Wednesday, January 06, 2010

High expectations

by Stacey

It occurred to me as a publishing professional reading this painful review of Elizabeth Gilbert's new book that there is a case to be made for unpublished authors having certain advantages over bestselling authors. No track record can be a very good thing when it comes to selling books. Granted, it's very hard to get noticed in the slush pile given the volume of submissions agents receive, and if you are lucky enough to find a good agent who will fight for your book, the hurdles to get it sold are often high and daunting. But let's say you get there and the book becomes a huge runaway hit. Then what? How does one follow up a success like Eat, Pray, Love, arguably one of the most successful books of the last decade? It sounds like from the descriptions I've been reading about Gilbert's experience, not easily. She wrote and trashed an entire draft of this book (I wince every time I think about the author, the editor, the publisher, the agent, and what they must have gone through during this grueling process), and based on Maslin's review, it sounds like she might have been better off doing the same for the final! For all the money and fame, there are real challenges that come with having a hit like Gilbert did, and while the book has certainly made her a millionaire and this follow-up is likely to have strong early sales based on name alone, it sounds like it might wind up being a disappointment because the expectations are just so high. Once you hit that mighty bestseller list, the conversations get more complicated, and the pressure to perform and beat the last one can be challenging at best and impossible to achieve at worst. Sometimes the dream is better than the reality, but isn't that often the case in life? If you are able to enjoy and savor the process of writing, stay focused on the positives, work hard and passionately despite any obstacles you might face, there's a lot to be grateful for doing what you love, especially at the start of a new year.


  1. Lovely post. Disappointed about a bad review as I just forked out money for the audio yesterday! I listened to Eat, Pray, Love 3 times on audio and loved every minute, but I'm reading it for the first time and I'm not sure I would've read the whole thing, so maybe I did good buying the audio! That woman can talk! Luckily, I also bought Nova Ren Suma's DANI NOIR, so at least one of my purchases will be stellar.

  2. Sometimes, the kind of success Gilbert has had is my worst fear.

  3. Isn't this the same thing that happened to Audrey Niffenegger? Her first book is a smash success that made her a Millionaire and her second book was a total flop that the publisher can't even give away (though they did give her a $5 Million advance for that hunk o' trash).

    Success can be its own worst enemy if you don't have the talent to back it up.

  4. I'm sure authors stress about that a lot. Elizabeth Gilbert even talked about it in this talk:

    It's a really great speech if you haven't seen it before...

  5. I'm not about to boo-hoo over the poor millionaire author whose second book only makes 500k, but I understand the concept of being a victim of your own success. (Philosophically, if not personally)

    I think the best thing to do is not try to market it as "as good or better than" the first.
    An author typically has to stick to a very specific formula for back to back successes anyway. (Think Dan Brown)
    Have the guts to say "If you liked her first book, you'll like one of her future books, whether or not it's the next book."
    -Colin Hill

  6. From a position of comfort like Gilbert's, she can afford to define success however she likes, not just by sales. Having achieved commercial success and financial security, if she is now able to be true to her art and her vision - even at the cost of some of these other things - more power to her.

    (Of course, I don't really know if this is true. I'm kind of projecting. But lack of amazing sales doesn't necessarily equate to failure - especially if you are her. Also, a bad review in the NYT - or anywhere else - is probably not a good measure of commercial success, much less failure in general.)

  7. Thanks, all good comments. Another nonfiction author who is going through something similar is Julie Powell, author of Julie/Julia and the new much less popular Cleaving, which coincidentally also has marriage as a main theme. And I agree with Lt. Cccyxx's comment that lack of amazing sales doesn't necessarily equate to failure, but it's the publisher's expectations I'm really referring to in my post (as opposed to her own), and their bottom line, which speaks to her publishing future and what she will be able to do going forward as an author. Only time will tell. Thanks for reading!

  8. Isn't Cleaving about the freaky bondage sex she was having on the side while writing Julie/Julia?

    Not hard to see why it isn't having the same success as the first book -- it isn't even the same genre or audience.

  9. In publishing, we hear so much talk about wanting new and innovative and fresh, modern ideas. So the best the industry can produce is a rambling on the institution of marriage? No one saw these poor sales coming with this "done" topic?

  10. I think Norman Mailer said. "The only thing harder than achieving success in this culture is... maintaining it!"

    Haste yee back ;-)

  11. It's funny how so many people (in general - I'm not referring to any commentors here) seem to hold the money against a successful author. If EPL had been a critical success, with modest sales, and the second book was not a critical success, many people would say, "Oh, how disappointing. Maybe she'll do better with her next book." but because she made so much money, you see comments all over, "Well, she's got her millions so she's fine." Gilbert made a good living before EPL and without its success, I thinks she would've continued to make a good living as a writer. My guess is she'd much rather write something worth reading, not only now, when she can afford it, but always.

  12. I've heard the same concerns about Audrey Niffenegger and Elizabeth Kostova recently. The sophomore slump is a real threat, obviously. How can it not be? Even if the second book would be considered successful, sales-wise, if it were written by anyone else, if it doesn't live up to the first, it's seen as a failure. That is one advantage we unpublished writers have, I guess, and I'll be grateful for what I can.

    Besides, writing the second book is hard no matter what stage your career is in. I loved my first (fully finished, polished) manuscript, but I've been working on my second for over a year (although it's turned into 2-3 books at this point), and it is not coming out half as easily as my first one did at its toughest points. Adding the stress of living up to expectations on top of that difficulty must be no fun at all.

  13. Whatever. Stephanie Meyers is not having this problem. Val Joyner

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