Pub Rants

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All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire

9 Responses

  1. Cheryl Hingley said:

    Kristin, I didn’t know that for more than half of your clients you pass on the first work they submit to you. I’m proud that you took on the first novel I sent you, which was SIREN, which you sold in record time (and I know records, having been in publishing all my life 🙂 Your advice is SO HELPFUL to writers, because that wasn’t my first novel ever written, it was my sixth. I discarded the first three, the next two were published by Random House Australia, and the next I entrusted to you in the hope of breaking into the US market: best decision I ever made for my books! So if you’re a writer reading this, heed all Kristin’s advice. She is SELECTIVE and what’s more she explains here just how her selection process works–she’s aiming for you to write your best book. Go Kristin!

  2. Brittany Thibodeaux said:

    Thank you for this encouraging (albeit sobering) advice. There are so many success stories out there that include the exceptions: “I polished my first manuscript and pitched to one agent and they offered representation.” Those are too much for new writers like myself to live up to. Thanks to this advice, my magic number is 4. I don’t expect anything to come of it even then, but I’ll try not to invest as much emotionally until then. (I know; easier said than done.)

  3. Don Collins said:

    Great advice. I say this not from experience, since I am for the most part unpublished, but because it is very helpful to have a realistic view in any endeavor.

    Several years ago, I set out to start my own company. I struggled for seven years, then eventually sold my (failing) company to another firm. The company did not exactly turn out the way I expected, but those seven years were invaluable. They allowed me to shape my skills which not only launched the next phase of my career but also laid the foundation for my second business venture, which was much more successful.

    So good to hear these same principles apply to the writing industry as I diligently chip away at the craft — and business — of writing.

    Thanks again!

  4. Jorge Hinklemeister said:

    So, let me get this straight. The writers of world are holding down a job, raising their children and finding only a few precious moments to themselves to pour their blood, sweat and tears into the opus of their soul and condescending you, tucked neatly away in your little gilded tower, decide to “[pass] on the first project they send you. And IF, perchance, something one the little sycophant throng sent you ‘sparks’ your interest, you will Personally write to someone else about it? OMG, how wonderful! Praise be the Gods that the unwashed have found a Savior!
    However, lest you prematurely risk self-congratulatory rotator cuff injury, remember this: We live in the 21st century and we can self-publish!

    1. Lennon said:

      Jorge – for all I know you’re just trolling. But since you did say you wanted to get it straight, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are just very disappointed in how the querying process has worked out for you so far. I’m there right now so I understand how frustrating rejections are. HOWEVER. I dare you to follow the daily blog of three literary agents for a month. Doesn’t matter which ones. I’m guessing you’ll find that they do not sit in any ivory towers and cackle over how to screw over writers. They work long hours and weekends. I’ve heard a few agents call the business ‘soul crushing’ because of what they cannot do for would-be authors who don’t fit what they’re looking for, or just aren’t ready yet. So many people think of getting an agent as winning the lottery – once you get it, you never have to work again! But someone I know said it’s more like earning a degree. Once you find an agent, that’s just the beginning. You’ve got a LOT of work and tough decisions ahead of you (if you don’t know that, you REALLY need to be following those blogs, even if you do decide to self publish). What good would an agent do you if she accepted you, and then couldn’t sell your story? They use their best judgment and ultimately take on clients and stories that either a) they are pretty sure will sell, or b) are so very passionate about, they will do anything they can to make it that way. If an agent doesn’t do those things, why would you want an agent? Believe it or not, they are actually humans, just like the writers. Crazy thought, eh? Anyway, good luck with your publishing, whichever way you go, and I’m actually not being sarcastic. It is tough out there.

    2. Elissa said:

      Jorge – I was going to ignore your post because you seem so bitter and burned out, I couldn’t think of anything to say. But I decided I do want to encourage you to step back and get a little perspective.

      You mentioned self-publishing. Do you have a kindle or other e-reader? Do you regularly purchase self-published books and read them? Do you buy all the books available in your format of choice, or are you selective? In other words, are you sitting in judgement of all those authors who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the opuses of their souls, purchasing some, passing on others? When you walk into a bookstore, do you buy every title on the shelves?

      Well, yes, it’s a bit ridiculous to expect a person to buy and read every single book published. So why in the world do you expect a literary agent to offer representation to every author who queries her?

  5. Mary Kate said:

    Thanks so much for this advice. I read something like this before querying my first novel–the first one I’d ever written–and naively assumed it didn’t apply to me because I’d spent YEARS writing that first book and it was SO GREAT.

    Three years later, I’m just polishing up my fourth novel, and it’s quite clear to me why the first one didn’t land me an agent. (I really think this one will!) It’s good to know I can query some of the same agents I did the first time around!

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