Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: An Intermittent Series

There are the really obvious ways to torch your career — rudeness to editors, for instance.  And then there are the hidden trap doors.  The one I am going to reveal today is truly obscure.  It could be broadly described as meddling with the publication process. More specifically, you can enrage the publisher’s sales reps.  Kill your book dead in one easy step!

To understand how this can be a wooden stake through the heart of your career, you  have to understand how traditional book publishing works.  The bit that all writers know is the early bit.  You write the book.  You send the ms to an editor.  The editor reads your ms, and it’s love.  He goes to bat for it with upper management, assuring them that you are the next J.K. Rowling and that the book will be a machine for xeroxing money.  Management, dazzled, agrees.  They cut a contract and buy your book, yay!

That’s my favorite part.  But then it is not over.  While the copyeditor, the proofreader, and the  production people turn the ms into bound books, the editor describes the work in lyrical terms to the art director, who then, afire with enthusiasm, allocates the cover to an artist.  You can see that the spark of your genius has a long perilous chain of transmission here, and this may account for all the sucky cover art we see in the bookstores.

When the book and its cover are fairly near the end of the production process,  it’s time to talk to the sales reps. This is done at sales meetings. All the editors of the house present the season’s crop of new books, empowering and persuading the sales reps to go out to bookstores and get them to order the book.  (Somewhere around here there is another trapdoor in the code, for big players like B&N and Amazon, Oprah and Costco.  These big guns may be powerful enough even to give editorial input.)   Again, a long relay of racers hand the torch that is your book on and on, until it finally arrives in the reader’s hand.

The process is so complex that ignorant interference can kill you.   You can simply go to a book conference, or the ABA, and bother the sales reps while they are trying to talk to bookstore owners.  And pow! you are on their shit list!  I have also heard of an overconfident author who assured his editor that he was cozy with the buyers at a big chain store.  He managed to annoy them all, and his book tanked.

On the other hand, knowledgeable sales rep management can do a world of good.  Jacqueline Suzanne, author of the best-selling Valley of the Dolls, was the first person who did this.  She bought doughnuts and coffee for the reps.  More recently, Nora Roberts had fleece lap blankets made with her name on them, to hand out at sales conferences, which are notoriously over-air-conditioned.

Note that the sales reps are not going to actually denigrate the offending author’s book.  They are representing the  publisher, after all.  They will instead simply mention the books on their personal shitlist last, or devote the bulk of their enthusiasm and energy to another work on the season’s list.

In other words, your book is competing with all the other books of this year — for attention, for art, for shelf space, for Hugos, for the Man Booker prize, everything.  If you can deftly tinker with this Darwinian process, with donuts or with fleece blankets, all to the good.  Bollix up and you can fail in an unspectacular, invisible, but nonetheless fatal way.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: An Intermittent Series — 5 Comments

  1. It is not only authors who can mis-handle sales reps. Most authors will not get within a mile of the reps except, perhaps, accidentally, with their first book or five, unless their book is marked by the sales department for Greatness and extra added resources thrown at it. But I remember being at a sales conference where the editor of a book which both editor and publisher knew was a sucess d’estime, an academically meaningful book that should be published but was unlikely to make much in the way of sales at the beginning (but might have a good long backlist career, if well handled). The editor stood up and said, in so many words, that no one was expecting to sell any copies of the book, it just had to be published…. The editor was, of course, correct. But that backlist career never happened, because the sales force was understandably ready to forget the book right out of the gate, and did so.

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  3. Thanks, Brenda! All sorts of disasters can and do happen in trad publishing. My publisher dropped me after Book #3 because they forgot to put it into distribution. I had bookstores calling ME to ask why they couldn’t order the book.