Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Why Your First Novel EVEN MORE Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

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It needs to be said regularly: Don't start your career with a trilogy. I first published the essay below in 2010, but everything in it still applies.

Plus, I've added three more reasons why this is such a bad idea. Simply because over the years, people who made this mistake shared yet more regrets with me.

Read, learn, and send the link for this to friends who are gonnabe writers. The poverty and grief this prevents could be your own.


Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

Three reasons, basically.  One is artistic, the second psychological, and the third pragmatic.

The artistic reason is that at the beginning of your career, you're learning faster and improving more swiftly than you ever will again.  That, and the fact that the mere act of publishing a book makes you a better writer, means that the prose styles of your first and second volumes will probably be considerably different.  Most readers won't pick up on this.  But the best ones will.  And your very best reader is yourself.  It's going to bug you to your dying day.

The psychological reason is that nine chances out of ten, no matter how much you love your first novel when it's fresh out of the oven, several years down the line you're going to end up disliking it.  It may not deserve your dislike.  But this is an observable phenomenon.  Writers wind up being embarrassed by their first.  And if your first is volume one of a trilogy, that's three books you're going to end up unhappy about.

The first two reasons are trivial, really.  But the pragmatic one is desperately important.  Here it is:

The timing of publishing is such that the "numbers" for your first book -- the sales figures, basically, the book's profitability -- won't be available by the time you turn in the second volume.  Since your editor liked the first book, the second one is a pretty sure sale.  But by the time you've finished writing the third volume, however, your publishing house will know the numbers.  And if the numbers aren't good, the book will not be bought.

Which means that book will not be sellable.  No other publisher will want to buy volume three of a trilogy whose first two volumes are owned by another house.  You'll have to wait until your first two books are out of print, revert the rights, and try to sell the trilogy anew.  But that will take years, and your dream-child will at that point be damaged goods.  Unless you've subsequently become extremely popular, it will probably still be unsellable.

Imagine how it must feel to have two published novels under your belt and then find you can't sell your third.  It must feel exactly like being fired for incompetence.  It is going to discourage the hell out of you.



But wait! There's more! 

Let's imagine that your first two books luck out and your editor wants the third. That means you're stuck with that editor. If you like the editor, that's good news. But if you and your editor can't agree on what your books should be... If you fight like cats and dogs... If you think he or she is crazy or vindictive or just doesn't know the job... Then you've got years of misery in front of you.



Nor does it end there. Let's imagine that you signed a three-volume contract on the strength of your first book. It makes perfect sense for the editor to do that. It locks you in at as low an advance as you're ever likely to get in your career for books Two and Three. If the first two don't sell, the editor can cut losses, fork over the advance, and wash his or her hands of you. Plus, if your agent wasn't paying attention, the contracts will have a "basket accounting" clause.


What, you ask, is this? It's a very simple way of not paying royalties for as long as possible. Let's say you get an advance of seven thousand dollars per book, half payable upon delivery of the book and half upon publication (a publishing term meaning anywhere between six to eighteen months after publication). And let's say your book earns out (sells enough copies to pay for your advance). In fact, it earns ten thousand dollars. That means they owe you three grand, right?

Not with basket accounting. With this clause, you don't get a penny in royalties until all three books have earned out. So your second book brings in another ten thousand? That's six thousand dollars they don't have to fork over until well after your third book is published.

By which time, you're likely to be feeling a little annoyed at your agent for letting you sign the contract in the first place. Which is the sixth reason why starting your career with a trilogy is a bad idea.

A writer's relationship with his or her agent is extremely important. Much the same as I was lucky in love, I was lucky in agents. But I've known many people who couldn't get along with their agents at all. Maybe they wanted to write Regency romances and the agent wanted them to writer SF thrillers. Maybe the agent had no interest in the sort of thing they wrote and went about selling it with all the enthusiasm of a vegan peddling calf's liver. The reason doesn't matter. Because, just as you're stuck with your editor, you're stuck with your agent. A new agent isn't going to want to pick you up mid-trilogy. Your current agent isn't going to let go control of a book they went through a lot of trouble to sell. So there you are.

Fighting with your editor, bickering with your agent, and watching your books rack up royalties that you won't get to touch for years.


And remember. . .

If you simply must write a trilogy, then go on ahead with a clean conscience.  All the best books are books that the the author had no choice but to write.  And all writing advice is like pantyhose -- anybody who tells you that "one size fits all" is lying.

But if any or all of the evils detailed above happen to your career, don't say that nobody warned you.


Above: A bottle of wine from Some Young Punks Winery. Just to cut the mood of doom and gloom.

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Sanford Meschkow said...

Michael, you just have to write a non-fiction advice-to-writers book. I'm sure all your advice would be good and it would sell.

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