Thursday, March 12, 2009

Agent Joe Regal Weighs In On Niffenegger Sale

STATUS: I feel normal. No cough. No sniffle. I’m so happy.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME by U2

This is very cool. Audrey’s agent, Joe Regal, commented on yesterday’s entry. That happens so rarely, I didn’t want it to get lost in the comment section so I’m posting it here. My hearty thanks Joe.

I have a Google alert for Audrey's name and have been watching the response to the news of the sale, and since this particular thread seems to be from a thoughtful group of writers, I thought I’d take a chance and weigh in.

First, as Audrey's agent, I very much fought against the news of the sale coming out. It seemed likely to stir resentment, and I already expected reviewers to approach the book with knives drawn before any leak of the money involved. For instance, since the NYT never reviewed THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE in any way, shape, or form, how could they say positive things about the new book and not look kind of foolish? In my submission, I specifically mentioned this likelihood and begged editors not to discuss the potential auction or possible eventual sale price with anyone.

Needless to say, word got out anyway. I tried to talk Motoko Rich out of doing a piece, but the leaks were so broad that there was really no chance. Thus my somewhat exasperated comments in the article, once I realized the article would run whether I participated or not.

Another reason to keep the news quiet was precisely because of the inevitable Charles Frazier comparison. It's a hell of a lot more than a nuance that, unlike him, we sold a completed novel, a brilliant book that is a step forward for Audrey as a writer. It's weird, inventive, original, singular, and not necessarily as commercial as the first book, but she has grown as a writer and handled the second novel challenge by pushing herself to grow as a writer, with new challenges and new rules, none of which had anything to do with sales. All she could control (as I noted in the article) was the actual writing, not how people responded to it. So she focused on that and wrote a truly remarkable novel.

That the industry responded to positively isn't just because of her track record; people genuinely loved the book. A few editors told me, "this is so much better than TTW!" That kind of irritated me, because I think TTW is a pretty great book, but I got the point: editors recognized she had grown as a writer. So, combine a great book with a great track record, and you have the closest thing to a sure thing in a very uncertain market, and publishers were eager to pay handsomely.

The key takeaway here is simple: write the best book you can and then sell it. Arguments that "she could take her time to write her second book because the mortgage was covered" are way off the mark. She didn't sign a two book deal with the first or second novel because she knew how hard it is to write a good book and she didn't want the pressure of a deadline hanging over her. It’s hard to herd cats on a schedule. Maybe if you're a genre writer, OK, it’s possible, perhaps even necessary, but otherwise, keep your day job and write a great book and sell it when it's done. In Audrey's case, she kept her day job for years after publication of TTW; she was careful to live in a way that put the ability to do her work her way, on her schedule, before any other material needs. She protected her priorities. That's discipline, and she had been practicing it on modest means as a visual artist for decades before she became a writer.

I hope this is useful information. All best wishes for luck and courage to all writers here working to write the best books they can.

Joe Regal

Update 2:54 p.m.
Kristin: Joe's not knocking genre writers as his agency reps them as well. It also occured to me that maybe I should add the link to Joe's website so y'all can check it out.

Thanks for appreciating my note. A risky thing to do, but I couldn't resist. And sorry for the couple infelicitous phrases and typos. One clarification: I'm not dismissing genre writers; I'm saying that the rules are a little different. For instance, my colleague Markus sold a new crime writer, Josh Bazell, to Little, Brown in a two-book deal. The main character of his first book, BEAT THE REAPER, is designed to be a continuing character, and the house paid a nice advance because they're investing not only in the writer but in that particular character. They don't want to spend money to make the character a star (never mind the writer) without having the ability to spread that investment over two books and without feeling like they won't have some time to evaluate whether they've "grown" the series. So while it's possible we could have battled to make it a one-book deal, it would have been counter-productive -- it wouldn't have served the publisher OR the writer.

So all I'm saying is that the rules are different, because the conventions are different. If you're a crime writer, for instance, you're supposed to hand in that next book a year later, maybe 18 months, so the house can publish on a consistent schedule and build the series. That isn't the expectation with literary fiction. No slight intended! Especially from someone who, if he has time to read anything but his own books (he doesn't at the moment), reads genre.