It's not fair, sure, but you have to pay your dues.
Now take the system I've just described and flip it over: that's how novelists are paid. In publishing, rookies often earn more than veterans. First novels routinely attract larger advances than second or third novels by the same author. The reason is simple: first-time novelists are untested in the marketplace. For all the publisher knows, this person could be the next Amy Tan or Stephen King. Without a sales record from which to extrapolate future demand, publishers have no choice but to evaluate the manuscript on its merits--with a bit of hype thrown in by the author's agents--and make their best offer. When more than one publisher is determined to land a much-hyped first novel, a bidding war ensues. Sometimes an author with hardly a short story credit to his name can find himself a millionaire. The most recent example is City on Fire, a 900-page novel by first-time author Garth Risk Hallberg that sold recently for $2 million.
$2 million. That's four times what Mike Trout earned last year. (And everybody says baseball players are paid too much!)
As you know from my previous posts, the sales figures from my first two novels, The Disagreement (Simon & Schuster, 2008) and Father Junípero's Confessor (Heyday, 2013) were not stellar. My opportunity for large, speculative advances had come an gone by the time I started writing the baseball thriller. As a brand, Novels by Nick Taylor™ had been tested in the marketplace, and the resulting price was low. All of my future work will be measured against that sales record. In other words, I could write the best damn baseball thriller ever, the kind of book people stay up all night to finish, and I would be paid like I'd written a sequel to The Disagreement. That's what the industry--and, to be fair, the reading public--had determined a Nick Taylor novel was worth.
But what if I weren't Nick Taylor?
Before you hit Comment and shame me for dishonesty, let me remind you of some of the eminent writers who used pseudonyms: Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Charlotte Bronte (aka Currer Bell), Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot)...okay, maybe I'm being disingenuous. Bronte and Eliot took men's names to escape gender discrimination. A better comparison is the contemporary novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who has published forty novels under her own name and eleven under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. Oates isn't trying to escape anything; she uses pseudonyms to indicate the genre of a particular book. "Joyce Carol Oates" means a literary novel. "Lauren Kelly" means a thriller.
My decision to use a pseudonym was a mix of three factors: one, I wanted to create a new brand for work in a new genre (like J.C. Oates); two, I was hoping to escape my dismal sales record; and three, I thought it would be fun.
In case you're wondering, "T.T." doesn't stand for anything. I just happen to like names with a repeated initial (ee cummings, A. A. Milne, Z.Z. Packer, B.B. King, J.J. Abrams, C.C. Sabathia).
When I finished the book, my agent agreed to send it to editors under the pseudonym, but she recommended that we not keep my identity a secret. If an editor asked who I was, she believed we should answer honestly. I agreed. When the responses came back, some editors asked, and others didn't. We eventually sold the book to Doubleday, the imprint responsible for heavyweights like John Grisham and Dan Brown. The advance was modest -- a rounding error in the Grisham and Brown accounts -- but it was something. It wasn't a first-novel payday, but I felt good about the deal. The editor was young, enthusiastic, and full of ideas for the manuscript. Even better, he was comfortable with me being T.T. Monday, even though he knew who I was. He even offered to let me publish the book as Nick Taylor.
In the end I went with T.T. By that point I was invested in the idea of a new brand. I even had a new website. I hadn't escaped my sales record (those numbers will be chiseled on my tomb), but I had reset my own expectations. As T.T. Monday, I had new hope of reaching a wider audience. On March 11, we'll see what happens.
Next time: One more draft. And one more draft. (And one more…)
T.T. Monday will be appearing at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Tuesday, March 11, at 7:30pm. The reading is free and open the public.