Proposals vs. 2-book contracts vs. writing on spec

One of things we talked about at our authors dinner last night was selling a proposal vs. having a 2-book contract (where the second book is unknown). I’ve never had a 2-book contract, but a number of my most recent contracts were sold just on a proposal.

I always thought it would be better to have a 2-book contract than simply an opportunity to sell a book on proposal. A 2-book contract means the publisher really believes in you and wants to keep working with you. But one of the people last night said she had a 2-book contract and she’s sent in FOUR manuscripts since that first book, none of which was “right” for the publisher. That would be really stressful for me.

Maybe it is better to sell on a proposal? I’m still secure in my knowledge that the publisher believes in me and wants to keep working with me…and as an added bonus, I know they actually want what I’m working on!

The only problem with selling a book on proposal is sometimes when you start writing you end up wanting to take the book in a whole new direction from what you proposed…that’s what happened with Yes, I Know the Monkey Man. My editor wanted the book I proposed, not the book I actually started writing. I was really at a loss when she didn’t like where I was going. I started to wonder whether selling a book on proposal was really so wonderful. Maybe it would’ve been better if I’d been writing on spec? Then I could write the book however I wanted to write it…but of course, I may never have sold it.

In the end, I resolved the issue by asking my agent to read my original proposal and my brand new proposal…my agent agreed with my editor, so I went back to the original proposal. It took me a while to get back into it…I really mourned that new proposal (the story that would never be). And then when I did get back into it, I was almost too stressed to write because that deadline was looming and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I’d wasted too much time going off on my tangent. Fortunately, there was plenty of time built into the schedule, so even though I missed that first deadline, the book did not have to be pushed back. And ultimately, I’m happy with how the book turned out.

My agent has been waiting patiently for me to finish something new that she can shop around to “bigger” publishers (a new publisher isn’t going to to give me a contract on a proposal)…and I’ve been fantasizing that maybe if I got in with a larger house, perhaps a 2-book contract would come my way? But do I really want that 2-book contract? Do I even want to work with a larger house?

I guess as long as my current publishers are willing to give me contracts based on proposals, I have no reason to go elsewhere. But in this economy (plus there have been changes at both houses I’ve sold proposals to), will they still be willing to give me a contract on just a proposal?

Maybe it’s good to work both fronts? Hmm…I think that means I’ve got my NaNoRebel goal. I’ve already got a proposal sitting at Peachtree, so we’ll see what happens with that. In the meantime, I will finish my series proposal for Albert Whitman and I will revise I Am Anna Winkler so my agent can hopefully send it out. I don’t know if it’s realistic to accomplish both those goals in November or not (I haven’t even reread I Am Anna Winkler in well over a year…and I don’t know when I’m going to get my last chance to fix anything that’s wrong with Yes, I Know the Monkey Man, nor do I know how long that’s going to take me)…maybe I should shoot for finishing these two things by Christmas?

11 thoughts on “Proposals vs. 2-book contracts vs. writing on spec

  1. I’ve done both. The difference between selling a book on a proposal and getting a blank contract is that with the proposal, you have to write THAT book. With the blank contract, if you realize the book isn’t working out for whatever reason, you can switch more easily. The only book I sold on a proposal was my third book, NOTHING TO LOSE. Halfway through writing the book, I really was less excited about it and already had an idea for my next book. I ended up putting down NTL, writing a quick draft of the next book, then going back to NTL. That worked out okay, and NTL was well-received, but I still sort of felt trapped. I was happy to get blank contracts for my next several books. This also enabled me to change directions, with BEASTLY, without having to worry about getting it approved beforehand when I had no track record. Some authors prefer no contract at all, until they sell the book, but I like knowing that my publisher wants another book from me.

  2. Intersting post, Dori. My agent (and the whole agency in general) tries to get that 2-book clause deleted whenever possible. And if they can’t, they put a time limit on how long the pub can hold and “consider” that 2nd book. I’ve heard so many horror stories of pubs who hold that second book (which usually isn’t a sequel) for a year or more, so the writer/agent can’t shop it elsewhere. I don’t mean, of course, that they’re holding on to it for that purpose, but that’s the effect of it anyway.

    A 2-book clause sounds so terrific on the surface, but it’s really no guarantee for an author, and it’s simply an obligation. Most agents I’ve heard speak (as well as prolific authors) don’t care for them.

    Of course, it’s great when you have a good relationship with an editor. Anything that seems to be possibly a good fit for my Clarion editor certainly will get submitted to her first! So she’s getting right of first refusal anyway. It’s just that we’re not at the mercy of waiting for a yes or no forever before deciding whether to move on.

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