Monday, April 18, 2011

Debut Novel Expectations

Dear R. L.

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.


kathrynjankowski said...

Lots of good info here. I'm wondering, what is the average initial print run for debut middle-grade authors? Thanks.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Great post as usual, Robin.

Print runs can vary widely depending on the middle-grade genre; whether its fantasy or humor or historical or contemporary or a girlie book. And the sales figures will also vary from 2,000 - 100,000 if you have a book called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. :-)

I's a tough question to answer because MG novels *are* a slow burn. It's my personal belief that sales also depend hugely on reviews, too. Starred reviews will lead to more of those school/library sales, which is the staple for the trade hardback. Especially when budgets have been cut so badly the past few years.

It's a nerve-rattling time. I've been there the past several months and just got my first statement. Hardcover sales are so-so (good reviews, but no stars), but Scholastic put it into the Book Fairs in January and it's doing extremely well there which I'm VERY excited about.

I'm still hoping for more hardcover sales though and fingers crossed for those wonderful state lists as well as the official trade paperback in September.

So there are many ways a book can earn out, not just in the original hardback edition. Fortunately! Oh, and writing the next book is the most important thing you can do. Amen! :-)

Natalie Aguirre said...

This is such a great post. I'm an aspiring middle grade author and I see for one thing how much harder to get buzz on the Internet than YA. It's good to have a perspective on it. There are a few blogs out there that focus on middle grade which helps. Shannon Messenger started a Marvelous Monday series that some bloggers are doing. I only blog once a week on Monday at Literary Rambles and try to interview at least one middle grade author a month.

Perhaps you could post some links to blogs we should follow to get more in touch with middle grade school librarians, etc., to help promote our books.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Natalie: Talk to your local Barnes and Nobles about their "educator days," when they invite in teachers and librarians. They often have local authors in to talk about how their books can be used in the classroom.

Live events (local book fairs, festivals) also seem to be a good for MG authors--even more so than for YA authors. These events tend to draw families with younger children. And there are many local book fairs and festivals: network locally, talk to local librarians and bookstores, and look at your Chamber of Commerce's calendar.

For MG, I would also work on curriculum guides to show how your book can be used in the classroom.

This is all if you want to do promotion. It takes time away from the writing, so it all depends what works for you.

bfav said...

Love this. Thanks for the post. Agent Joe Monti (who previously worked for B&N) said Holes and Gossip Girls were the first MG/YA novels to have huge numbers in their first year.

I agree, it is all about marketing to help those numbers. Writers need to find ways to reach librarians, parents, and kids. I've heard school visits are very effective for MG.

Laura Ruby said...

Great post, Robin! I agree that MG needs more time to move through the layers of gatekeepers -- which include librarians, teachers and parents -- down to the readers. Someone mentioned educator days at bookstores: sometimes these events offer CPDU credit to the teachers, so those are worthwhile events to look into. Speaking at local, state, or national library and teacher conferences can interest these important gatekeepers in your books, too especially if you offer teacher's guides or ways in which your book can be used in the curriculum. School visits are definitely a great way to reach readers directly, but if you're not a good traveler, I think Skype visits are an option. (I haven't done any Skype visits, but I'd love to try some).

Natalie said...

I love that you're an optimist, Robin. :-) Thanks for the concrete suggestions on how to get the word out about our middle grade novels!

Jean Reidy said...

Loads of great information here - in the post AND in the comments. Thanks to all. It does make sense to me that MG sales are slow and steady. Because unless the book has a huge author name or a blockbuster movie potential attached, the promotion will be a build of positive reviews and word of mouth and author visits - and all of that takes time.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Karen, print runs can be all over the map, from as low as 2500 up to 40,000, depending on the publisher's expectations and pre-orders. A great resource for looking up this info is which compiles a bunch of publisher's catalogs which include print run information. One thing to be aware of, however, is that for some reason, publishers always report about twice what they actually intend to print. Not sure why that is, but it's been confirmed from a number of sources. So if the print run says 20,000 copies, there's a good chance they're planning on printing 10,000. Just another publishing quirk, I guess.

Kimberly, I agree that MG is more review-dependent.

Natalie, SO glad this post was helpful in understanding what to expect! And I like your idea of posting such links, I just don't know of any. Other violets? Do you have such links?

Thanks for all your great suggestions, Jen and Laura! In the next week or two I plan on posting about what DOES seem to sell MG. I'll be talking about some of this stuff more.

bfav, yes. In my experience, school visits are one of THE most effective ways to connect with readers. The problem can be *finding* the gigs in the first place, especially if you have to work around a day job.

You're welcome, Natalie. :-)

Sarah Stevenson said...

The other difficult part about school visits (or library visits) is finding places with the money to offer an honorarium. So many schools these days (especially in California) just can't, but as a debut author, I feel it's still worth my time to do some visits at no cost. I also feel like it's taking something away from the students to be asked to do a school visit and then refuse simply because they can't afford to pay--especially if it's nearby.

Sorry, that's kind of off topic! Back on topic, it's interesting to hear about debut numbers from an MG perspective. I think a lot of this applies to debut YA books, too, particularly those that don't get released to a lot of hubbub. I'm grateful that my publisher doesn't seem to be overly pushy or have unrealistic expectations about numbers. Not that I've noticed so far, anyway! They also have reminded me that official, reliable numbers don't materialize until several months out, and anything I might run across (e.g. via my Amazon Author Central page) is to be taken with a grain of salt and not to be panicked about. :)

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I agree with the previous comment that there's a subset of YA also characterized by this slow but steady growth, in which authors can benefit from reviews, state lists, teachers' guides, and school visits. My YA historical novel, originally published by a small press, built sales slowly and steadily, and I was fortunate that the larger publisher that acquired the small press's list kept the novel in print long enough for it to make the state lists and to take advantage of sales from awards. It's now in its third printing, two years later. The lesson I've taken away from this is to write the best book you can and shoot for those awards, because in the end you'll have work that you can be proud of, whether or not it ends up being a bestseller.

Wordcaster said...

Great post. I'm also an aspiring MG writer and there is a lot of good information here. YA seems to have the advantage of it crossing over into adult readership and also better opportunities for eBook sales. I now see that MG has its own promotional opportunities as well.

Aisha said...

Came here via Rachel Gardner and LOVE your website. I'm more of an introvert and am finding your tips very helpful. Thanks!

R.L. LaFevers said...

aquafortis, that is very true. So many schools have had their budgets SLASHED. I'm finding Skype visits a good alternative.

Lyn, you make an excellent point-- create something you're proud of, regardless of its potential bestsellerdom status.

Wordcaster, YA does have a big advantage with a lot more crossover adult readers and being able to reach one's audience directly through the internet. I am hearing more and more anecdotes about MG readers being given Kindles and loving to read on those, so maybe MG will see some expansion in the ebook area as well.

Welcome, Aisha! So glad you found us1 (And thanks to Rachelle Gardner for the shout out.)

Jan Markley said...

Great post, lots of good info. I agree, as a middle grade author, it's all incremental and builds the brand, especially if it is a series.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Fantastic information--thanks, Robin! I'm bookmarking it for future reference.

D. L. Cocchio said...

Hi Robin,
I enjoyed your article. As an author of two MG novels, I agree with you that the sales are indeed slow. I am doing everything but pulling a rabbit out of my hat. But with each new event, I sell a little more. We are all after that golden carrot, but I think that for the majority, it is a long uphill battle. Never-the-less, I am determined to make it to the top.
Thanks for sharing with us.
Debbie, aka D. L. Cocchio

Scott Bly said...

Hi Robin --

thanks for the great info. I know it's older, but it's still relevant! My debut middle grade, SMASHER, just came out a week and a half ago, so I'm trying to figure out how to gauge my own expectations. :)


scott bly

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