Lots of nonfiction and even some fiction sells before a single word is ever written. Time was, it was reserved mostly for published authors who had a track record. It made sense because editors had a comparison of the author’s writing, and they had a ready-made audience.
Nowadays authors who have no track record are trying to sell their unwritten nonfiction. As an editor, I find this irksome because I’m never quite sure what the end result is going to be. Sure, I look at the chapter outlines and hopefully see a chapter or two, but that’s still not the same as seeing the entire manuscript.
In fact, I find it so irksome that I turned down a project today from a very nice agent who has a very nice client who has a very nice story. It broke my heart, so I’ve asked the beagle to fire up the blender and add an extra hit of beer and grand marnier to the tequila and limeade.
So why did I make that decision? Because the two times I’ve bought unfinished works, I ended up letting them go because the authors didn’t provide me with the story I thought I was getting. See, it’s hideously easy to sell an idea, but it’s quite another to follow through with the end result. I had long conversations with these authors and we were oh-so clear on the vision of the book. When I got the finished product, I wondered who had been at those meetings. In both cases, I had no choice but suggest major overhauls. They both declined to provide those rewrites, saying they were happy with what they’d given me.
So even though I’d spent thousands on cover design, selling it to the sales and marketing guys, getting it into the catalog, writing up marketing and promo materials, I had zippo to show for our efforts.
Unhappy doesn’t begin to describe my emotions.
I understand the logic of selling a book before it’s written. Ostensibly one uses the advance to support oneself while writing the book. It’s also a way of testing the marketplace before investing the time to write the book – a way of saying, “Yeah, ok, I guess it’s a good idea after all.” But in this age of declining advances, most authors still need their day job. If it doesn’t sell, then no harm, no foul, financially speaking.
But is that necessarily the case? I think back to the agent I turned down today. She might be able to sell it someplace else, and that would be great for the author. But what if she can’t? Will the author just let the idea die? I can’t think of a worse fate than a book unwritten. I mean, the idea was there, burning a hole in his soul, so will he go ahead and write it anyway, or will he just walk away?
I know we could go nuts playing the “what if” game, but what if he writes it? Maybe it will sell…to me or someone else. So I guess the question I’m tossing out into the great Literary Void is this: Is it better to write than to never have written at all?
I know, sounds corny, but I have to consider the literary itch that’s getting scratched by sitting down and writing the book – regardless of whether it sells. Sometimes the satisfaction of accomplishment and completion is enough. I also think about the lessons learned through writing that book – whether it sells or not. As I’ve said before, it’s all a journey, and that includes the manuscripts that might end up under the bed. I can’t help but wonder if authors who seek to hit the bull’s eye every time are shortcutting their efforts by basically saying, “well, I’ll write only what I sold.”
We are mostly a “write on spec” industry these days – meaning that we write our books without the promise publication. We write, we query, we pray to the Literary Cosmic Muffin, and we learn. So if you’re torn between trying to sell your book before writing it, also know that you might be closing some doors. We editors want to see how your stories unfold, the organization, the flow, the pacing, the development. I’ve learned the hard way that chapter outlines look fabo on paper, but they don’t necessarily cut it.
Or am I crazy? (don’t answer that – I’m being rhetorical)