving and reassuring!

  19. Hart Johnson said:

    Seems to me this is an argument for AUTHORS to keep writing as they submit their first–I now have a stack of… we’ll call it four… back up books so if I get that fabulous contract, I can start REVISING instead of starting to WRITE… gives the agent and I several more months (because as a READER I ALSO have spotted that 2nd books are rarely as good as first–the writer doesn’t have to jump through the same number of hoops, and it shows)

  20. Sydnee said:

    Aww, you. You make me want to send you baskets of cookies and wine and fancy french bread on that poor editor’s behalf.

  21. Jeannie said:

    I wonder if part of the problem with second books is just the sheer sense of pressure–the Everybody’s-Looking-at-Me syndrome. I could play a piece perfectly for my piano instructor a dozen times, then walk out on the stage at recital and flub it from start to finish.

    Deadlines may be an issue, but I think there’s probably also an adjustment crunch that comes with finding oneself under a public spotlight.

  22. Jeannie said:

    P.S. I forgot to add: that six weeks re-write had my jaw dropping. Applause to you AND the author for pulling that one off.

  23. tospinayarn said:

    Thank you for this post! As a new writer who is still struggling my way through my first novel, it’s helpful to know what to anticipate with the next one. Even if it isn’t the best news I’ve ever heard.

    I’ve been reading you for months, though this is the first time I’ve commented… you have a great way of writing about things that makes it interesting to read and still really informative. Thank you for everything that keeps me (and all the other commenters and non-commenters) coming back!


  24. Jessica said:

    Agh, now I know I need to be extra careful! I just sent in my first query for my first and am working on another, but hopefully after this one goes through, the next in the series wont be a total wash out!

  25. Tawna Fenske said:

    Very interesting!

    My agent landed me a three-book deal in February, and two of the three books are already written. Though I was given over a year to write the third one, my agent pressed me to start writing immediately (which I have, and am almost done). I assumed she just wanted to make sure it was finished with ample time to spare, but now I realize she was probably trying to make sure we had enough time to deal with sophomore curse issues as well.

    I’ll have to thank her for that 🙂


  26. Timothy Fish said:

    I saw something along this line in a book on project management. I don’t recall which book it was, but the author talked about how terrible second projects are. I think we relax after we find out that we’re “good” and it takes a failure to remind us that good requires that we do the work.

  27. Anonymous said:

    Timothy, you may be thinking of The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks, which details this very problem. It’s about software projects, but when it comes to managing expectations I don’t think it much matters what the product is.

  28. BorneoExpatWriter said:

    Enjoyed this, but enjoyed reading several of Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s interviews even more, on agents, young and old, editors — just blew me away and turned my whole writing world around, a whole change of perspective, an empowering one, too. Thanks for the link!

  29. Arnold Ghostfarb II said:

    This is the equivalent of someone sending out a mass email company-wide to say how good of a job they had done on a particular task, and without even taking credit for it!

    So I guess congrats are due, then? Um, way to perform your job!

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