Pub Rants

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

The One-Book Deal

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STATUS: A nice and productive day. I think I want summer hours though. Leave by 1. Play in the sunshine. I know Chutney is all for it.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? DO YOU SLEEP by Lisa Loeb

Today let’s tackle the single book contract. What are the advantages and disadvantages to doing just a one-book deal? Considering what we discussed yesterday, it seems ludicrous to sell just one book!

Well, not really. Most one-book deals are for literary fiction and occasionally for what we would call the “big” commercial literary fiction. Commercial literary fiction is really just literary fiction that has a commercial hook or slant. For example, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a good example of commercial literary. Or TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. Or HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

Does this make sense?

And there are lots of reasons to do a one-book deal.

1. Literary fiction takes longer to write. Sometimes it’s not feasible to write a second book on a prescribed deadline so authors will contract one book at a time. Wally Lamb (SHE COMES UNDONE) is kind of known for never selling a book until it’s written and then he sells that one book only.

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 and it really doesn’t matter the genre you write in.

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 he/she just doesn’t want to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. 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. One’s editor tends to be really important in literary fiction. There is a certain trust that can be very beneficial to the literary writer.

Now having mentioned these things, you can kind of see the flipside to the argument.

1. A two-book contract might be preferred if there is a lot of hype and a book sells for a lot of money and then doesn’t perform. How nice would it be to have a commitment to two books already lined up if that’s the case? A chance of redemption or getting those numbers back up.

2. A Publisher may delay acquisition of a future book until they have sales figures for the first book. Since books easily take 18 months to publish, it’s a long time to wait to get a new contract—especially if the author is trying to earn a living here.


27 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Kristin,
    Thanks as always for the info. Can you elaborate on the “stumbling blocks” of the second novel you spoke of?

  2. Kathryn said:

    I had the same question. I thought of Dan Brown and how he had more success with THE DA VINCI CODE than he did with ANGELS AND DEMONS, which he’d written first. Just one example, but it’d be great to have the “stumbling blocks” clarified. 🙂

  3. Kate said:

    Are several “stand alone” novels ever sold as a multiple book contract? I understand selling a series in a multiple book contract, but there are a lot of non-literary books that stand alone. I am currently querying a contemperary YA novel and writing a second. The second novel doesn’t have any common characters with the first and both books are meant to stand alone. Do publishers actually give multiple book deals to writers like me? I always assumed I’d be selling each book individully.

  4. Some Screaming Fangirl said:

    Aww, does that mean no more Jamie Ford? Or is he off writing for ten years?

    This is interesting though. I mean, all authors’ nightmares consist of books not selling a dime and them never being published again. Those two-book deals don’t seem too bad for those writing single novels.

    But, like said, I won’t worry. YA series and various other novels to share. I could never write literary or nonfiction if I was forced-fed poison…well, I could, but it’d be awful.
    BTW, though this would be cool for you to know – there was this contest I was enterering to win some awesome YA books, and one was “GIVE UP THE GHOST”. And one of the questions to get it was “What was your favorite kiss scene in any YA book?” Not only was PERFECT CHEMISTRY mentioned (a given) but so was THE DEMON’S LEXICON! Three in one blog post! 🙂

    Looking forward to more on the subject!

  5. Amanda J. said:

    For genre fiction if you get a two or more book deal, do the books have to be related?

    Thanks for sharing. It’s great to see why an agent would strive for one type of deal over another.

  6. A. Shelton said:

    Kristin–I’m a genre (fantasy) writer. My current goal is to eventually get a novel published but I already know I’m not one of those writers who can write to a deadline, and many of my fantasy projects are looking to be standalones. I don’t intend to sign a mutli-book contract if I can help it at all, but I can think of only one fantasy author who isn’t writng copious numbers of novels (Robin McKinley). How likely is it that I’d be able to get a one book contract, for each book as I finish it, instead of having to do a multi-book one and failing miserably?

  7. Nicole MacDonald said:

    I think I’d prefer one book deals, I’d rather have a book written and available than all the stress of writing to a deadline – that wouldn’t be creatively inspiring

  8. Kold_Kadavr_flatliner said:

    Gosh, you’re gorgeous in that photo! Wow. Mama mia. I so love mature women. Thank God! I will see you Upstairs in the Great Beyond for my BIG-OL party for years and years celebrating our resurrection!! Very cool. Can’t wait…

  9. Katie said:

    Can you talk a little bit more about why an editor is more important to a literary fiction author than to a genre author? Is the nature of the editor different (ie, does the editor of a literary fiction novel do something different than a genre editor)?

  10. Red Boot Pearl said:

    I’ve heard of various writers struggling to write a second book because now there is more pressure to be as good or better as the first book.

    The first book is something you can take as long as you want to write and edit–while the second you might be under the gun to produce…or just feel a creative block, especially after you’ve been in the editing mode for so long.

  11. Lucy said:

    Thanks for posting on this, Kristin. It really is comforting to know that not every agent will press a writer to take a multi-book contract if such a contract doesn’t work for that writer’s needs.

    Personally I’d rather build my reputation one high-quality book at a time than rush out with a second or third book that just isn’t ready.

  12. Tessa Quin said:

    Thanks for that, Kristin.

    I have a question for you. I’ve done a lot of research on the publishing market, and that includes self publishing. In a blog about self publishing (http://www.fonerbooks.com/contract.htm), I read the following statement:

    Here the author grants the publisher the right to publish the work, as protected by copyright law. For most authors this means the exclusive worldwide rights, including all derivative works, etc.

    I understand that it’s natural for the publisher to own the right to publishing the books, but all derivative works as well? Does this mean that if I write my fantasy series and manage to sell the trilogy to a publisher, I can’t ever write anything else from that world or use those unique magical characters I’ve created and sell it to another publisher (if the trilogy publisher doesn’t want to buy it)? Or even just write short stories and publish it on my webpage or whatnot?

    Is this a negotiation matter?

  13. Paul West said:

    Very interesting post. I’m thinking maybe I’m pitching my YA novel wrong. Maybe it should be classified as literary like “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”

    I’ll have to think about that.

  14. Anonymous said:

    Yes, I also want to know the answer to Katie’s question @ 9:21 — what about that?

    Love this post, this is the crap no one else talks about!

  15. funny in the 'hood said:

    This is great information. I’m currently writing a novel and if I manage to sell it, I already know I would lean toward a one book deal. I think the second book is such a huge undertaking and I could never write it on deadline. I firmly believe the quality would suffer and I’d hate to have a crappy sophomore novel because I had to rush the process.

  16. Kelly McCullough said:

    My last fantasy contract was a single book contract because it was the last book in as series and we wanted a clean break between book five of the last series and the beginning of the next. Current contract is three books.

  17. Lucy said:

    @ Tessa

    I’m not up on the finer points of contract, but I would not sign anything that looked like that. For starters, agents often hold back and manage foreign rights separately. In such a case, a U.S. publisher would only get North American rights. Another point is that you should hold onto film and certain other subsidiary rights wherever possible–another thing your agent can help with.

    “All derivative works” is an insane clause (unless a list of derivative works is given and has limitations). Theoretically you couldn’t even publish a short story based on your novels without their permission.

    This is why you need, need, NEED a good agent.

    If you’re going to self-publish, it makes more sense to be a true self-publisher, where you do the dealing with the printers, designers, etc., pay full costs and retain full control of your rights. Otherwise you may end by giving up more than you want for a package of services that does less than you hoped for.

    Hope this helps. 🙂

  18. Tessa Quin said:

    That helps. Thanks so much 🙂 And yes, self-publishing is my last resort. First is to try to get an agent. Second to get a publisher. If neither work, I’ll re-write the story and try again. If that doesn’t work then I might look into self-publishing.

  19. A Books Blog said:

    I think the best thing to do in this situation if a writer insists on a one book deal is put in a solid option for the second book in the contract.

    This will keep your options open, if they choose to write a second book, you get “First Dibs” on the deal. Throw in better terms than the first to get the author interested b/c you are only going to want to publish the second book if the first one performs anyway.

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