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On Selling a Book in Partial Manuscript Form - Part Two, AKA, The Scary Deadline Edition

In my previous blog post I told the story of how I decided to go ahead and sell my second book before it was done, also known in publishing as selling “on a partial.”  It’s not terribly uncommon; generally speaking, book contracts come with a built-in option clause on a writer’s “next full-length work of fiction.”  The expectation is, you and your editor now have established a working history… you probably know if you want to go on working together.  And I did.  I loved my editor.  So, I sold her my second book before it was done, and was quite happy about my choice to do so.  However, this doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous about selling something I hadn’t finished writing yet.  How do you know for sure you can be creative on the clock? 

We struck a deal right around the same time Penguin made headlines by suing a handful of authors who never turned in the books they’d promised to writeThat had certainly never happened before, at least, not that I’d ever heard.  There was speculation that Penguin’s decision to sue these authors was an indirect result of Amazon, Apple, and other new-ish publishing forces taking a big bite out of traditional publishing.  The big six just couldn’t afford to hemorrhage money like that anymore.  It was only speculation.  Who knows? 

It's not that I oppose Penguin’s decision to exercise their right to sue. In all of the cases, the writers basically didn’t turn in their books (in one case, the writer fabricated his biography, so he couldn’t legitimately publish his memoir).  Back when I used to work for a literary agency, it had always been my experience that publishers were fairly flexible about a writer taking a little longer than the contractual delivery date to finish his/her respective book, but when the years start flying by and an editor has yet to see some pages, well… understandably, people start getting a little uneasy.  In the case of the Penguin lawsuits, the authors were all nonfiction writers whose topics were very timely, so perhaps, in some ways, their books lost value with every passing day they went unwritten.

But getting sued for not turning in your manuscript sounds like every writer’s nightmare.  Or, at least, the plot of a movie starring Bradley Cooper.  Besides those non-fiction writers who were sued, I also knew of a fiction writer, who, after spending years revising her manuscript, had her contract cancelled.  In the course of several sizable rewrites, the book had wandered too far away from the version she had sold to the publishing house, and the editor no longer felt it was publishable.  The writer was asked to return the advance.  I can’t imagine how terrible it felt to get that letter in the mail, and I don’t want to.  It’s the kind of thought that can keep you up at night. 

When I signed a contract promising to deliver my second novel by a set date, it marked my first deep experiment with creativity and deadlines.  Deadlines, I discovered, really crystalize the polarity of art and business.

When it comes to writing, here is the argument art makes:

A novel is the kind of thing you don’t want to rush.  You want to work on it intensely, sure, but you don’t want to hurry it into production.  When you write a novel, it’s an act of sustained OCD.  You basically write the same story, from start to finish, no less than five or six times (note to aspiring writers: you gotta really love that story to get through those final rounds, just FYI, so pick a good one).  If you were to skip one of those rounds because you’re feeling the heat of a deadline (or angst, or jealousy at the bookstore, or whatever else it is that makes writers rush to crank a novel out), your book will suffer. 

And here is the argument business makes:

Time is money.  You could spend an eternity making editorial improvements on a manuscript, but if you NEVER punch the clock and say, “Here you go!  Here’s what I’ve got,” what do you have to show for your work?  It’s reasonable to strike an agreement whereby a worker agrees to deliver X amount of work by date Y. 

Most professionals in the business world are comfortable describing their work in terms of “results” and “products.”  But I’m pretty sure if you described Jonathan Franzen’s book to him as a “product” (an Oprah-branded product, no less!), he would take umbrage (I also feel like “taking umbrage” is something Franzen has made into a minor media sport).  Agreeing to a deadline is a reminder that time is money, and that you’ve promised to deliver a product. 

So what did I learn from my Great Deadline Experiment? 

I think deadlines are good – mostly  if you let them into your head just the right amount.  Obviously, thinking about those worst case scenarios, sued authors and such, won’t do you any good.  But neither will pretending the clock doesn’t exist, or buying into the notion that you are somehow a great artist who is above time and money.  A deadline gives you a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, and more importantly, to get to work. 

For me personally, I’d get lost in my work and forget about my deadline for a spell.  I’d try out a new scene or chapter, consider writing in a different tense or POV.  Then I’d pick my head up and remember my deadline, and I found it helpful.  Why helpful?  Well, when you write, you are constantly making choices.  Make this character tall or short?  Write in a wildly experimental second person voice, or a traditional third person past tense?  A deadline can push you to pick a choice and stick with it.  “If you’re going to make this choice,” the deadline says, “you’d better go all in and make it work!”  

All this is to say, deadlines do change the feeling of writing a novel.  Instead of merely wanting to write, you find yourself needing to write; you are obligated to write to fulfill a professional commitment.  As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  One of the ideas I’ve been really advocating in this blog is that writing is a job, not a hobby.  While writing a novel is certainly a joy and a passion, it can also be difficult and arduous, and a deadline can help you push through the part that is work, allowing you to accept it as just that – “work.”  Work that can and should have an output, work that will help you keep a roof over your head, work that can’t be confused with “a hobby.” 

Of course, there are lots of different personalities in the writing business.  TV writers, for instance, have to be very comfortable with the idea of writing on a deadline.  Novelists, I feel, can really go either way on this.  My best advice is to know yourself, know how you work best, and if you do agree to produce a novel on a deadline, take care to close your ears to all the noise that might mess with your head.   

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.