The Sophomore Slump

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 18 2008

In the comments section to one of my blog posts there was a reference to the sophomore slump, when an author has spent years writing and perfecting her first novel and now only has nine months to a year at most to write the second novel and just can’t get it there. This resulted in the following question off the comment board:

Does it really have to be that way? Can’t I say to a publisher, “No, I’m only dealing with you for this book, but you’ll have the first option to see the next one”? Or is it always a package deal and they buy the next two books in the series or trilogy? Because honestly, it’s almost enough to make me put my foot down and say, “No, I’m not going to make any deal on books I haven’t written, because if a book is not ready, I WILL NOT put it on the market, deal or no deal.”

Honestly, you can do almost anything you want. If a publisher comes to you and offers a three-book deal and you’d rather make it a one-book deal, you can certainly try to do that. I will tell you, though, that there have been times when part of the negotiation did involve the number of books and the publisher wouldn’t budge. You can also set your own delivery dates. If the publisher wants books number two and three at nine-month intervals, but you would be more comfortable with eighteen months, you can try to schedule accordingly.

The problem with waiting so long to deliver the follow-up book and subsequently publish it is that if you are writing genre fiction it’s going to be nearly impossible to build a career on this kind of schedule. More and more publishers are finding that authors who really have success and break out do so based on a quick publishing schedule, especially with the release of their first few books. Once an audience is established with two or three books, it’s possible to stretch things out again to give the author time to catch her breath; and the readers, they’re already fans, so they will happily wait.

By coming out with one book and waiting two years for the next it’s very likely readers will have forgotten you and might not even think to come back. Now, I do believe that writers of literary fiction can be a huge exception to this rule. If the book is truly mind-blowing you will probably get the reviews (NYT, etc.) on the second book to bring the readers back. Of course, you’re hinging your career on reviews.

Now what some publishers are doing to accommodate authors who can’t write a book every three months is to hold the first book or two so that they can schedule the books three months or six months apart, or even back to back in subsequent months. The problem with this, based on your question, is that if I sold a two-book deal for you today and you wanted to wait eighteen months to deliver book two, your first publication date wouldn’t likely be until sometime in 2010.

Ultimately, what I tell my clients is first things first: you need to write a good book, and if the publisher wants it in six months, but you’re more comfortable with nine, you need to go with what makes you comfortable. Reasonably, though, I think you need to learn to write a really knock-out book in nine to twelve months at the outset if you want to build a career. Yes, there are exceptions, but don’t look at authors who first published ten, twenty, or even three years ago and use them as an example. The market has changed.


28 responses to “The Sophomore Slump”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think you are correct in suggesting this advice is for genre fiction. Literary writer Michael Chabon, who got rave reviews for his first book, The Mysteries or Pittsburgh, took a whole five of six years before his next book (Wonder Boys) hit the stands. It sure didn’t hurt his sales or audience.

    Having to write a follow up book in six months would scare the heck out of me. Honestly, how do people manage this? And is this rush to toss the next book out there the reason some writers fail before they’ve even started?

  2. Avatar Inspire says:

    I agree with anonymous. How do some writers produce books so quickly? I often wonder about some of the best selling romance writers who seem to have a book out every month. Ghost writers?

  3. Avatar Eva Gale says:

    There’s my 64 thousand dollar question. I sometimes think it’s better to do what Kinsale has done and write two/three/four and keep them tucked away, then sell the bunch. It sucks because there’s that wanting to have an agent and be published, but once you’re on that hamster wheel you jump off at the risk of losing your career. Either that, or knock it out of the park so far that the wait will only whet appetites?

    inspire, yes, writers ARE writing them that fast.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Maybe this discussion dovetails with the one about “bad books”: if I had to write on that kind of hectic schedule, I don’t know that I’d want to read what I wrote.

  5. In my blog (Writers Plot) on Monday, I commented on an article that appeared in the Boston Globe recently, in which established authors complained that their publishers wanted them to produce one book a year, for many of the reasons you mentioned.

    There seems to be an underlying assumption that taking more time automatically makes a book better, but is this true? For unpublished and newly-published writers, there is a reluctance to let go of the manuscript, because they don’t really trust themselves, or they’re afraid to face rejection. And apparently the reading public has a very short memory.

    Each writer has to strike a balance between his or her craft, and the realities of the marketplace.

  6. Avatar Heidi says:

    Writing my first book took almost two and a half years, because I didn’t approach it as my job. I took breaks when I needed the time, I only wrote at night, etc.

    When I decided that I really wanted to do this, I finished the last half in two months. The book I am working on now should take less than nine months if I write with the same dedication.

    It’s not impossible if you view it as your job. If, on the other hand, you are writing on top of another full time job, it makes it that much harder. It takes dedication and sacrifice, but it’s definitely not impossible.

    People who have contracts don’t write as the inspiration hits. They write even when it doesn’t.

    One well known author said he writes ten pages a day. If he whips them out in an hour or two, he has the rest of the day off, but if it takes him twelve hours to get them out, he writes for twelve hours.

    Some authors have a formula, too. You can see it if you read very many of their books, where it’s almost a plug and write kind of thing. I’m not a genre writer, and this wouldn’t be any fun for me as a writer, but many do it.

  7. Avatar Kristin says:

    Thus the advantage in not having your very first novel ever published. Really. Because who knows how long it took you to ‘perfect’ that one little book?

    Personally, I am glad (although it is painful to take years to achieve publication) that I have written 5 books now. None of them published. But each one is written better, faster and with less editing needed. And I’m also getting closer to publication.

    When the time comes to sign that contract, I will KNOW that I can produce another book within 9-12 months. And it won’t be scary or overwhelming.

    I’m not a tweaker. I usually write a first draft, editing a bit as I go, and then do a final edit. That’s it. I think many authors second guess themselves, rewriting and rewriting over and over and over. Working days on just writing the opening line. YIKES!

    You have to work towards quality as a decent speed.

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:


    Your blog today could not be more timely. I’m about to start querying agents, and I’ve thought a lot about how I’m going to produce a novel a year — and I do believe for a decent career in fiction, a novel per year is necessary to maintain name recongition. This current novel took me ten months. For me it’s not the writing/editing that takes so long, but coming up with a workable idea/plot.

  9. When you say “nine months”, is that including any and all revisions, copyedits and so on that you might have to do once your editor has seen the manuscript? Or does that just mean the time you initially take to write a manuscript you can show to the editor, and any contracted revisions would take place after that?

    I can write a first draft I’m not ashamed to show other people in 4-5 months, but I know there’s still going to be major revision ahead, especially once my editor gets a hold of it. So if it’s nine months from first word to last revision, that seems… a little tight, to me. Twelve months, maybe.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    There’s a good music-industry quote I’ve seen attributed to Elvis Costello: You get 20 years to write your first album and 20 weeks to write your second.

    Having said that, I think Jessica nailed it: today, producing a strong novel every year is a prerequisite if you want to make a career in genre fiction.

  11. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Believe Jessica’s advice. I’ve seen all that play out among readers through my book review blog.

    If you write genre fiction and you can’t crank out a polished draft every six months – LEARN!

  12. In a sense, I’m glad that my current MS took less than a year to write (I’m working on a second draft now, but revised a lot along the way as I wrote the first, so it’s not taking that long.) Makes me think I can do it again, especially because I wrote infrequently for the first half of the novel. This post makes me agree with eva_gale–I think it would be helpful to have a second MS in the works while you’re submitting your first, just to stay ahead of deadlines if the first sells and you need to produce a second quickly.

  13. Avatar 2readornot says:

    I know a number of writers who produce more than one book a year — well-written, too 🙂 It’s not impossible, but it does take practice. However, these are people who get many ideas for books all the time — I think it’s much more challenging for those who get only a few ideas a year.

    I have a book under consideration with a large publisher right now that I wrote (including revisions) in about three months. It’s do-able. (And no, not all my books come out that quickly!)

  14. Jessica said…”Now, I do believe that writers of literary fiction can be a huge exception to this rule.”

    I’m clinging to these 17 words. 🙂

    Good post.

  15. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Heidi said: People who have contracts don’t write as the inspiration hits. They write even when it doesn’t.

    I agree. That is what we all need to do (she says, while playing on blogs and not writing a word on the WIP today).

    We should practice writing as if we are on a deadline. I have several manuscripts written and stored “under the bed”. They would need revising but that’s okay. I’m not wasting time on them now as I’m forging ahead with new material, using newfound craft skills.

    I think the more you write the better you get and hopefully the faster you get.

  16. Avatar superwench83 says:

    I agree with what Heidi said for the most part. I know my writing started getting both better and faster once I started treating it like a job instead of a hobby. But I also think it depends on what genre you’re writing in as to how easy it is to stick to such a schedule. I log the hours I spend working on my book each day. I put in between 30 and 40 hours a week, yet I’ve still been working on my current novel for more than a year, and it’s not finished. But I write historical fantasy. There’s soooo much research involved, and that research takes time. So genre does play a part, I think.

    But I do see why publishing on a book-a-year schedule is so important. I’ve seen how well it’s worked for other authors, and I want to duplicate that myself. I just hope I can figure out how to do it by the time I need to know!

  17. Avatar Anne says:

    First, sorry for any mistakes I might make, I am French.
    Second, I write in French, and I am lucky, I write fast and since I type as fast, ideas are just flowing.
    Thinking like a reader, I must say that I like to see my fav authors write a book a year. Having to wait forever for book number 2 is a big turnoff.
    I love Karen Marie Moning (Highlander’ Serie) and I read all her books. But her new series, Fever, takes forever to come out and… I am losing interest, to be honest…
    So, I am in favor on producing a book a year.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Well, having just agreed to produce a 3-book series in 10 months …

    Practice. Lots of practice. And treat it as a job, as someone said above. I work a full-time job, but have produced publishable manuscripts (as in, they are on the shelves out there, from a NY publisher) in as little as 10 weeks.

    Ideas come at you all the time. just be open to them. Once you start watching and listening, you will have more ideas than you have time for. Trust me on this one!

    A Published Author of a dozen novels

  19. Avatar Just_Me says:

    So, would you advise a writer to have book 2 and possibly 3 at least in progress before they query? I mean, once the books in the query process many people suggest trying an entirely different project, just in case the first doesn’t pan out. But it sounds like you might want to have book 2 finished and just in need of polishing and book 3 started (if you have a series) so that you aren’t caught in a time crunch.

    Would that make sense?

  20. Avatar Keri Ford says:

    Here’s some tips for writing to a deadline that was posted on Romancing the Blog:

  21. This is an interesting commentary.

    As a reader I was irked to no end when an author took forever to come out with the sequel to a book I really enjoyed. I almost didn’t buy the second book, when it did come out, but I couldn’t find anything interesting that day.

    When I finished the book and realized it wasn’t unresolved, it was leading up to yet another book, I swore off her. I’m not waiting another three years to see what happened. It was interesting, not great.

    Now, I have a question. The epic fantasy I am working on is part of a series. I’m fairly certain it’s four books. However, my characters sometimes (more like always) take off and do things I didn’t plan. Breathe life into them and they think you work for them. It’s very possible this may extend to five volumes.

    Do publishers say I want x books and that’s that?

  22. Avatar Moth says:

    (Comment Take Two)

    Re: Writing the rest of the series just in case they want more when you sell the first one.

    I think even if you intend the book to be part of a series the first book should stand alone. What if the publishers don’t want to buy more? Also, I’ve read several places that it is VERY bad to start writing the rest of the series before you’ve sold the first one. What if you never sell the first one? Then the next two or three or four MS that you’ve written aren’t sellable. You have to start all over again and you have nothing to show for potentially years worth of work.

    And no one’s likely to buy Book Two in most series if they didn’t want Book One. An exception might be if you write “Brother” romance novels where the books follow a family but are relatively stand-alone. That would be the only way I would feel good writing Book Two before I sold BOne. Just my two cents.

    I alos know I have to write what I want to write, wht I’m inspired to write. I also think a hefty advance could definitely steer my inspiration in the right direction. It also doesn’t seem like the worst idea, though, to stockpile a few manuscripts for a rainy day.

    I also know that the thought of selling a book I haven’t written yet makes me go a little twingy with worry inside.

  23. Avatar JDuncan says:

    Honestly, I would love write two to three books a year. Sadly, working full time and having four kids makes that pretty much an impossibility. It would not be such a bad thing to look forward to if it was possible to get paid enough to actually write that much. Sadly most debut authors do not get even close to that kind of money. I’ve written a rough in three months before. This was only possible because the job I had allowed me to frequently get two to three hours of writing in every night. Publishers want career type authors, but I think the reality is, many are not in a position to make the leap to writing on that kind of schedule. I’d guess there are a fair number of writers who get side-swiped by the time frame of things once they get the first book sold, and find writing to that kind of schedule is not feasible for them and thus their potential career never takes hold. Sad, but probably true.

  24. Avatar Santa says:

    Perhaps it is a matter of novice vs. expert. A novice writer, such as myself, is still learning the craft. And each revision of my manuscript brings me closer to one that is ready for publication. Can it be true that once the craft is learned the creative processes that truly bring the hero/heroine of a romance or the protagonists to life bring a book to fruition at a faster pace than one one is still learning?

    I think that is the only way subsequent books can be published in six or nine months periods. And truth be told, I think deadlines are key in getting these books in such a swift manner. I know that I would love to have a deadline imposed for my own writing!

  25. Avatar JES says:

    A new book every 6-9 months would be real challenging, but doable. The problem (well, ONE problem!) is all these resources telling me that a new book has to be as perfect as I can make it before shipping it out into the world. If I let myself even glance at a MS which I think is “ready,” it’s risking the Oh no, there’s a passive-voiced construction, easy enough to fix, but have I REALLY cleaned that problem up everywhere? I better check… effect. Good-bye 9 months, hello year.

  26. Avatar kitty says:

    Sure I’d love my favorite writers to produce a book a year, but I can also wait.

    After reading “A Cold Day In Paradise,” I would have waited years to read Steve Hamilton’s next Alex McKnight book. I’ve read them all, so far, and have been waiting years for another — if there will be another one.

    If the story and the writing are really good, I don’t think time between books is as critical as the piblisher would have us believe.

  27. Avatar Ellen Guon says:

    Great topic, thank you.

  28. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    For what it’s worth, my contracts called for three novels and three novellas the first year, and have since dropped to two novels, two novellas a year. I thought it would be impossible to meet that schedule, but I learned something important–it is possible to write quickly and still write a good book. In fact, I’ve discovered that writing without all the revising and rewording that occurs during a long, drawn out process is often a more honest telling of the story. The prose is fresh and the emotions real, not rewritten to death in search of the “perfect” word…you know, the one that changes every time you reread your work!