Lead-Time and Instant Expectations by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Quite a number of writers have a successful first book, possibly even a second… and then fade into obscurity.  There are several reasons for this.  The first is obvious.  The fact is that later books often just don’t sell as well, either because they aren’t written as well or because they just don’t hold the readers.  From what I’ve observed, publishers will publish books that even editors aren’t that fond of, or decent books where the author is a real pain in the ass – if they sell.  They’ll also continue to publish books that get great reviews and that editors like, even if the sales are disappointing, but just not disastrous.  But if an author is obnoxious and the books don’t sell that well, usually that author’s career with an established publisher is rather short.

But there’s another reason why some authors fade after a few books.  Some authors never truly understand the lead-time problem.  These authors, from what I’ve observed, share similar circumstances.  They wrote a book, often working on it for some considerable time.  Then it sells, and they get the advance, usually in halves [on signature and on publication] or thirds [on signature, on acceptance of the final manuscript, and on publication].  What many fail to recognize is that this may be the only money they get, because, if the sales aren’t good, the royalties won’t exceed the advance, and the advance is just that, a non-returnable advance against royalties.

This means that a writer had better start working on the next book immediately after finishing the first one – or resign himself or herself to staying at the day job forever.  Publishers really want the next book in hand or close to being in hand by the time the first book is published.  Yes, a few authors do flout that convention and expectation and get away with it – but only because their first book continues to sell, and that only happens, so far as I can see, in less than once in a hundred times.

Part of this inability to recognize this situation, I submit, is that computers and the internet have fostered the idea that everything can be accomplished faster. And that’s true in part for writers.  Having a computer file available as the basis for re-writes and revisions makes that part faster, but it doesn’t speed up writing the first draft that much from writing on an electric typewriter.  Since I wrote my first books on electric typewriters, and likely remain among the comparative handful of writers still writing who did, I can assure you that revisions and re-writes are much easier – and that the computer only speeds slightly that first draft.

So… if you’re fortunate enough to sell that first book, do not pause; do not relax and celebrate for more than a few days before you get back to writing.  You don’t want the editors or your few fans [and most beginning writers only have a few fans] to forget about you.

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