Monday, April 18, 2011
Debut Novel Expectations
My debut middle grade novel has been out for a few months now, and I must say, the initial numbers are discouraging. It makes me wonder if I had unrealistic expectations in the first place. What are reasonable expectations for a debut middle grade novel? Can you share some thoughts on what a successful debut might look like?
This is such a great question that I thought I’d talk about it here, because so few debut authors have any idea on what to expect, either experience-wise or sales-wise. This is made even worse by the fact that so much of official marketing and promotion is about smoke and mirrors: it’s about making the book look more popular and ‘must-have’ than perhaps it really is.
So how can authors possibly gauge how well their book is doing? As we've touched on in a couple of recent posts (one by agent Erin Murphy and another by Sarah Prineas) there are so very many expectations a publisher might have for a book, and how success is defined by your publisher (and therefore you, to some degree) will depend upon those.
Middle grade novels in particular, rarely come out of the gate with the same big splash potential that YA novels can engender. I’m trying to think if any middle grade debut novels have ever hit a bestseller list. J. K. Rowling did, and so have Rick Riordan and Jeff Kinney, but not right out of the gate with their first book. Their first books did get there eventually, but it took a while. Okay, I just quickly consulted the PW 2010 Kid's Book Sales list and there are two: Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger.
This is in large part because the end user isn’t the one buying the books, and is, in fact, not very plugged into the information streams along which books news travels. It takes a while to get word out to the gatekeepers, and then passed from the gatekeepers on to young readers. Younger middle grade novels can take even longer to find their audience because their niche is so specialized (emerging, independent readers) who stay at that reading level for only a short while.
Some publishers know this and actually plan for it, knowing there will be a slow-but-steady build for a given title. Other publishers, however, do still acquire books intending to use the Spaghetti Against the Wall approach (throw a bunch of stuff out there and see what sticks). Which is one of the reasons you hear so many insistent voices saying that the authors themselves must promote, promote, promote. And why others insist that authors write such a kick @ss book that the publisher will be compelled to do something different.
Part of your expectations will have to do with the size and nature of your publisher. Some publishers are big, bestseller producers, some are more backlist builders, and others are small independent publishers trying new things. This is where the advice and knowledge of an agent can be invaluable—recognizing what sort of book yours is, then matching it to the right type of publisher.
With middle grade especially, the first book is about laying the groundwork for your career. Because middle grade builds much more slowly, there are less flashy initial expectations. Especially when in hardback, the biggest initial consumers for these books are libraries and schools, and the wheels of book purchasing in institutions move slowly.
With the huge popularity of YA, the sales expectations for those books often come closer to the immediate gratification expectations of the adult book market.
The most commonly mentioned gauge of success for books is earning out the advance. Most publishers of middle grade books will be very happy if the author earns out the advance in the first 12 months. Some are happy if it earns out in the first 12-18 months. To know how many copies your book will have to sell, divide your advance by the per book royalty rate. If your book sells for $15.99 and your royalty rate is 8%, that’s a $1.28 per book. If your advance was $7,500, you need to sell about 6,000 copies to earn that back. If you get a $2,000 advance, your sales expectations are probably more in the 1500 copy range.
However, I have also heard that publisher can make money even if your advance doesn’t earn out, but I’m guessing that is for the larger advance amounts. I really don’t know where that profit/no profit line is for any publisher or specific book.
Many times with middle grade books, publishers will give an author a couple of books to build their readership, again because the advances tend to be lower and it takes a while for the gatekeepers to become aware of the books. They also know that if readers like your second book, they will often go back and look for your first book. Note that this is not a rapid trajectory to the bestseller lists, but a slow steady way to begin building a career.
This also gives you the time to lay the groundwork/foundation of your promotional efforts through making contact with librarians and schools, doing a few visits, building your new skill set. Very little of this can be done prior to having the book out, and then these connections don’t bear fruit overnight, so again, slow and steady is the keyword here.
Another thing to keep in mind here is that, unlike adult books, which are usually given about six weeks to take off, there are many opportunities for upticks in sales for kids books. State lists, reading lists, book club sales, book fair sales, etc. all provide additional chances for something good to happen. (Can you tell I'm an optimist?)
If you have an agent, see if they can have a conversation with your editor about what in house expectations are. If the editor isn’t forthcoming, then you will just have to rely on the first print run numbers being the best indicator of their expectations.
To show your publisher that you are, indeed, using this time to build your career, make up an overview of everything you are doing or have scheduled to promote your book. I would update them every six months on this so you keep them in the loop but don’t overwhelm.
And lastly, write that next book and see what ways you can push yourself and grow as a writer and make it even better than the first.