Russell Rowland

Costly Errors

May 24, 2017

About fifteen years ago, I made what turned out to be a costly error in judgement. Harpercollins made me a generous offer on my second novel, which I hadn’t written yet. But I was still flush with newly published writer egomania, to that point where I wasn’t quite satisfied with their offer. For one thing, I was hoping the second book would come out in hardcover, for reasons that I can’t even explain now. But it was important to me at the time. After meeting both my editor and my agent for lunch to talk about the offer, my editor told me that he thought he could probably come through with the hardcover deal if we waited until I finished the book. But that meant I would have to turn down their current offer. So I did. And I’ve been paying for it ever since.

There were two things I didn’t know at the time. One was that you can never count on an editor, especially a young, recently hired editor, to stay at a major publisher. The second was that once you are in with a major publisher, you should never cut ties with them unless you have a very good reason. Mine was flimsy at best, based on my own ego and greed. And the predictable happened. Right about the time I finished the novel, my editor announced that he was sorry, but he was leaving Harpercollins. The editor that he referred me to was not interested.

The other thing I didn’t realize at the time was just how much your sales can be boosted by being associated with a major publisher. Although it has been a scramble since then to get my books out there, I have been more fortunate than many, but the results have been a fraction of what they were with that first novel, with its national distribution and press. I was reviewed in the Times, and made the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list.

But perhaps the most painful cost of this error has been the shift in respect that came about because I was no longer affiliated with a major publisher. Apparently there is a club, and I had no idea how lucky I was to be part of that club. Oh, I was thrilled to be published, and very proud that Harpercollins had chosen me. I knew the odds. But I did not realize that if you step away from the club, your chances of ever being accepted again are infinitesimal. Because the assumption is always that you must have failed them somehow or you’d still be there. And of course, these decisions are also based on the numbers, and when your next few books are published by small presses, the numbers don’t work. So you’re stuck. Your numbers will never be what they were, and it’s not based on talent or quality, or how nice you are, or how easy you are to work with. It’s all about the numbers.

I recently contacted my first agent, the one who negotiated the deal for my first novel, and asked him whether he would consider working with me again on the new book I’m writing, which I am hoping will get me back in the door. My last book has made something of a mark, at least in terms of a small press book (it has still sold a fraction of what my first book did), so I thought that momentum might work in my favor. But he wouldn’t even look at the book. He looked at the sales from the last few books and said straight out, “No one will buy this.”

I know this is a luxury problem. I know there are thousands of writers out there who would give anything to be in my position. I’ve been fortunate. So I’m not complaining. But I wanted to tell this story for another reason. Most people assume, and I certainly did before I got involved in this business, that once you have a few books published, you are probably raking in the dough, and that getting the next one published is a given. I recently got the biggest royalty check I’ve ever had since my first novel, and it was for a grand total of $3000. For six months. Anyone who can live on $500/month, raise your hand. That’s what I thought.

So if you ever wonder why some of us are constantly trying to promote our books, it’s not because we’re trying to add more millions to those we already have. It’s because we’re trying to survive. It’s because we’re hoping against all odds that we might just be able to sell enough of the most recent book to attract some interest for the next one. It’s an uphill battle every step, and I know very few writers who aren’t in the same boat.

I have one more item on my agenda here, and it’s to apologize to anyone that I treated with that smug arrogance of being published by a major publisher. Because now I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that snobbery. The people in the club seldom realize they’re being snotty, I think. But there’s a natural assumption, and I remember it well, that you are in the club for a reason. And that others are not in the club for the very same reason. So now that I know this not to be true, I would like to apologize to the Richard Wheelers of the world, to the Matt Paveliches, the Adrian Jaworts, the Aaron Parretts, and the Tami Haalands. These are people whose writing I greatly admire, and they are people who carry themselves with much more dignity than many of the people in the club. Of course there are exceptions there, too. I have many good friends who have managed to be in the club without letting it go to their heads, people like David Abrams, Kim Barnes, Larry Watson, Jamie Ford. I treasure these friendships.

So please be kind to your writer friends. Please don’t expect them to give you copies of their books, because those copies cost them money. Please don’t hold it against them if they talk about their books more than you would like. They really can’t help themselves. Because it’s pretty much all we think about.