Perseverance

- by Laura Resnick

My new urban fantasy novel, Doppelgangster, is a good example of why I always say that perseverance is the single most important quality a professional writer needs. It took me over a decade to get this novel into print. (I was, meanwhile, selling and writing other books.)

I first wrote the proposal for this fantasy series in the 1990s. My then-agent sent it to three houses. They all rejected it. The agent retired the proposal, refusing to send it elsewhere or to discuss the matter further. Urban fantasy was a dead subgenre, the agent said, and that was that.

As urban fantasy subsequently became more popular on television and then in fiction, I broached the subject of my series several times with this agent—who either ignored me or else bit my head off. So the Esther Diamond series gathered dust in my trunk (figuratively speaking) while I continued writing other books.

For many reasons, I finally left that agent. I soon thereafter started submitting the Esther Diamond series. It picked up several rejections, but got a good multi-book offer from a major house within a couple of months. In a decision which I now regard as ill-advised, but which seemed to make sense at the time, I hired another agent (my fourth), who negotiated the on-the-table deal.

My editor was wonderfully upbeat about the first book, which was very gratifying, since getting this series under contract had been a long haul. Unfortunately, though, the book was published with a very weak cover, no marketing or promotional support, and was released in paperback in mid-December—the worst time of year for a paperback novel aimed primarily at women (who are buying for everyone but themselves in the 2-3 weeks before Christmas). The book, called Disappearing Nightly, disappeared overnight.

Publishing is a highly competitive and largely unforgiving business.  The poor sales figures which naturally resulted from the publishing factors described above ensured that the publisher canceled my contract while I was working on the second book, Doppelgangster.

So the series had lasted all of one book. (However, I thought that, given the circumstances, being dumped after just one book was for the best. I believed this series could be salvaged with just one “failed” book on its rap sheet; but I knew that it couldn’t possibly be saved if the same publisher had poorly published the second book, too. Esther Diamond would have died permanently, in that case.)

Meanwhile, my (fourth) agent now all-too-clearly viewed me as a guest who had overstayed her welcome, so that association ended soon after my contract was canceled.

Despite the weak sales figures on the first book and the spiraling condition of the publishing market, I still believed in the Esther Diamond series. Unfortunately, none of the literary agents whom I now queried believed in it (or in any of the other work that I showed to them).

Finally, I gave up on agents (permanently, as it turned out) and started working on selling the next Esther Diamond book, Doppelgangster, by myself. I researched the market, and I came up with a list of names for my first round of submissions, which I sent out.

In less than a month, I got a multi-book offer from a major house for slightly better money than my (fourth) literary agent had gotten me back when this series was shiny and new, rather than dragging around weak sales figures from a badly-published first book.

The new publisher, DAW Books, a respected fantasy house which has been around for years (and which is part of the Penguin USA publishing behemoth) was tremendously enthused upon acquisition and has consistently maintained that high level of enthusiasm for Esther Diamond throughout the publishing process for Doppelgangster, which was released about ten days ago. They’ve done a terrific job of packaging this book, and they’ve given it tremendous marketing support and attention.

The next Esther Diamond book, Unsympathetic Magic, will be released in summer, and Esther’s fourth adventure, Vamparazzi, will be published next year. DAW will also reissue the first book in the series, Disappearing Nightly, with a new cover (publication date TBA).

So that’s all it takes. Stick with a project through multiple agents who don’t want to handle it, multiple publishers that reject it, a badly-published first release, a canceled contract, and more submissions and rejections… and you, too, can be “lucky” enough to have a book published!

9 comments

  1. I found “Disappearing Nightly” back when it was released and picked up a copy. (There’s always room in my budget for a book that sounds fun, even at Christmas.) I picked up “Doppelgangster” earlier this week. I need to re-read “Disappearing Nightly” to refresh my memory of this particular fictional world, and I’m looking forward to settling in with both of the books in the next couple of weeks, after some of my immediate “must do” projects get finished and I have time to just read. I’m in the middle of “Monster Hunter International”, and your two books are the next ones up.

    It’s been a while since there has been a rush of books out that I’m excited about, and now I have MHI, plus your books (one a revisit, one brand new), plus the impending releases of Joan Hess’ “Merry Wives of Maggody” and Stephanie Laurens’ “The Elusive Bride” this month. Thanks for kicking off a fabulous January for me, Laura! Also, I’m stoked to see that there are more Esther Diamonds in the pipeline. Sweet! Thanks for your perserverence.

  2. I needed to hear this message of perseverance today. I have a question about your statement, “… my (fourth) agent now all-too-clearly viewed me as a guest who had overstayed her welcome…” How did you know this was the case? Did she say it outright, did you find out the day she canceled your contract, or were there visible clues for a while before that day?

  3. Sherri, there were a LOT of clues. For example, after the cancellation, the agent was the ONLY person in my life who was NOT saying, “But this is a great series, it can be rescued, so you should send out the next book.” In fact, for about six weeks, people kept saying to me, “What is your agent saying about this?” and I had no answer, because my agent wasn’t saying ANYTHING to me, though it was a crisis point in my career, the sort of crossroads where one would expect an agent to be engaged and strategizing with the client. When -I- sent a long strategy letter. It took the agent more than a week to response… and the response was brief, impatient, and dismissive, essentially making it clear that there would BE no strategizing or discussion. One obvious reason, it quickly turned out, was that the agent was completely unfamiliar with the material–hadn’t read DISAPPEARING NIGHTLY, didn’t know anything about the series, its tone, or its structure, or why it might still be marketable elsewhere. It was clear that the agent would half-heartedly send the MS out to a few houses if I really insisted, and that was all. And, indeed, in terms of any NEW work I wanted to discuss or present, it was also now quite apparent that the agent was overall unfamiliar with my writing or my strengths as a writer, and just not interested. (Ex. I pitched some ideas. The response I got was, “Can’t you write something like [insert title of any trendy favlor-of-the-week bestseller here]?”)

    And so on and so forth.

    And when I sent a polite letter saying that I had decided it was time for me to leave, the response was essentially, “Good, I’m too busy for this.”

    LauraR

  4. Sherri, P.S.– FYI, I’m doing a blog here on Ninc on Feb 12 about why I no longer work with agents (the above story is a very good example of it). Meanwhile, there’s an interesting discussion over on friend-of-Ninc Dean Wesley Smith’s blog this week about agenting myths: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=720

  5. I think that once you come up with a title like ‘Dopplegangsters’ it is hard not to write the novel about it. It’s such a great title that it almost encapsulates an entire series within itself – well done!

  6. I’ve never understood why any publisher would pick up a book, then give it a poor cover and no marketing. It costs money to pick up a book or a series, yes? Why spend the initial money to buy the book or the series, then take a crap in the other aspects of the deal? You’re basically dooming the book and ensuring that you’re going to take a loss. And then, of course, all the blame seems to get heaped on the writer.

    Is it simply that publishers don’t know what they’re really doing, and it’s all guesswork? Is it that even good publishers have poor employees working for them, and if you get your book in the hands of the wrong employees, it’s done? What factors foster a business environment where potential profit-making ventures are immediately consigned to the loss bin by default, simply because not enough energy and capital is put into the venture in the first place?

  7. Iva, thanks!

    Brad, for a MUCH more detailed look at how books get packaged, you can go to my website, where I’ve reposted a 5-part series of articles I wrote in the 1990s about this. It’s a little dated now, since there’ve been so many changes in technology, but probably 90% of it is still valid: http://sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Book%20Covers.htm

    Meanwhile, there are many avenues to explore in response to your questions about HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN? (and there are several hideous covers posted on the above webpage, as well as good ones), but the short version, most suitable for a reply-post here, is probably something that Tom Doherty, founder and head of Tor Books, says often, which is that every single book that’s published is a new-product launch, and if you know anything about business, you know that most new-product launches fail. If you liked the last bottle of Ivory Dish Soap that you bought, the odds are very very high that you’re going to like the next bottle of Ivory Dish Soap that you buy. Whereas if you liked the previous Laura Resnick novel, it’s still a complete toss-up whether you’ll like the next one. (This is why one of the most common qualities among bestsellers is consistency–a high level of probability that anyone who liked the author’s last book will also like the next one.)

    And whereas Ivory Soap only gets a packaging make-over once every few years, EVERY SINGLE BOOK PUBLISHED gets a new package. Stastistically, even with the best will in the world, a percentage of those packages just won’t work.

    Additionally, the most talented, ambitious, and competitive people in commercial or graphic design and in marketing aren’t often attracted to publishing, where salaries are low and opportunities are pretty limited for them. When you’re looking at a Michael Jackson album or a bottle of Ivory Soap, you’re looking at a design package and a marketing campaign that was the beneficiary of a LOT more work hours, time, attention, and planning than a publisher is able to give to any of the hundreds of midlist books it publishes in a given year with a small staff and a tight budget.

  8. Thanks for all the feedback, Laura. Hmmmm, I’ve got some artist chops in addition to being a writer. One thing I want to do — as a WOTF winner — is also win IOTF. I wonder how improbable it is for me to try and be the creator of my own covers? I wonder if this could be worked into any contracting language, that in addition to the text of the novel, I provide the cover art as well? Better me — who can do it and who will actually care about it — than someone else. But then, this might be too far beyond the box for most publishers and they’d never go for it. (shrug) I shall click your link and go read.

  9. Thank you for the unexpectedly encouraging tale! And I agree with Ivan Pope – the “Doppelgangster” title is a hook all in itself!

    I’m curious about how you chose to go it alone after parting ways with agent number four. Newcomer that I am, I’m concerned that without an agent I’m bound to make some serious rookie errors (including those marketing mistakes you’ve alluded to!). Did your prior experience with publishing sway your decision to become independent? Would you recommend that new novelists find agents to help promote their work or is it possible to go it alone (with a boatload of hard work and perseverance, of course)?