Bad Science: Lifting the curse of "bad track"
The first property we bought was a disaster. It was a flat with the most beautiful floor to ceiling windows. It should have been a lovely home, but there was a problem, in the building. I moved in with my mother to try to escape it, while my husband painted walls through the night so we could sell it, fast. Eight months later we moved out. We decided never to buy a house again, instead to become life-long renters. Why? We clearly were no good at home ownership. We had already developed a bad track record, as property investors.
The first baby I had, Connie, when they put her slippery body up onto my bare chest, all I could say was "She's so beautiful" and she was, my eyes were full of wonder. But my labour had been 23 hours long, had nearly cost my baby her life near the end, and left a literal wreck of me. I decided never to give birth again. Why? Well, I had bad track, in mothering, already.
My marriage was a long road that took in some stunning views, some gorgeous long stretches, before it ended where it did. But I've decided never to get married again. You know why. Bad track.
Oh, and I've decided to avoid falling in love again at all costs too. Obviously: bad track.
I have this author – her first and second beautiful, intelligent books didn't sell well. Her publishers decided not to publish her ever again. Other publishers also told me it would be too risky to take her on. "With sales like these, her next book will be D.O.A. in the US," a colleague advised me, wearily. Why? Bad track, of course.
Only one of these stories is true.
Bad track, bad track. "Bad track." I never want to hear these words again. It's simply that I have heard them too often, already. Enough for one lifetime, one career in publishing. I'm done with them. Of course we all have bad track, in multiple areas, commercial and personal. And then we get up, brush ourselves down, change path, do different, hope for better luck, better help, better days.
Over the past ten years or so, published authors have learned to live in dread of developing bad track. Now that the majority of their book sales are recorded by retail-tracking companies such as Neilsen (who use the data to generate bestseller lists and also sell it back to publishers for analysis), information about sales of an author's earlier works has become one of the most respectable and accepted measures by which publishers assess whether or not to publish their future work.
But I'm exasperated by the way such data, when used with only shallow analysis, traps writers into cataclysmic failure. What are these false perceptions of what it takes to write and publish a bestselling novel?
There are many reasons why an author's last book might not have sold well (wrong jacket, bad timing, ill-judged title, poor representation, new sales director, too much competition, no marketing support, editor left, retailer went bust that week, are some I have heard) and most of these explanations have nothing to do with the quality or appeal of the text, unfortunately. And yet publishers' sales teams are aware that they are pushing against a very heavy door when they try to convince a retailer why an author's new book should be supported, even if their last book wasn't successful. And that is because, absent of the opportunity to know an author personally or to read their unpublished work, retailers rely heavily on stark data when deciding whether or not to order an author's new book.
I'm sorry that writers seem to almost always have to leave their editors in such circumstances. When a loyal editor can't transform her sales team's vision for an author's success after a disappointing debut or sales slide, publishers miss some of their best opportunities and many rewarding business and personal relationships are ruptured.
But it's not just misguided, to cite only bad track when considering whether to publish an author's new work, it's worse than that: it's bad science.
I hope I am not someone to boast, but for these purposes, allow me to tell you that I have been successful these past few years, and so have my clients, across literary and commercial fiction, women's fiction and crime, and you know what the common factor is between all of the most successful of them? They all have bad track. You want data? You want science? Study this. Every commercially successful author I represent has had bad track. Every single one had bad track until the book that was fought over by publishers at auction; until the book that became a bestseller.
I love publishing – I love our passion for words and our joy in sharing that passion together, I love the creative endeavour essential to putting books out into the world – but there are some aspects of our industry which frustrate me.
Like: publishers' passion for debut authors. I am a typical publishing person – I was a great book-eating girl who devoured six novels a week because that was the maximum number my local library would let me borrow. I am grateful to the prolific ones: to Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Enid Blyton and the authors of the Sweet Valley High series who fed my hunger. And yet often, the insatiable appetite that we all feel as readers manifests itself in us as publishers in the form of a desire for different, for new.
We thrill to the new – to 'debut' – like cartographers clipping fast into uncharted waters. What is it about our joy in writing that pulls us so strongly to 'new voices' and 'fresh takes'? It is as though we tire of the view of the world we know and yet, realising it is the only view we have, our quest is to seek new windows, new glazing, always. Will this author fix it, will this story answer us, will this book change my life?
It's not wrong for us all to want to discover new writers and to hope for our cultural language to evolve. But many debut authors are published with a marketing investment and with inflated hopes of success that are generated at a literal cost to other more experienced writers who are truly wonderful at their craft, and who themselves are developing and offering readers ongoing riches. And what is the only real advantage these debut writers have over their more experienced peers? No track.
(What of all the second novels? This is a literary agent's nightmare alright: hundreds of second novels, pressing against the bookshop doors, knocking to get in, with the big fat debuts cackling on the inside..."this was you, last year!")
As an agent, I look after authors not books: one of my responsibilities is to keep my clients in work, for life. And my experience is that when you offer a good writer loyal patronage, and creative partnership, and close reading, and serious study of where their interests and skills lie and how that intersects with what readers are looking for, then their books become not only the best books of their kind, but also commercially extremely successful. It might be an author's first, second, fourth or seventh book that becomes a bestseller. What I know is that they'll get there. If they're as talented and hardworking as I think they are, and I give them my support, they will get there.
I have been plotting with good publishers for years now to 'trick the system' in order to keep talented authors in print – often but not always through changing an author's name in order to relaunch them as 'debut'. It isn't as cynical a strategy as you might imagine. Actually my authors have tended to evolve towards the writer they most want to be, shedding pseudonyms and the bounds of genre-writing as they progress through their careers.
But recently an author of mine was pressed hard by a potential new publisher as to why she had decided to write under a different identity. "I think she's just trying to hide bad track," I was told that the editor commented afterwards. "Has this author written under another name before?" I was asked by a publisher in NYC recently, about a different client. "We have to inform our sales team if so. They don't like us to hide bad track – it's not deemed to be honest." Wait: are these retailers and publishers now suggesting that an author's poor sales are innate to their very being? That, no matter the book, the genre, the date, the publisher or the author branding, if an author has experienced poor sales success before, they have to carry that failure (that failure on the part of others, who failed them) around their neck like a stone, always?
For book lovers browsing a shop looking for a new piece of fiction, every book might satisfy the hunger for the new. Any previously unread author, is 'debut' to such a reader. My writer, whose brilliant first two novels were bought by so few, is an ideal person to introduce to such a book buyer for the first time with her third novel. Her readers frankly couldn't care less that her last two books weren't merchandised in their local supermarkets. So what?
In our data-rich society, we have to learn to get smarter as data analysts. Sometimes we have to ignore the data altogether. And sometimes we need to stop and check we're in possession of all the facts. Now that you know that all my bestselling authors have bad track, you can see that the most exciting thing I could send you tomorrow would be a book by an author who has never found favour before. Just as the best decision my husband and I ever made was to buy our little house in London – the second property we owned, a beautiful home in which I gave birth to my second child, my lovely boy. I'm just about to walk out the door with him and his sister now. I'm not intending to hang my marital history round my neck on a warning sign as I walk up the road. I'm the great book-eating girl. I know I can write my own story again, and again, and again. Let's go again.
The illustration is made up of copies of Winter Road I (1963) by Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe painted the winding road to her New Mexico home over and over again.