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On Selling a Book in Partial Manuscript Form - Part One

I suppose this could also be titled “On Selling a Book You Haven’t Written Yet.”  For non-fiction writers, this is almost always how they sell their books to a publisher.  The writer drafts a spiffy proposal, gestures to her sources, and makes some educated guesses as to how the market will react to the book in question.  The agent shops the proposal around.  Once an editor buys the proposal, the writer agrees to deliver the completed manuscript on a deadline specified in her contract – most commonly in about a year’s time.

I can only assume most successful non-fiction writers are comfortable with this process. 

For writers of literary fiction, “selling on a partial” is a little different.  In fact, there’s no set process.  I’ve known authors who’ve sold their books-in-progress by showing an editor several chapters and a detailed outline, and I’ve known authors who’ve said, “Oh, I just sold her ‘the next one,’ whatever it turns out to be.  I described a really vague idea.” 

Selling on a partial, generally speaking, is only an option after a writer has gotten over the hurdle of writing and selling a debut novel (although, I do know one author who sold his debut novel on a partial manuscript, and did it without an agent – but this is a true anomaly!). 

After I sold my debut novel the regular old-fashioned way (you know: write the whole thing, polish it up, have your agent give you notes, polish it up again, bite your nails as your agent sends it around to editors) there was a lull while I waited for my pub date to arrive.  There was nothing more I could do on that first novel – it was already copyedited and off to the presses – and I’d begun a draft of something new. 

I made the unorthodox decision to go ahead and sell my still-in-progress second novel to my editor.  Why is that unorthodox?  Because my first novel hadn’t come out yet.  In terms of sales, we had no idea how it would do.  Usually, when your first book does well, your agent asks for a larger advance when selling the second one.  And if your book does, ahem, not so great… the editor may not even be able to justify buying it. 

From a certain perspective, publishing is basically a legalized gambling practice.  Editors make bets on the manuscripts they acquire.  “I’m going to pay this author X amount of dollars, and hope to get that back tenfold.”  Sometimes they lose.  By buying my second book before my first book had even hit the shelf, my editor was taking a chance on me. 

I suppose I was taking a chance on her, too.  I knew I liked the way she edited.  And even though my first novel hadn’t come out yet, I had ample reason to believe there was no one better to promote it.  If I waited until my first book came out and it sold well, was there a possibility I could ask for a ton more money?  Maybe.  It’s a question of a bird in the hand versus two in the bush. 

I sat down and made a list of the pros and cons, and came up with following:

PROS

- chance to stick with an editor I love

- peace of mind that I’m not throwing my time away on a manuscript no one wants

- money from advance will pay bills as I wait for first book to come out

- have access to editorial feedback early on as the narrative develops

- motivation of a deadline

CONS

- could possibly receive higher advance if I wait to sell this

- have access to editorial feedback early on as the narrative develops

- pressure of a deadline 

Since I spent the previous blog entry agreeing with Ann Bauer that, as professionals, writers need to be able to talk about money/income (although I spent most of that post complaining that I want that discussion to continue to go deeper), I will address the financial aspects of my decision.  It’s no use insisting that, just because writers are artists who love their work, they aren't forced to make major life decisions based on financial practicalities.  Like any other kind of professional, writers have to consider the time/income ratio that dictates their relative lifestyle, how they pay their rent, and how they spend their days.

Ultimately, I decided the immediate income was more valuable to me.  While, if I waited, I might be paid more for my second novel, the immediate income would allow me to continue writing full-time, and maximize the chances that there would be a second novel, full stop. 

When my debut novel came out, it did reasonably well.  Perhaps I could have made more money on that second contract.  Was I sorry I had already sold the book-in-progress?  My answer is still no.  Having an editor cast her lot in with me gave me the confidence to believe in the second book as I wrote it.  And having a contract in place made me feel like I had a legit job.  When strangers asked me what I did for a living and I replied “I’m a writer,” my brain would internally go, That’s right; I have a contract, I have a boss, I have a paycheck, I have a deadline.  Perhaps this is a very die-hard middle-class, suburban, bourgeois outlook to have, but all of these things -- contract, boss, paycheck, deadline -- made me feel happier and more secure about my place in the universe. 

For me, a bird in the hand really was worth more than two in the bush. 

Now, on my PRO/CON list above, you might have noticed that a few of those items repeated in both categories.  In the next entry, I hope to address the other considerations a writer must take into account when selling a book before it’s done: Making art on a deadline, and how different it can be to work with your editor through those early drafts.