How to Establish a Long-Term Writing Career: Insight From Two Literary Agents

Sarah LaPolla Kim Lionetti Establishing Long Term Writing Career

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

For novelists and nonfiction writers seeking traditional publication, landing a book deal is the dream. And if that deal receives publicity—perhaps due to a multi-publisher auction—then there’s even more reason for the writer to feel like they’ve “made it.”

Some writers will be content with that first deal and have no desire to publish more books. But what about the writers who hope it will be followed by many more—the ones who aspire to make money from their writing, or build a career out of it? How can writers endure in a field that’s known for its instability?

Inspired in part by Cynthia Leitich Smith’s “Survivors” series on how to thrive as a longtime, actively publishing author, I spoke to literary agents Sarah LaPolla and Kim Lionetti about strategies for building a long-term writing career. As with all my Q&As, neither agent knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers.

Sangeeta Mehta: So many writers dream of receiving a large advance with a book deal. The assumption is that, the bigger the advance, the more money the publisher is likely to put into marketing their book so as to guarantee robust sales. Is there any truth to this thinking, or is there an advantage to receiving a small advance?

Sarah LaPolla: Like with many things in publishing, the answer is “yes and no.” Big advances can be great. They’re the goal for many writers and agents alike. Big advances can be a sign a publisher is investing heavily in a certain author or book, and by doing that they’re also taking a risk. So, it does often mean they will put more into marketing and publicity than they do for other books to ensure they get a significant return on that investment. Sometimes that ideal scenario does happen and everyone involved wins!

That said, it isn’t always the case. Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money, and that’s done by earning out advances and earning royalties. A smaller advance might not be as exciting, but it can mean an author has a better chance of earning out, proving their monetary worth to the publisher, and potentially having a longer career overall.

Kim Lionetti: There’s certainly some truth to that. If a house has made a substantial investment in the author, then they’ll want to do what they can to build his/her career. That said, a big marketing budget doesn’t guarantee the publisher will earn their money back. Sales aren’t predictable. And if the publisher ends up losing a lot of money on that first book, it will make their support of future books harder.

There are still plenty of opportunities for authors on a smaller level. Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.

For a debut author, what’s more important—that their book is well reviewed and nominated for awards, or that it exceeds sales expectations? Does critical success sometimes increase the writer’s chances of being offered a second book deal more than commercial success, because the writer is seen as “up-and-coming”?

SL: This is dependent on what’s more important to the author as an individual and what makes the most sense for the types of book they write. Commercial success is often a driving factor because publishing is a business and we all need to make sure a book will sell as many copies as possible. There are always critical darlings that end up being cult favorites or were never really written with a mass audience in mind in the first place: “quiet” literary novels, experimental fiction, and niche nonfiction, for example. The publishers of those books will have different expectations when it comes to what makes them “commercial” hits, and in those cases critical success will likely play a larger role in what’s considered more important.

KL: Sales track records are pretty important. The book doesn’t necessarily need to have been a huge financial success, but if it had really disappointing sales, that will create an uphill climb for the author going forward. If the book had great reviews, that will certainly help make a case for another deal, and this is when an agent can make a big difference. Part of our job is to find ways to give your career longevity, whether that means “rebranding” or just coming up with ways to pitch you that can overcome a disappointing track record.

Publishing is a business, first and foremost, so commercial success will always be valued. But if you’re not quite there yet, editor and house enthusiasm for you and your work is a huge factor. If they love your work, love working with you, and you’ve received critical acclaim, then they’ll want to stick with you and try to build your career.

Many writers also dream of landing their first book deal at an early age—of declaring themselves published writers without having to associate themselves with any other profession. Do these writers have an edge in that they have more time to find their voice and settle into their careers? Or does it not matter when a writer is first published, so long as they dedicate themselves to writing from this point on?

SL: Sometimes I see writers as young as 14, 18, 22 post about needing to be published already or considering themselves a failure if they didn’t get an agent before they turned 25. There’s no way to convince a young person how young they are, but hopefully there’s a way to put career longevity into perspective. The truth is, not many authors get the chance to grow with their career over time. If the first few books don’t do well, or are perceived as mediocre on a writing level, it makes it harder to convince publishers to keep giving you chances.

Most people don’t find their voice until later in life, and a good author—someone who sees writing as a career and approaches it professionally—should get better with each new book. That means they keep reading, learning, and challenging themselves. Sometimes I love working with younger writers because they’re so eager to learn. Older authors may have more experience and may even be stronger writers, but sometimes they’re less willing to accept criticism. There’s no magic age to becoming a published author. There are going to be pros and cons to everything. What matters more is whether that author waited until their work was ready to share, and whether they will be dedicated to keep growing their career going forward.

KL: Only a very few can count themselves as full-time writers. Most have day jobs and squeeze in writing whenever they can. It doesn’t matter at what age a writer is first published, and it doesn’t matter if they have to keep another job to pay the bills, they just need to find the time to get their stories on the page. Easier said than done, I know, but I think becoming a professional author takes a special kind of drive. If you have that kind of motivation, you can make it happen at any stage of life.

Writing a second book is notoriously challenging for almost any author. In your experience, is “second book syndrome” more common among writers trying to replicate the success of their first book, or those who consider their second book a second chance to prove themselves? How do you encourage writers who fall into either camp?

SL: This is, sadly, not a myth. The second book is the hardest. (Though I’m not sure if any writer would say any book is easy!) Part of this is because a writer may have written Book 1 over the course of 10 years, spent another few months finding an agent, another year working on edits and trying to sell the book. Book 2, meanwhile, is on a deadline. It’s either already under contract with a deadline of less than a year—as opposed to the accumulated decade of planning and drafting that Book 1 got to enjoy. Or the publisher is asking what’s next. Book 1 was successful and now they want more. That’s where the pressure of replicating that success comes in.

I also try to remind writers that they are in a different place with Book 2 than they were with Book 1. They have a support system now, they’ve been through the editorial process before, they know what to expect and where to find help if they need it. I tell my authors to start working on Book 2 while Book 1 is on submission. It’s not only a distraction from submission, but it also provides a framework for when Book 2 comes next. That doesn’t always make the writing process itself easier, but I always go back to what I tell my own authors in these situations: You Got This.

KL: Many authors spend more than a year on their first books. They’ve had many pairs of eyes on it, from the time they had critique partners reading it, to their agent and then their editor giving them notes. It was workshopped several times over. The second book usually needs to happen more quickly, so that the author can start building a readership after that first book is published. I think a lot of the issue is “letting go” of that first book that you spent so much time honing, and fear that you won’t be able to replicate that magic. Authors should lean on their agents for brainstorming, and talk through plot points. I think the key to getting past the “second book syndrome” is to find your way to an idea that you can get as excited about as you did with that first book. Making it a collaborative effort is a great way to do that.

How important are fallow periods in a writing career? Do they tend to inspire creativity—or cause the writer to lose momentum? If a writer takes too long of a break in between books, does this make it harder for them to secure new publishing deals, or is this entirely dependent on how their previous book was received?

SL: No author is a machine, despite how those “one book a year” authors make it look! Taking breaks is essential to fostering and protecting creativity. Losing momentum is entirely up to the author, and I hope they’d maintain a support system that keeps them motivated. That’s not always the case. I think a lot of getting back into a publishing career can depend on how their previous books were received.

We hear of writers all the time who release their first novel in 10 years to wide anticipation, or of readers anxiously waiting for the next novel in a series. Building a strong fanbase early in your career often means those fans will be there waiting for you. For writers who haven’t built those devoted fanbases yet, taking a long time between books can make it a little harder to secure a new deal. That author (and their agent) may need to approach a new deal like a debut novel again, which can be an exciting way to re-launch a career, but also feel like you’re starting over.

KL: I recommend to my clients that they always be thinking about their next project. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I think it’s easy to get stuck in a break and never come out of it. And yes, if you’re trying to build a fanbase, it’s difficult to do that if you have long stretches between books. Readers will forget about you and stop following your career.

Honestly, I’m not an expert on the creative process. Perhaps some authors do benefit from the breaks. But from the standpoint of someone trying to help build your brand, I think it certainly makes things more challenging.

If an author is very established in a certain category or genre but is eager to try something new—say switch from adult books to children’s books or from historical fiction to commercial fiction—would you encourage them to experiment, perhaps with a pen name? Or is it in their best interest to keep building their brand?

SL: I think it’s very common for an author to eventually want to try a new genre. If they are very established in the sense that they are a household name, then a publisher may want to capitalize on that name regardless of what they write. I don’t think a pen name is necessary if the switch isn’t drastic. For example, writing picture books and writing erotica under the same name might not go over well with readers or publishers. Writing YA fiction and adult mainstream fiction, however, wouldn’t require a pen name but the author can still opt to keep those careers separate if they choose.

KL: There are so many variables that come into play here. Do the genres have a crossover audience? How successful/established are you in that first category? How fast do you write? Could you maintain a momentum in the category you’re already known for, while you make a foray into this new genre?

If you’re doing well in a certain genre, then it certainly behooves you to keep writing to that audience and continue building that brand. But if you can write quickly enough to also experiment in other genres, then all the better. The use of a pen name, etc. would depend on those other factors. Is your name big enough to bring a crossover audience to these other books? Is there just a natural crossover appeal in the types of books you’re writing? There are many things to consider.

On the flip side, if you have an author who has made a name for him or herself in a genre that is losing steam, would you advise them to give another genre a try, even if they would rather continue on the same path? Aside from major bestselling authors, do you think every writer must reinvent themselves sometime in their career?

SL: Being able to change as the market changes is an important part of maintaining a publishing career. Genres get trendy and then cool down all the time. If a writer establishes themselves in one genre, they might not feel the effects of a downward trend the way writers new to the genre will. But the industry itself changes all the time—publishers merge, marketing budgets shrink, books are produced in new ways, authors find income from different sources, etc. Everyone involved needs to diversify in order to survive in this industry, and for individual authors who may find their genre of choice is no longer selling well, that could mean finding a new one.

KL: I do think authors need to be open-minded and flexible. “Reinvention” sounds drastic and something like that isn’t always necessary, but often there are ways to tweak the books you’re writing to allow agents to pitch them in different ways. Part of my job is to recognize your strengths and how they could be used in a way that’s currently marketable to publishers.

A lot of the trends are cyclical. Even if the genre you’ve been writing is going through a rough patch, you may very well see it come back around again in a few years. In the meantime, though, you might need to explore other options.

If you had to name one quality that’s essential for writers looking to play the long game, what would it be? Drive? Flexibility? Optimism? Confidence? Do you have any other advice on how writers can embrace the inevitable twists and turns of our industry?

SL: Patience is the most important quality to maintain in publishing. I think with patience comes flexibility and optimism, and those would be my other choices if I were allowed to name more than one quality! My biggest advice to writers is to focus on what you can control—writing, making connections in your local literary communities—and not harbor resentment or anxiety over the things you can’t. Always look to what happens next, and not what didn’t happen before.

KL: Resilience. Honestly, I think that quality encompasses all of the words you used above and more. This industry can be quite humbling along the way. The most successful authors, with the longest careers, use those challenges/setbacks as fuel to keep pushing for the next level of success. They learn from them and just keep moving forward with a positive attitude.

There’s been a ton of change in this industry since I first started working in it 25 years ago. When the shake-ups happen, it always feels a bit scary at first, but results in some pretty exciting, innovative stuff. Publishers are thinking outside of the box now more than ever, and that brings more opportunities to all of us.

Sarah LaPolla (@sarahlapolla) has been an agent at Bradford Literary Agency since 2013. She started her career working in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, Ltd. in 2008, the same year she received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Sarah primarily represents Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction in a variety of genres, as well as select Adult fiction. Regardless of age demographic or genre, Sarah would like to see more hope and humor even in the darkest of stories. She is especially interested in diverse casts of characters and in authors who shine a light on voices that have been historically underrepresented. Sarah’s authors tend to reflect larger themes within a character-focused story that, whether overtly or subtly, challenge the status quo. Find out more.

Kim Lionetti (@BookEndsKim) is Senior Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary Agency. Having started her twenty-five-year career in the industry as an editor at Berkley Publishing, Kim enjoys helping authors shape their works into books their readers will love. She works with bestsellers and award winners in a variety of genres, including women’s fiction, romance, suspense, and young adult. She’s eager to add more diverse voices to her list, and as an autism mom, she’s most passionate about stories featuring neurodiverse characters, and those with special needs. Learn more.

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