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"Real careers are built stepwise."

I want to share an excerpt from Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s interview with Jonathan Galassi, part of the brilliant Agents & Editors series in Poets & Writers. Mr. Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

If you agree with what Mr. Galassi is saying below, you’re the type of writer I want to work with. Either way, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment section.


You’ve lamented the blockbuster mentality that’s arisen in publishing, where it’s become easier for a publisher to sell a first novel and harder for an author to build a career over a number of books that sell modestly. Can you speak to that for writers?

Suppose I had written a first novel that five publishers wanted to publish and the range of offers was from fifty thousand dollars to four hundred thousand. I probably wouldn’t go with the fifty-thousand-dollar offer, and I might well go with the four-hundred-thousand-dollar offer. But I hope that I would think through how the publisher was going to try to make that money back. What’s the publisher’s idea of what to do with my book? Of course if you’re a young person who has never made a penny and all of a sudden somebody offers you a lot of money, you’re going to take it. You need it. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the right thing to do.

Why?

Because if your book doesn’t do well and earn that money back, or make a credible showing, you’re going to have a harder time the next time. That’s why I think the old system was better. Forty years ago, your agent would likely have sent your book to editors one at a time, but even if it was done as a multiple submission, the differential between the offers would not have been as great. The choice would be made on other bases. I know that this may sound self-serving, but I do think that real careers are built stepwise. I still believe that. And I haven’t seen a lot of careers built the other way. I think a lot of agents, especially younger ones, feel that the commitment the big advance represents is what’s going to bring the author success. But I don’t think that’s true.

On the flip side of the world of huge advances is the midlist writer, who is really struggling today because of the computer and the sales track. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and, knowing what you know, tell me what you’d do to try to change your fate.

Most books have to be midlist because only a few can be best-sellers. If you’re a serious writer, you should be writing the books you’re going to write.

But what if you have some ambition, as all writers do, and really want a readership and think that you deserve one?

If they deserve one, they’ll get one. I believe that. I believe that eventually they will get their readership. Now, I also think there are way more people writing books than are going to get a readership. But I think that the books that really make a difference are going to have a readership. It may not be immediate. There are many examples of writers who have labored in relative obscurity for a long time until their ship came in. Look at Bolaño. His great success is posthumous and not even in his own country.

Writing is its own reward. It has to be. I really believe that. This is a part of publishing that’s really hard to come to grips with. But publishers can’t make culture happen the way they want it to happen. They can stand up for what they believe in, and they can work to have an impact, but in the end it’s like the brilliant thing that Helen Vendler said about poets. She was asked, “What’s the canon?” and she said something like, “The poets are going to decide what the canon is. The poets who poets read are the canon.” I think that, in the end, that’s true about all literature. The books that people read over time, and keep reading, are the books that matter. We can huff and puff and pay money and advertise and everything else, but in the end, if the readers don’t come, we can’t do anything about it.

A few years before FSG was sold, you said the company was doing well because it wasn’t able to play “the money game.” Now that you are able to play the money game, and sometimes do pay big advances, why would you say you’re doing well?

I think we’ve stayed pretty close to our mission. I think we’ve become more focused as a publisher. With regard to big advances, I’ll tell you a dirty little secret. I think that very often the big advances you pay, at least for a company like ours, don’t end up having the result you want. Sometimes you just have to pay them. But the real successes, which make the difference in our business, don’t come from the books for which we pay big money. When we pay a big advance our job is to earn back what we gave the author so that we come out clean—basically break even or make a small profit. Whereas a book where we start much lower, and go a big distance, is much more mutually profitable. That model is also much more what we ought to be about, I think.


Read the interview in its entirety here. I definitely recommend a subscription to Poets & Writers.



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31 comments to "Real careers are built stepwise."

  • Wow Chris. I just read the entire interview and following comments. As you can imagine this is very timely for me. Thanks for running this amazing interview. It really shed some light on the industry. I can only imagine having an editor like Jonathon Galassi.

  • Hey Chris,
    Thanks for the Chuck Adams link. I’m going to shoot you an email with my thoughts.

  • The blockbuster mentality sounds a bit like packaging a pop star with one song that does well and then they disappear into obscurity as a “one hit wonder.”

    As a serious writer I’d prefer career longevity.

  • I agree with you Cynthia, slow but sure is fine by me. Also, like Mr. Galassi says, writing should be its own reward.

  • I also love the process. I love how the book comes together like some unique puzzle, never quite what I expected. It’s the little twists and turns (and sometimes big ones) that rock my world.

    • So true, Greg. It’s like you’re reading the book for the first time. I love when my characters take me somewhere completely unexpected!

      PS- Checked out your website. Surfer aye? I should’ve been a surf baby but fate landed me in Sin City.

  • Robin B.

    Hi Chris,

    I just found your blog.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Galassi. I remember reading an article on Anne Tyler – how her first several novels were quietly received; how her reputation was built slowly but solidly, and now, of course, she has an exellent reputation, and a large group of loyal readers.

    The same could be said for Cormac McCarthy, whose reputation as an excellent writer long preceeded his reputation as a writer who was able to command a large book-buying audience. Seems to me most people I know who’ve read The Orchard Keeper have read it after they read The Road, and went back to explore his early works.

    I absolutely agree that a writer should write for the satisfaction in the act of communication that is writing, and that, as Mr. Galassi said “Whereas a book where we start much lower, and go a big distance, is much more mutually profitable.” The mutual profity part really appeals to me.

    It concerns me that aspiring authors may no longer be given long-term development as an option. And I’m guessing you already know why – I’ve written a novel; am polishing it currently.
    I’ve had a short excerpt from it published and another being published soon.

    • Hi Robin,

      Welcome! What you say about aspiring authors no longer being given long-term development as an option is a bit cynical, in my opinion. I think most publishers are still very interested in building their authors’ careers over time. There is so much backlist/long tail revenue to be made from quality books that are built to last, and I suspect that publishers in general prefer that to the flavor-of-the-month. It is true that there is a lot more media out there to compete with, books and otherwise, and thus lots of variables that affect the ability to grow an audience. Careers fade for so many reasons, and plenty of those reasons have to do with the author. Above all, it’s important that the author produce top quality material consistently. (And by consistently, I don’t necessarily mean a book per year.)

  • Robin B.

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry if I seemed cynical. What I’m feeling, I suppose, is wistful, and if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, that it is possible to do build a career, as the title of your post mentions, stepwise.

    My comments were based on the interviewer’s first question set-up to Jonathan Galassi:

    “You’ve lamented the blockbuster mentality that’s arisen in publishing, where it’s become easier for a publisher to sell a first novel and harder for an author to build a career over a number of books that sell modestly.”

    If you’re finding that’s not the case, I’m happy to know that.

  • Robin B.

    P.S. Just saw that I’d have gotten (at best) a C if the comments I just made were graded for grammar. I was on a phone conference while typing, if that ‘gets me forgiven’!

  • I’ve had the experience of reading fantastic first novels from certain authors, followed by very good second novels, just-okay third novels, and so on, successive novels becoming almost entirely formulaic and predictable, but always churned out on a regular basis. Of course, publishers have to make a profit, but it seems that some are more interested in turning out bestselling products than they are in the quality or integrity of the books they’re publishing. I especially hate the idea of authors having to conform to certain specifications: sex by a certain page, etc.

    • I agree that certain specifications, like the example you mention, are bad practice. I also agree that some authors get caught in the formulaic cycle—but it is almost always partly their doing. It’s important that authors go into publishing deals with eyes toward the future, having a clear vision for the type of career they’re after.

      • Patrick S

        Don’t know that being formulaic is an immediate sin for a writer. Several authors (e.g., Daniel Silva, Alan Furst) write provocative series based on repeat characters and themes. What’s frustrating are the formulaic authors who seem to forget the simple credo: write well. The frustration being that nobody, either on the agent/editor/publisher end or the audience, seems to care. As if an honest critique were anathema.

        The result seems to be a dead zone between brilliance and mediocrity for what gets published nowadays. Hardly a healthy environment for developing future talent. And a good explanation for why the writing industry went on life support over a year ago.

        btw: agreed on the agent/editor interviews on P&W. For any novice writers out there, it’s a great (and free on the website) resource to find out about the industry from those directly in it.

        • Hi Patrick,

          I agree that being formulaic is not an immediate sin, and I hope I haven’t given the impression that I feel that way. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that writers need to approach their prospective agents and publishers with their eyes open, knowing the type of career they are after. If you sign a three-book deal as a result of a fantastic thriller your agent submitted to publishers, you’d better realize that you are now a thriller writer in the eyes of that publisher. Book Three cannot be a memoir of your summer picking grapes in Napa.

          I disagree, however, about the writing industry being on life support. There are exciting new voices being published every year, and plenty of authors releasing quality books consistently.

  • Hi, Chris. Yes, I really like this and a quote I saw yesterday from Jim Ingraham: “If the reward of your work is something other than finding the right word, building a solid paragraph, turning out a well-crafted story, then you miss the true rewards of being a writer.”

    If I did this because I wanted a six-figure salary, I’d probably write either non-fiction for CEOs or what I churned out would scream of soulless graft.
    I like soul. LOL I certainly don’t mind a good paycheck to come with it, so I’ll shoot for writing what I love and hope both the soul and the writing are quality material in the end.

  • Kate Britton

    Hi Chris and all those commenting above.

    This is my first time checking out this blog. I am a brand new author, not yet published, and like probably any brand new author with dreams, certainly dream of the big payoff! But if I’m really honest with myself, my real dream is to keep writing. I have found in my life that so long as I am focused on my heart, finances keep flowing, and that when I have been focused only on finances, everything else is lost. For me, in a most dramatic fashion. Upon reading my memoir you would definitely know this to be true. There, got my plug in. Still, as a new writer who is learning about the query process and the dizzying ins and outs of the industry, to take a long distance view is helpful. I do know one thing, I very much want to be able to keep dropping into that spelunkers’ cave (hey, that’s my name for it) of words and images, emotions and realizations. I know I have found my calling. In the end, so long as the bills get paid, the car runs and responsibilities are met – plus, maybe being able to afford the odd doctor’s visit – the payoff is in the thrill of crafting, molding and shaping words and seeing others eyes light up or maybe laugh at your experience. Yeah, it’s pretty good.

    • Thanks, Kate—well said. I especially like: “I have found in my life that so long as I am focused on my heart, finances keep flowing, and that when I have been focused only on finances, everything else is lost.”

  • John Brown

    Hey Chris, thanks for the posts. I am trying to find those words today, the rewards you were talking about. Let’s just say that some days are richer than others.

    • Some days are indeed richer than others, and as hard as it may be, try not to despair on those more modest days. Writers comprise one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps some of the writers reading this have a suggestion or two for you about how to turn those modest days into rich ones.

  • Hi John Brown,
    When the words don’t come, it can be brutal. When this happens to me I walk away from my computer and let my characters work things out. If I listen carefully they will let me know where they’re heading. Just stick with it day after day and everything will come together. It’s a long road, but the only one we know.
    Best,
    Greg

  • Ray Fuentez

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for making this interview available on your blog. It was truly inspirational to read Mr. Galassi’s comments and to learn that, to one man, at least, it is still mainly about writing as an art form worth pursuing for its own sake.
    This is my first visit to your blog, but it won’t be my last, GW.
    Warm regards,
    Ray

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Ray,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this interview. As I’ve said, that whole series is great and I’d recommend reading all of them if you’re hungry for perspective from publishing insiders.

      Thank you for the kind words, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the future!

      Chris

  • The thread Mary Witzl started about successive novels becoming almost entirely formulaic and predictable is very interesting. I love the way Rick Riordan writes formulaic and well-crafted YA novels, such as the Percy Jackson series and the new Egyptian series (basically the same formula)while continuing to publish in other genres. In contrast, John Flanagan’s YA series, The Ranger’s Apprentice, reads as if his publisher is making him write something he really doesn’t want to. The series is successful, my own son continues to read it, but all craft disappeared by book 3. An author has to want to spend the effort on a series to make it good–but sometimes the publisher doesn’t seem to care.

  • Jerry Beers

    Hi Chris,
    I picked up your name from Writer’s Digest. From that my wife put your blog before me. For the last hour I have been absorbed by that revelation – absorbed and encouraged. I appreciate learning that there is still a possibility for success beyond personal satisfaction.

    Although involved in a variety of activities since retiring, writing has been my most fulfilling exercise. The genre has varied from historic, philosophic and memoir to fiction. It is fiction that has been the most challenging and fulfilling, but I find it all being heavily influenced by my own life’s experiences.

    That brings up a question. A good friend who was a book store manager told me the best sellers were ‘how to’ books – mostly ‘how to’ better one’s self – personal development, economics, etc. He said the flip side of the coin, writings on ‘truth’, ‘morality’, ‘ethics, etc. were not of any interest. The latter, he said, were not necessarily ‘preachy’, just that such could not reflect on ‘straight’ living.

    Is this the way you see it?

  • Chris Kepner

    Hi Jerry,

    I apologize for not responding sooner. I’m glad to hear you’ve found writing to be a source of fulfillment in retirement. As for your question, while how-to books certainly have their audience they are not by any means the only bestsellers. In fact, it’s not every day that a how-to book is in the top fifteen or so.

    “Writings on truth, morality, and ethics” is a pretty broad category, overlapping both fiction and nonfiction. I would say there is certainly interest in these types of books, as these themes are at the heart of most stories and human beings by nature crave stories. I suspect you might have meant more serious nonfiction writings on these themes, and if that’s the case then it’s true that the path to a wide audience is tougher. But that is not to say there is no interest.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Chris

  • Shaun Ryan

    A writer friend of mine sent me a link to the VSA site and I found this blog. You just got bookmarked, Mr. Kepner.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Galassi’s philosophy. The insight his honesty and experience offer into the publishing industry is priceless. And I’m a big fan of long term thinking.

    “If you’re a serious writer, you should be writing the books you’re going to write.”

    Amen.

    Of course we writers want to make the time and devotion and sacrifice, the emotional and intellectual investment writing requires, as profitable as possible. But I think that as a primary goal, money is secondary. It certainly should be and is for me.

    I dream of making my living writing because I love it so and love stories and the art of storytelling. But I was a reader long before I ever wrote a word. Of the thousands of books I’ve read, only a fraction have touched me deeply, have stuck with me over the years to the point that I find myself revisiting them again and again. So my goal as a writer is to write stories like that. I want to touch strangers I’ll never meet, to make them laugh and cry, rage and rejoice, sigh in contentment when the story is told and yet regret that the last page has been turned.

    To do so with the power of words, with emotions and hopes and dreams and fears and regrets that I’ve poured straight from my heart onto the page, to share my view of the world, that is magical. And to actually get paid for it? Is there a better definition of “fulfillment?”

    Mr. Galassi has given me a great deal of hope that such a thing is possible, that there are still editors and publishers who value something better and more human than a maximized bottom line.

    And you, Mr. Kepner? Hey, anybody who recommends Bill Frissel is okay in my book.

    Great blog, sir.

  • Brittany A

    Hello Chris,

    Thank you for sharing this excerpt. In the age of the instant gratification epidemic, Mr. Galassi’s emphasis on long-term decisions is refreshing.

    Yes, real careers are built step-wise. One of those steps for aspiring writers is establish an online presence, before even submitting to an agent. Put up a website. Accumulate a following on Twitter, and on a blog. It’s understandable that agents and publishers prefer to invest in an author who has an audience.

    But as I have learned from my experience in the modeling industry, web presence can make and break you. There are many vindictive people with too much free time. Such people may create fake profiles of you, featuring you in an unflattering light that can ruin your reputation before you’ve even created one.

    How can aspiring authors build their platforms, and protect themselves against defamation?

    Thank you for your advice, Chris.

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