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?

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

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

  • October 30, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    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.

    • October 31, 2008 at 1:52 pm

      I like knowing publishers want more books from me, too.

      So with your blank contracts, did your publisher always take the next book you gave them? I assume you started with a conversation about what you were working on or maybe even a proposal…you didn’t just write the next book and turn it in?

      The person I had dinner with the other night (who has the blank contract) writes picture books. I hesitate to say it’s probably easier to write a picture book than it is to write a novel (it isn’t for me), but it’s probably less time/energy for her to keep turning in picture books to meet that contract than it would be for you or I to keep turning in novels.

      • October 31, 2008 at 2:02 pm

        I have an ongoing relationship with my editor. We’ve done 7 novels together. I talk to her about ideas and send her bits and pieces of things I’m working on, to get her opinion along the way. She has 95 pages of a book right now. The only things I’ve written that they haven’t published were things I wasn’t confident in. She gave me advice about rewriting, and I thought, “No, that won’t work” and put it down and wrote something else that I was more excited about and that turned out better. They’ve never rejected anything I thought was publishable, or that I’d send to anyone else. Sometimes, I’ve thought, “Oh, I’ll go back and rewrite this later,” but so far, I never have. Once, I put the main character from a book I didn’t finish into another book. Another time, I turned a few chapters from a book that didn’t work out into a really kick-a** short story.

        I think picture books are different because there are a lot of rejected ones for each one that works out. Friends who write PBs might write 10 for each one that gets published. So it doesn’t take as long to write each published book, but the time in-between publishable books is similar because there are so many that didn’t work out. It’s more trial and error, and the ones that don’t work often can’t be fixed, ever. Most PB writers I know expect rejections, while most novelists are devastated by any rejection that comes after their first publication.

        • October 31, 2008 at 2:17 pm

          You know, that’s true! I haven’t had a novel rejected since I sold my first one. I HAVE had picture books rejected. (Actually, what I’m hearing is “hmm…this isn’t quite right, but I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong. Let me hang onto it a little longer and see if I can figure it out.” And then I never hear anything.) I’ve been thinking that writing picture books just doesn’t come as naturally for me as writing novels (I’ve also been thinking I’ve been INCREDIBLY LUCKY with my novels), but maybe this is the way it goes for both picture book writers and novelists?

          I never once thought that the person from dinner had “lost her touch” or anything like that…she’s a wonderful picture book writer! And a pretty successful one, too. Instead I thought, “what’s wrong with that editor???” It sounds like what’s happening to her is pretty common…and hey, she’s got a pretty good guarantee that this publisher will publish at least one more book with her…eventually. (She works with other publishers, too.)

          Thanks for sharing…when I first read your first paragraph I thought, “wow, I wish I had a relationship like that with my two novel editors.” But maybe I do? I send them proposals and they give me the go-ahead. And they do both ask me what I’m working on (usually when they ask, I’m working on something for the OTHER editor).

          • October 31, 2008 at 2:25 pm

            Your relationship with your editors sounds fine. I’m sure it would be cool to have two editors, so you wouldn’t feel like all your eggs are in one basket, but I’m really not prolific enough to deal with more than one at this point.

            I don’t have what it takes for PBs either. My worldview just isn’t that rosy, I think is part of it. I think if I put the effort into it, I could probably write leveled readers, which I think have much the same goal as young-adult novels, to keep kids reading. They can have a bit more edge too. But between my ongoing novels and all the traveling, I haven’t really had time to try anything new.

          • November 2, 2008 at 1:16 pm

            Ha! You said…”My worldview just isn’t that rosy”…maybe that’s my problem, too? I’m not sure my worldview is all that rosy, either. I try…but it doesn’t always work out.

            I’ve written a lot of leveled readers for educational publishers, though. I really like doing that. Even though in a sense I’m more limited by vocabulary and sentence structure, I don’t FEEL limited. Voice actually comes easier for me.

  • November 4, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    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.

    • November 4, 2008 at 7:34 pm

      I don’t know how my agent feels about 2-book contracts (so far I haven’t given her the opportunity to sell something to a new publisher…the contracts she’s handled are contracts I got on my own). But I do have a friend whose agent seems to push for 2-book deals. (There’s no joint accounting…and I don’t think there’s even anything stated in the contract about whether or not the editor can hold onto the new manuscript forever…it’s just a commitment to publish another book and an advance for that book.)

      I don’t know…the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it’s better to have the kind of relationship with your editor/publisher such that you can sell on a proposal. Even though you get an advance for that second book upfront, it IS still an obligation…and if the publisher isn’t wanting the manuscripts you’re turning in, it can tie you up for quite some time.

      • November 4, 2008 at 10:23 pm

        You know, I think I misunderstood and spoke too soon:>) I was talking about that thing where the publisher has first dibs on your second book, but DOESN’T actually contract and pay an advance for that second book. I can’t remember what it’s called right now, but it’s not the same thing you were discussing. Sorry about that! My brain is falling apart yesterday and today:>)

        • November 5, 2008 at 5:26 pm

          Ah….that’s the options clause. And absolutely you want that removed from a contract (or you want to limit it as much as you can).

          Options clauses can be nasty. I walked away from a deal (years ago) where I was offered no advance and the options clause was worded such that I was required to send them ANYTHING I wrote, but they didn’t have to make a decision on it until one year AFTER publication of the first book. No way!!!! Talk about bringing your career (not to mention your chance to make any money) to a screeching halt.

          • November 6, 2008 at 4:09 pm

            Yeah, that’s it (blushing). Wow–their contract stated a year after PUB of the first book. Geez. That is a horror story.

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