The Name Game

It was the most painful moment of my fledgling writing career. I had finally landed a “big” book, and the editor wanted to take my name off the cover.

Can you imagine?

“I’m sure you want what’s best for the book,” she said, and I agreed in that way you do when you’re stunned into a haze of complacency. I might have also offered to let her hit me with a hammer.

Never before had I considered that my name might be a liability. Here was an editor at a major publishing house who wanted to hire me, but didn’t want bookstore owners to know it was me because I was (sshh!) a niche writer, with sales that were about what you’d expect from an average small press author. She was worried major book retailers wouldn’t put in a big pre-order because I hadn’t written anything that had sold impressive numbers before.

New writers are often told to focus on specific audiences rather than trying for a broad “general readership.” Writers can stake out their territory writing books for crocheters, model airplane designers or stay-at-home dads, for instance. But there comes a time when niche writing is dangerous: when you want to move on to bigger markets. If all an editor sees are small books for small presses, it can add an obstacle to the next book’s sale.

My editor finally did let my name appear on the cover, but it made me think twice about writing “small” books again before establishing a solid sales record. My main goal, after all, was to find steady work with big advances—which generally means writing for the major publishing houses. If that’s your goal, too, here are eight ways to move on from niche writing and land bigger books with bigger publishers.

1. GET A CO-AUTHOR. Either work with another writer who has a more impressive track record or an expert with a great platform. The expert might be an entrepreneur, doctor, coach, politician—anyone who has a compelling idea for a book but needs help writing it. When you come across someone fascinating who’s quoted in a newspaper or magazine article, consider contacting that person to ask if she’s interested in working on a book with you.

2. BUILD YOUR PLATFORM. Lucia Watson, editor at Avery, says that editors do have to look at an author’s sales track-record, but that if a nonfiction author has developed better exposure since the previous book (such as public speaking gigs, radio shows, a popular blog, etc.), she deserves renewed consideration. “I certainly have had cases where the track record of another book wasn’t great. But if the author’s platform is up, I can see how the book would get publicity and how we could market it. You don’t have to be locked in to a modest sales track-record.”

3. SELL MORE. Agents and editors are especially impressed when a small-press book (or self-published book) sells well, because they understand that it’s more challenging to distribute and market these books. So if you’ve gone with a small press for other books, do everything you can to move copies.

4. GET AN AGENT (OR SWITCH AGENTS). The right agent is able to get your work in front of people who you probably can’t reach on your own and to position you as someone with great potential. Agents can also help to hook you up with experts and co-authors.

5. DON’T TYPECAST YOURSELF. Writing a couple of books with lackluster sales probably won’t spell the end of your career. But instead of continuing to hammer out more books that don’t make much of a splash, hold out for a more marketable idea and a publisher who can do better. “Sales figures for previous books will be a large factor in determining the advance for a future book, so 10 books with small sales will hurt the chance of a big advance on book 11,” says Kirsten Neuhaus, agent at Vigliano Associates.

6. WRITE FOR BIG MAGAZINES AND NEWSPAPERS. “I’d be impressed to see a writer who had written for big-name periodicals, even if they hadn’t worked on a large-scale book project before,” says Meghan Cleary, associate editor at becker&mayer! Books.

7. STAY IN TOUCH. Editors who start at small presses don’t necessarily stay at small presses. Do a wonderful job for every editor you work with and make a point of checking in every few months to say hello after the book is finished. If that editor moves or gets a bigger project in need of a writer, you want to be fresh in his mind.

8. COME UP WITH A GREAT IDEA. Really, if you come up with an irresistible book idea and pitch it well, that in itself can wash away a lackluster sales history.

Join the Conversation

Have you ever gotten trapped in a niche? How did you break out of it? To be part of our Conversation, post your response here on the WD  Forum. A few responses may be selected to run in a future WD e-newsletter.

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