One of the panels I watched during the recent Nebula conference was on rebounding — making a comeback after your career has had a setback. I found it rather reassuring to see that people I thought were successful had been through some kind of change or setback, and they’d all come out of it in some way.
I’ve had a bunch of “careers” along the way. I got a quick and early start, selling my first book to the second publisher I sent it to. It was a small press that distributed only to libraries, so I didn’t make a lot of money on it, but it was a foot in the door. I sold them two more books in short order. I’m afraid that this gave me a very unrealistic view of publishing. I’d sold everything I’d written and only had one rejection. I probably sounded like that scene in the movie Legally Blonde in which the blond sorority girl gets in to Harvard Law School so she can follow her ex-boyfriend and get him back, and when he’s astonished that she got in, she scoffs and says, “Like that’s hard.” People would talk about how tough it was to get published, and I’d think, “Like that’s hard.” That impression continued when I sold a book to Harlequin — a big publisher. I did have a little struggle after that. They rejected the next couple of proposals I sent, but then bought another book.
Soon after that, though, career #1 came to a crashing halt. My editor left publishing and New York, and I got passed around to other editors. The line I’d been writing for folded, so there really wasn’t a place for me at that publisher. They were trying to edge all their books to be “hotter.” Even the remaining “sweet” line wanted a lot more sexual tension than I could write well. I don’t know how many proposals I sent them, but none of them sold. My editor ended up sending a manuscript back to me (after months of back and forth of edits) with a photocopy of an article about a book called Bridget Jones’s Diary, the business card of an agent, and a note saying “I think you could write this kind of thing, maybe turn this book into a single title.” I did talk to that agent. She was encouraging about my writing, but she said she thought what I’d written was the perfect category book and she couldn’t imagine trying to sell it as single title. The “chick lit” books hadn’t yet taken off in the US, but the contemporary romantic comedy books were doing well. I don’t think Bridget Jones had even been published here, so I was assuming it was like the contemporary romances with cartoony covers.
I spent some time rewriting that book, found an agent who liked it, and she submitted it to a few publishers. They rejected it, but asked to see something else. I wrote something else, but never heard anything from any publishers. I now wonder if that agent even submitted it because I’ve since talked to the editors who supposedly had it, and they didn’t remember seeing it. After working with a different agent, I know that you get an answer, one way or another. An agent doesn’t let a book sit on an editor’s desk for a year with no response. Around that time, the chick lit craze hit the US, and I thought that was actually a better fit for that book, so I revised it for that market and sent it to my agent. The next thing I heard about that book, a package landed on my doorstep four months later. It was that manuscript (back in the days when they were still doing hard copy, not electronic submissions) with a note handwritten on top of my cover letter saying, “This will never sell.” I sent the certified letter firing that agent that day, not because she didn’t like the book, but because of the way she handled it.
I wrote a number of proposals and shopped them around to agents and editors. Finally, I was at a conference and chatting with an editor about this crazy idea I’d had about a chick lit story with magic. The editor asked to see it, and I wrote Enchanted, Inc. That editor didn’t buy it, but I got an agent and the book sold, six years after my last publication. Thus began career #2.
Enchanted, Inc. came out to very positive response, went back to print, and the second book did well, too. I got another contract for two more books. Things seemed to be going great. And then they dropped the series. I wrote a proposal for something different, and no one bought it. I wrote A Fairy Tale with the idea of having something to submit to those editors who wanted something like Enchanted, Inc., but I wasn’t really happy with it and put it aside to think about it.
In the meantime, the Japanese publisher wanted more Enchanted, Inc. books, so I wrote book 5. Then I got the idea for Rebel Mechanics and wrote that. It didn’t sell to the fantasy publishers, so I revised it as YA. It still took another year or so to sell, and during that time I wrote book 6 of Enchanted, Inc. I finished A Fairy Tale and it went on submission, but it didn’t sell. Around this time, my agent convinced me to publish the Enchanted, Inc. books myself. This may have been careers 3 and 4, happening simultaneously — young adult and self publishing.
Career 3 tanked pretty quickly when the publisher didn’t want more books (never mind that the book got great acclaim and was put on a number of state library reading lists). Career 4 is still sort of limping along. I’m making a living, which is good, but am not wildly successful, and I doubt I’d be able to sell a book to a traditional publisher right now. I may be poised for career #5 when I try mystery. We’ll see what happens there. But there are a lot of ups and downs in this business, and I’m not sure you can ever really feel like you’ve made it and can relax. I guess maybe if you have a massive bestseller that gets made into a movie and the publisher then wants everything you write you can relax, and if you make enough money on that book, it doesn’t matter so much if the next one tanks. It would be nice to find out. The main thing I keep reminding myself is that you only really fail if you quit.
I suspect that this kind of career is pretty common. I’ve learned over the years that even authors who seem to be doing well have had a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, getting dropped by publishers and agents, having to start over again with something new, going through rejections even after some success. In fact, that’s probably more common than the people who hit it big with their first book and just cruise on after that or those who have a slow, steady build without any setbacks.