Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hedging Your Bets (or, Why, God?!)

I'm feeling for all the authors and would-be authors out there today. I don't envy you guys one little bit.

My secret boyfriend Michael Chabon (like, well, many others) declares that the secret to literary success is the trifecta--luck, talent, and hard work.

Fine, fine. Talent and hard work, yadda yadda. Wait for a second, though--let's go back to that first one.

Luck. That merciless bastard, Luck.

This is the thing about publishing you didn't prepare yourself for (how could you have?): all your hard work and talent may very well amount to absolutely nothing at all. All that matters is that you hedge your bets correctly. You know--roll snake eyes... let me count... at least six times in a row.

First: Hedge your bets about your writing's readiness. You--you and no one else--have to choose the right moment to try to shop the right book that you'll ever write to be your debut. Is your manuscript ready to attract an agent? Or do you need more time?

Some authors carefully write and then sit on 23 manuscripts before finally submitting their 24th to great success; some submit their first and have great success. And of course lots of people have no success at all. But the point is, what you don't want to do is end up in the initially tantalizing but ultimately disasterous scenario where somehow your book gets picked up by an agent, then by a house, only to fail in bookstores. Because then, you know, it's harder to sell your second book than it ever was to sell your first.

Second: Hedge your bets that you've chosen the right agent. You know, one who has the right connections to the editors who acquire the kinds of books most like yours (but without being SO like yours that they won't want another). Do you go with the absolute most impressive or famous agent on your list? And maybe risk getting stuck in their midlist? Or do you go with a lesser-known agent whose best friend is the editor at the imprint by which you're most dying to be published? What if you only get one offer from one agent, but that agent is very young and is only starting to make connections? Do you accept the offer in hopes of getting a deal, period, regardless of where or on what scale you're published?

Third: Hedge your bets that you've taken the right manuscript development suggestions from all the cooks spoiling the broth. You wrote a novel; your crit group tore it apart. You rewrote it; your friends tore it apart. You rewrote it; your mother tore it apart. You rewrote it; your agent suggested 15 rounds of changes. You fought for some things, were flexible about others. All right. Now let's reflect--your book is 5% of what it was when you started. Fantastic. Are you ok with everything that's happened? Is it still a book that's true to you and what your initial dream was?

As an editor, I'm always the one telling people their initial dreams need some, uh, reconstructive surgery. That said, I do totally see the author's side. You only get to be a debut author once, and people are poking and prodding you in the direction they think will make you most likely to succeed. Are they experts? Yeah, some of them. Are experts ever wrong? Yeah, sometimes.

Fourth: Hedge your bets that your book is ready to submit. Here's the thing. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, an editor will only look at your manuscript once (that is, unless they saw some real promise there and specifically say they want to see it again). So obviously your agent is going to start submitting to your first-choice editors/houses. What if they all reject you because your manuscript wasn't ready? Or because they see it going in a different direction? How can you hedge your bets that your manuscript is closest to what your dream house would want without overriding your vision for your book?

Fifth: Hedge your bets on a publishing house and editor. Do you take that small offer from your absolute favorite house ever and risk falling by the wayside in their bottom midlist? Or are you better off at a small house with an enthusiastic editor (and, um, teeny-tiny distribution)? Where are your odds better? What if that editor ends up leaving or being dropped? How can you guess which options feel better as you're vetting? What if your only offer is one you're not enthusiastic about at all? Is it better to take it for the sake of being published, even not the way you dreamt, or should you hold out and try to write another book?

Sixth: Hedge your bets on your rights sales. Do you let your publishing house have World rights? Is your agent going to be able to sell those foreign and subrights her/himself? If you retain foreign rights in hopes of making more money, what'll you do if you can't sell any of them and end up just not seeing your book in any other countries? Crikey.

* * *

I do seriously sympathize with authors on all these fronts; I have a lot of friends who are authors and I've seen all of them go through these various jams (most people will run aground at one stage or another). Luckily (ha!) we here have one another, and the advice and ideas we share, so we've made a little of our own luck.

But do keep in mind these are all things to think about as you go rushing ahead. Don't be afraid to ask questions; the more knowledge you have, the luckier you'll be.

Also, in the wise words of Marge Simpson, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don't be afraid to ask for help and attention at each step of the way. (You know--just be nice about it).

And as a final word, be your own advocate. The people who are most self-sufficient and proactive tend to be the luckiest. By default.


Brian F. said...

The last paragraph frightens me. There's a fine, fine line between tenacity and insanity (note the number of letters they share).

moonrat said...

Good point, Brian.

Hmm, I wonder which one I am?

Heather Hansen said...

Wow. Awesome advice.

Have I told you today how much I love you, Moonrat?

Kristan said...

Oy... that's a scary way to start my day. o_O

But it's doable, right?

Time to get to work on that trifecta...

JM Donahue said...

Great post here,as usual, so thanks.

I've always liked that old adage, "luck is when preparation meets opportunity."

I think part of the preparation process for writers is acquiring the knowledge you need for when that opportunity comes along. Patience is the real hard part.

RAK said...

OMG I LOVE Michael Chabon. I heard him, his wife, and Nathan Englander at a fundraiser this fall and fell in love. All three are brilliant and captivating.

moonrat said...

JM--i REALLY like that--luck being when preparation meets opportunity. perfect.

RAK--i just read nathan englander's story collection, and was thinking about buying MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES. have you read it? (i really dug his hair in the author photo.)

Juliana Stone said...

Moonie, you are once smart mouse! Crap, you should write a book chalk full of writing advice...I'd hedge a bet it would do well!


Anna Claire said...

A much-needed kick in the pants. Thanks Moonie.

Now I'm a little bit freaking out because reading your post made me really face up to a secret fear: the manuscript I'm querying is not the book I'd want to be my debut. Crap. Surely I'll get "lucky" and all the agnets will turn it down so I can come back with an even better book ;)

moonrat said...

Anna Claire--I like your glass-half-full strategy :)

JES said...

Luck, talent, hard work, maybe some more luck and opportunity and persistence and--- (i really dug his hair in the author photo.)

Sheesh. Give us some whiplash, why dontcha?

Anyway, on-topic: If you do the math it can be almost immobilizing. Say 5% (or whatever) of authors have enough talent to be published, and 5% of them will work hard enough, and 5% of them will get an agent or know somebody else to give them a foot in the door, and 5% of them will be lucky and/or persistent and/or whatever... all that dribbles out at the end is, like, a percentage with 20 zeroes to the right of the decimal point, followed by a 1.

The word "patience" doesn't even begin to cover whatever that bottom-line percentage of writers had to go through to get where they are.

(Which is why having and nurturing good relationships all along the way is so important: at least you'll always have the comfort of being surrounded by great people who, like you, depend in some way on your success as a published writer -- just as you in some way depend on their success as another link in the chain.)

Leigh Anna said...

I don't sympathize with myself at all. Aren't editors hedging their bets as well? And agents? And for that matter, publishers? Last I heard, some tiny fraction of the books published actually make money for the publisher after the advance, the salaries of the editor, assistant, copy editor, proofreader, cover design team, publicist, printing costs, electric bill, etc. Some books go really big and cover the cost of the little ones, but with the exceptions of some bestselling authors, no one knows which ones.

In other words, the whole industry rests on odds akin to gambling in Vegas. I knew that going in. If it scared me, (ok, in my bad moments it does scare me) I'd go be an accountant.

All I can do is take care of the things I can take care of and if I'm very lucky, at the end of the day I'll have made my editor and agent's track records look better and kept the publisher's lights on and printing presses going so we can all move forward on my next book.

Pamala Knight said...

*Sigh* Thanks for this timely and wonderful bit of encouragement today. I'm stuck on that white hot line between editing and rewriting the completed manuscript that I won't send out yet and scribbling down the passages from the next work that keep popping into my head. Once I get myself, and all the voices inside my head (yes Brian, a VERY fine line) marshalled then I will make a decision and jump headlong into the fray.

Wish me *luck*

Jo said...

Excellent post! Thanks for this!

Merry Monteleone said...

Luck. That merciless bastard, Luck.

Moonie, you should be writing slogans... or tee shirts...

There is a great deal we don't have control over - so the best we can do is take responsibility for the things we do have control over, and have faith we'll get through the rest of it.

MaLanie said...

Thank you for insight, Moon.

As a new writer I am completely overwhelmed by what I read about the publishing industry.

I just want to write/enlighten the reader and sell a book. That is it! I do not want all the crap that goes along with the publishing world.

I am seriously considering self publishing. I do not mind marketing my own product. The more I watch the success of The Shack, the more I am leaning that way.

The problem I come up against is 1) I have no objective feed back and if I did ask my friends I would offend them as they are of the religion my character discovers is a hoax. 2) I have no industry contacts what so ever! (I have an excerpt on my blog if anyone wants to crtique it!I really have no idea if my book is bad or good.)

There is a self publishing contest ending May 29th; winner gets a $2,400 BookSurge publishing package. That includes, editing, conver disgin, Amazon placement. This contest is sounding better and better everyday.

Charles Gramlich said...

I worry too much about luck when I should worry more about things I can control

Rick Daley said...

Must keep trying. I am determined to find success if it does not find me first.

Stuart Neville said...

Great post. I know luck has been a huge factor over the last year or so for me. To echo what others have said, all you can do is make sure you make the most of the things you can control so that when luck does call you can take full advantage of it.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Good advice. Thanks.


Luck and insanity

E. J. Tonks said...

I'm not hedging *any* bets--no way! I slogged through grad school and waited until someone came to me and said, "Wow--you need to publish this."

Crimogenic said...

Moonie, I always figured that eventually my luck will get better :)

Katherine said...

The third point is the most awesome use of repetition I've read in a while. I'm definitely marking this post under favourites! Thank you.

Kim Kasch said...

I love this advice. And, I got it all at a price I could afford.



cindy said...

wonderful post!

and i've come up with a new acronym :


yes, thank goodness for moonie! =D

elladk said...

To MaLanie: Take a look through the posts at for some very useful advice about the pros and cons and pitfalls etc of self-publishing - you can never do enough research into all your options!

Also, and I'm just curious, so don't take this the wrong way - if you can't show your friends your book now for fear of offending them, what's going to happen if you ever do get it published? Are you never going to share your work or your success with them?

Colorado Writer said...

Thank you Moonie.

Cat Moleski said...

What a wonderfully thoughtful post, Moonie. I submitted my manuscript to one agent after a few rewrites, thinking it was ready, but it was not. After letting it sit for a while, I was able to see the many flaws in it. Now it feels much more ready, yet your post has me thinking again about whether or not I want this story to be my debut, or maybe I should move on to rewrite my next story and let this one sit some more. I don’t even want to think about all the other lucky alignments that must happen.

Lafreya said...


Sometimes you 're lucky when you don't get what you think you want.Sometimes when things don't work out, it really is for the best. Also I think you are right

"The people who are most self-sufficient and proactive tend to be the luckiest. By default."

jjhoutman said...

Great questions.

When will you post the answers?

Jolie said...