Friday, April 01, 2005

The Curse of the Bad Numbers

In the course of a discussion of pseudonyms, Robert Metzger offered up this advice:

"THE CURSE OF THE BAD NUMBERS"

"That can be a reason to change your name. For those of you not familiar with this wonderful curse, the way things work in bookstores is that they will typically only order as many of your new book as your old book sold - this is typically done by computer programs. If you have a book that tanks, then your next book gets a very small order. Your publisher knows this, so rather than waste the time and resources on you, knowing that the bookstores will not put many of your new book on the shelf, they will tell you to go away.

"This happened to me in 1991. Had a book called Quad World from Roc. Roc liked it and wanted me to do a series. I had written the second one and it was in editing when the first hit the bookstores. The month my book was released, Roc went from 3 to 5 titles, and the bookstores said that was great, but they only had the same amount of shelf space for Roc as when they were putting out 3 new titles. Since I was the new guy with a mass market book, they decided not to put my book in the big chain stores, needing to protect their investment on their more established writers.

"Several months later I got a call from my editor telling me that my sales numbers were horrible (strange how that happens when the books aren't in the stores), so they could not release the follow-on book and because I now had bad numbers in the computer they would publish NOTHING from me.

"At that point you have two choices. You can change your name and try to start over at another publisher (not easy when they ask why you changed your name and are changing publisher - bad numbers stick to you like crap to a blanket). Or you can quit.

"I quit.

"For four years I didn't write any fiction (I was a research scientist at the Huges Research Labs in Malibu California at the time, so focused all my energies on that).

"After those five years I came back and started writing a book called Picoverse, still using my own name. By the time I gave it to my agent (who was not too wild about seeing me resurface - those same bad numbers stick to the agent also) eight years had passed.

"Eight years was long enough for the bad numbers to have fallen off the computer, and I was able to start fresh. And then I raised the stakes. I told the agent that if the book couldn't be sold as a hardcover, that I'd throw it in the trash rather than let it go as mass market. I was certain that if it went mass market that I'd get dumped the moment that sales numbers didn't beat expectations, while if it was sold hard(cover), it would represent a bigger investment by the publisher, and they'd be less apt to dump me. Ace ended up buying it, and my editor told me that before she could make an offer, that she had to check to make sure that my bad numbers really had fallen out of the system (and they had). Picoverse came out in 2002, eleven years after Quad World tanked.

"The paranoia doesn't end there. I sold my next two books to ACE before the numbers came in on Picoverse. That is not the way to get a higher advance, but I wanted to make sure I had those contracts in hand.

"So it took me 10 years to beat the curse of bad numbers. 10 years and a good amount of luck. I would never suggest than anyone tell their agent to toss their book if it doesn't sell hardcover. It worked for me, but I beat the odds on that move."