Mark Terry

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Searching for the Tipping Point

October 7, 2006
My agent and I were in the midst of a flurry of emails yesterday. Well, maybe not a flurry, but we back-and-forthed a bit. I was to email a PDF of DANCING IN THE DARK, a novel I wrote under a pseudonym, to an editor at a publisher with affiliations with a company whose logo is a big rodent head, who would forward it to the appropriate...

Anyway, somewhere in the midst of all this she said something about all the hullabaloo with another publisher whose logo is a flightless water bird, and they decide to reject. Huh? I ask. There was a hullabaloo?

Then I find that the flightless water bird publishing house's imprint apparently had indicated last week that they were very excited about DANCING and were probably going to make an offer, then we get a rejection along the lines of, "although it is very well written and I really enjoyed the story, we decided not to make an offer because this is a type of book we've had problems selling in the past."

Ahem. You have problems selling well-written engaging stories with strong female main characters?

Anyway, that's not the point. Usually I let rejection comments flow off me like, er, water off a flightless water bird's ass, but I e-mailed my agent to say, "I'm trying to figure out what the tipping point is. (I can guess what is it, actually: Mark Terry's last book sold 400,000 copies. You interested in his latest?) I mean, early in my career I wasn't even getting the 'it's well written, blah, blah, blah' but now all my rejections seem to be: 'well written, great story, just not today.' Do you get this a lot?"

My agent commented that yes, this was common and 400,000 copies sold would probably be a very good tipping point. She also noted that although all publishers do this, some are worse than others.

I noticed that yesterday Robert Gregory Browne talked a little bit about a screenplay he wrote that had huge buzz and five major producers bidding on it, then everything fell to pieces and the script didn't get picked up.

This is a freaky business, folks. It's completely subjective--except for the money. And I don't think I'm being crass and money-fixated (and if I am, so what?) when I say, if Rob had already been the writer on a couple scripts that got turned into produced movies that grossed a billion dollars or so, that script probably would have been picked up. Or if THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK (in your local neighborhood bookstore--pick up your copy today!) climbed up on the bestseller lists and sold 400,000 or 1,000,000 copies (and no, I don't know what the actual tipping point would be. 50,000? 100,000? No clue.) that the flightless water fowl publisher wouldn't have hesitated to pick up DANCING. And perhaps rodent head imprint will anyway.

I'm reminded, however, of when Stephen King left his long-time publisher (which, come to think of it, had a flightless water fowl as its imprint), it was big news and the publisher of one of the major houses even went to King's agent's office personally to pick up the manuscript of BAG OF BONES to read himself. Yet... did all of the publishers involved make a bid? Probably. High bids? Well, clearly not.

So what's the tipping point? Is it sales? Is it a really terrific book they can't put down?

My goal has always been to write the un-rejectable manuscript. The story so strong, so well-written, so compelling, that the editors/publishers read it and say, "Ooh-ha, this is it, we HAVE to publish this book." I haven't done it yet, but that's the goal. Hell, it's probably an unrealistic goal, right? The perfect novel? The one that starts a major bidding war among publishers and movie makers, the one that creates its own buzz, is snatched up at bookstores on the day it arrives, the one readers crave, love and talk about, that moved them, inspired them, maybe even changed their lives. The one they remember with affection 30 years later.

But in today's commercial publishing market, would that do the trick?

I wonder.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I hate to sound crabby, but since my computer croaked last night and I've spent all day trying to get used to a new one that's probably unavoidable, but what I have come to believe is that the only -- ONLY -- thing that really counts for a writer is whether said writer made a lot of money for some publisher. That's all that publishers (big ones at least) are interested in. If you haven't made enough money for someone then quality of work, great reviews, awards, mean nothing. If you make $400,000 for someone then anything you haven't sold will suddenly be wonderful.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I don't actually you sound crabby, Eric. Realistic.

Okay folks. I'm sorry. You read the entire post and didn't get what I was saying?

What it comes down to is track record and if you make money for a publisher.

That doesn't help you break in one little bit. Once you do, you need to try really, REALLY hard to sell books and make money for your publisher. Build up an audience so your agent can say, "His/her last book sold XX copies."

And here's an even crueler aspect of that, I think. The publisher now pretty much needs to be able to look at your track record and see that book #1 sold X numbers, book #2 sold X+ and book #3 sold X++.

Quality will--in the long run--get you published. Now, go out and try to define quality.

I'm thinking of "The Deal" by Peter Lefcourt, about the movie biz and the idealistic studio exec confronts Charlie Berns, the would-be producer, saying, "You can't tell me that you think this is a good script."

Charlie says, "I don't know if it is or not. A good script is one that gets produced."

She's aghast at how cynical he is, but he shrugs, figuring she has a lot to learn about how the movie industry works.

I sometimes think that's the only really useful definition of a good novel manuscript--one that gets published.

I know I've written some really fine unpublished manuscripts, but so what, if nobody gets to read them?

Okay, maybe that's too cynical. Or is it?

3:37 PM  
Blogger spy scribbler said...

The tipping point could be luck or timing, what do you think? Not just getting the book to the right editor, but the right editor in the right mood with the right needs at the right time.

And the level of quality needed to break past bad moods and wrong editors varies.

I wonder about quality, though. I've read some perfectly solid novels--as good as anything published--and they're turned down. It's just that I feel like I've read that story before. So maybe, more than quality, one needs a freshness? An originality? Something creative that captures the imagination and intrigues a person? A spark?

Who knows. But we have to keep striving, right?

11:18 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Freshness? Maybe. I'm not sure. I just finished reading a novel in the vein of Clive Cussler's novels written by a marine archaeologist. Originally published in England, the book is published in mass market paperback by Dell and I'm not sure why I finished reading it. Intiguing premise, but poor execution. Nothing bad on a line by line writing, but his point of view shifted, in fact so much that I thought the main character was someone else.

The writer was clearly an expert on areas of marine archaeology because the characters talked and talked and talked and talked and... and TALKED about history and archeology and sometimes I would try to follow it and other times I thought, "Who gives a damn? Would you get on with it?"

And the "adventure" part of the story seemed strained, but the archaeological part was fascinating... or would have been if I didn't have to listen to two or three characters lecture to each other for pages on end.

And yet I saw a big ad for this book in USA Today and I'm sure it'll get coop placement and do fine. But I sure as hell wouldn't recommend this book.

So what interested the publishers? The premise worked. The concept was good. The execution sucked. I kept thinking, "Man, if James Rollins had been writing this, it would have just rocked."

Instead I slogged through it. So is it luck? Did some archaeology buff of an editor pick up the manuscript? Or did they read it and say, "Well, yawn, but the premise will suck readers in."

I honestly don't know.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

If we look at Hollywood as a model, there is no tipping point. There is no rhyme or reason for what goes on there. Every sale depends on the direction the wind is blowing and whether or not the right stars are aligned. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same in publishing.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I suspect it is, although maybe less so. If you're a novelist who has sold a specific number of copies, say 100,000, then it's probably reasonable to think you could sell your next novel to almost everyone.

My caveat on that is that in publishing authors have been hurt by big advances that didn't pay out. Their books sold 100,000, but their advance was supposed to cover 200,000, and as a result, nobody wants to publish them because the publisher lost money.

I also wonder. Back when I was reviewing books I reviewed a couple of John Sandford's books, including his last Kidd novel, which I think was titled "The Hanged Man's Song." I really liked it, but it sold well under what the "Prey" novels did. When the Prey novel came out after Song, I interviewed John for a profile. His publisher's PR person made some real downer remarks when I was setting it up about what a failure Song was. I asked John about it and he kind of sighed and just said, "Well, they don't sell as well as the Prey novels. It's partly a problem of expectations."

So I wonder, if John came up with another Kidd novel and pitched it to his people at Putnam, would they:

1. Take it because it will sell well, but adjust their financial offer accordingly.

2. Turn it down because it sells below what they want it to.

3. Take it, but as part of a multi-book deal for other Prey novels because Sandford makes too much money for them to piss him off by turning down this book.

I'm guessing #3, but you never really know.

4:54 AM  
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