Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The 80/20 rule

Publishing is an impossibly slow business. I think you can safely say that you can take the time it took you to write and polish the book and multiply it by four or more. That is the time it will take to sell the book. Then on average add 18 months for the publisher to do revisions, copy edits, galleys, pre-release publicity and put the book on the shelf. What is a writer to do while they wait? Well, write another book, of course, says the prevailing wisdom. And I agree. Writing another book allows you to keep up the practice and perfect your craft. But here is the thing you have to accept about that truth. For the average writer, only twenty percent of the manuscripts you write will actually become books on the shelf. One of the Professors at my MFA program stated this statistic in a class. I sat down and figured out how many books I've written over the years versus how many are on the shelf and it came to exactly 20 percent. Huh.
Knowing this many writers say, well, I won't write past a partial then because why waste my time on a book that will never sell. This is a self made trap. Why? 1) It used to be you could sell your second book on partial, but the business has changed so that nine times out of ten even midlist authors must write the entire book before a contract is written and the book sold. 2) If all you do is write beginnings, you miss out on the practice and perfecting of the middle and the end of stories. You miss out on knowing where your personal pitfalls are and how to deal with them.
Other writers write entire books, for example: I average three books a year. In today's economy many paying publishers are buying one book a year. Even if you sign a three book contract those books will usually come out one a year. (Unless you are working with a company whose business model goes with three books in one year such as Sourcebooks or Harlequin.) The point being that many prolific writers have mounds of inventory-remember on average 80 percent of their works are not published. This can lead to desperation and attempts to fling that inventory at editors and agents as fast as you can. Okay so you rejected that one, here's another. This desperation leaks into the work and the industry's perception of you. I know, you would think that an agent would want to sell every book their author writes, right? Editors should want to publish every book their author writes. Fact: this is a false assumption. Agents and editors want to sell books they think they can make the most money on and will not even try to sell books they think they can't market. Remember publishing is a business. Publishers, editors, and agents are in it to make money. They are your test market. No matter how clever the idea, if the agent can't get an editor to bite, if the editor can't get their marketing department to take a risk, then they have wasted their time and efforts. Fact: sending an agent four different books in one year is a waste of their time--no matter that the rejection letter said they would be happy to see your next work. Unless the concept is really happening, fresh, and now, you need to wait at least three to six months before you query with your next work.
Some authors think. Fine. I know my inventory is good. Why should I wait? I will publish it as an e-book. There is nothing wrong with this, especially if you have years between paying books. But you have to understand the simple truth about e-books. They are a dime a dozen and, unless you work really, really hard on marketing, your book will be lucky to earn you more than $50. (I made $0.73 last quarter on my two Wild Rose Press romantic suspense books.)
So what is a writer to do? Relax. Keep writing. Look at the 80 percent of books that don't sell as hours of practice. Keep reading craft books. If you find yourself getting frustrated or desperate, stop. Live life. Try something new. Most importantly don't beat yourself up for books written but not sold. Don't curse your agent or editor for rejecting 80 percent of your work. It's how the average writer's journey goes.
For those of you out there who will say these facts aren't true. Who will say that you write and sell every book and sometimes three or four books a year, I say, good for you. You are on the other side of the bell curve. You are not average. It doesn't mean you are better than an author who publishes only 20 percent of their work. It simply means you are either a) working with a publishing model that plans for more than one book a year; or b) you are able to repeat marketable ideas and themes for your publisher; and c) you don't need to read this blog which is meant for the average writer.
As for the rest of us, I'm not writing about the 80/20 rule to discourage you, but to encourage you. To help you relax and not feel so desperate that you send a new book out to agents every six weeks. To help you understand that the 80 percent of your work never read is not wasted effort to grieve over, but fun, joyful practice that allows you to craft great stories for the 20 percent that sell. Remember it really is all about the journey, no matter where it takes you. Cheers~


Judy Croome said...

Nancy, lots of thought provoking ideas in this blog post. Publishing is a business, and a hard one at that. Recognisng that, and accepting it, does make a writer relax.

The interesting thing is that my writing has blossemed since I accepted that, as a (very)slow writer, the chances on me actually getting published are probably 20% of 20%. I still dream of being published, but realistically I don't expect to be published because my stories are not the kind that make money.

Great post.
Judy(South Africa)

Charlie said...

I can understand a low percentage of published to non published books for newer writers, but that's a surprising number for veterans.

As a new and unpublished writer, it's the love of creating stories that keep me going, not dreams of fortune!

Thanks for the post.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Judy,

You write beautifully. I love your stories. I have faith one day they will find a good home. Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Charlie,

Sad but true fact in today's world. Some really good midlist authors have to run four or five ideas (partial manuscripts) by their agents before the agent sees one they might be able to sell. Some authors get dropped in the middle of a series if the books aren't making the numbers the publisher needs.

As a multi-published author, it's the love of creating stories that keeps me going, too. :D So glad you are enjoying your journey. Cheers~

Linda Kage said...

That's amazing how accurate 20/80 is. I had to do the percentage for myself. I'm currently working at a 26% success rate. Spooky.

I'm one of those people that submit one story after another. But it's just so addictive. I feel lost if I'm not waiting to hear back from a publisher. Plus I figure you can't sell if you don't submit.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,

I did the same thing for years. Guess what, it worked 20 percent of the time. LOL. I'm not advocating slowing down on writing-because I'm a fast writer. I'm advocating relaxing and loosening up on the desperation of I HAVE to sell a book. It simply doesn't work that way.
By the way- congrats on your great reviews. Cheers~

~Sia McKye~ said...

Very interesting article, Nancy.

Publishing is a slow business. But I do think that aside from wanting to be published, you do have to enjoy telling stories. Enjoy the process of writing them and polishing them. Just as with anything else you want to be good at, practice is vital.

Think about it. If you play an instrument, or create artwork, or sew, for that matter. It takes practice to hone the skills. It doesn't happen by simply playing a song or doing a piece of artwork. As with anything in the arts, it takes lots of dedication and practice. Why should our writing be any different?

Each story you write from start to finish hones your writing skills. So, maybe not all will be published, but it's a step in the right direction.

Another thought. Look at some of your favorite authors. Take a look at their first book published, which you read and enjoyed. Now, take a look at the latest they written. If you're observant you'll notice that with each book they get better with creating a good story, and at conveying thoughts, describing situations, and dialog. Writing is a progression of developing skills.

Good post my friend!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Those are sobering and surprising statistics, but I like your advice to keep on writing anyway.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia, you are right- practice is why they call it a craft. :D Thanks for stopping by.

Hi Jane, Glad to see you.