The Second Book Conundrum: Selling It, Writing It, Publishing It

In Growth Markets by Rachel Aydt

By Rachel Aydt

• Some people think that there’s a “second book jinx.” Is it real?

• Writers, editors and publicists explain the challenges facing those who want to publish a successful follow-up.

The pressure of high expectations makes second books a peculiar business. Depending on your relationship to the project, whether you’re the author or the agent, the editor or the publicist, it can be either predetermined as an agonizing process or seen as a victory lap. Some critically acclaimed debut royalty, such as Junot Diaz and Donna Tartt, wait in the wings for a decade or more before emerging with their second books; others, like Charles Frazier, who penned Cold Mountain, charge through in half that time with second deals that are notorious for hitting the seven-digit mark. Still others, well, succumb to the pressure and disappoint.

Acknowledging the wide array of potential successes and failures of second books how are writers and their agents, editors, or publicists, addressing the daunting task of the sophomore novel?

Selling It

In her (sixth) book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott wrote eloquently of the second book conundrum. In it she writes, “The beginnings of a second and third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published and false starts and terror because you now have to prove yourself again.” Certainly true for some, but for a growing handful of lucky others, the terror of selling their second has been swiftly eliminated with the two-book deal.

Joanna Pulcini, agent to John Searles, whose debut novel Boy Still Missing was received with critical acclaim, secured her publishing darling a two-book deal with Harper Collins on just a partial submission. How did she get a publisher to commit to not only his first novel, but also a second before seeing the complete manuscript, let alone any sales results?

“With John, I knew after reading a partial that he was the real thing. Boy Still Missing was a special book with all the elements you look for in a novel. It was well paced, with brilliant plot turns. When I sold that book, I was selling an author, not a stand alone project.” His second book, Strange But True, published in 2004, sold more than his first and garnered its own fair share of positive reviews.

It’s safe to say that a majority of writers who have successful debuts become paralyzed by that success, and find it extremely difficult to live up to the high expectations that were set by number one. Searles was lucky; he’d found a coach in his agent. Pulcini encourages all of her authors, who include Jennifer Weiner and Leslie Silbert, to get at least fifty pages into their second project before their first even hits the racks. “This is the single most important thing writers can do for themselves when it comes to their second book. Then they’re committed to it for the right reasons.”

Writing It

For the writers who dive into the book world only to come out with, say, a Pulitzer Prize, there can be even more pressure to deliver again. Oftentimes, these second books take a different format (the short fiction writer turns to novels; the memoirist turns to novels). Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies was a collection of short stories; The Namesake, her second, was a critically acclaimed novel. For Zadie Smith, who took a place in literary royalty with her award-winning debut White Teeth, her second book, The Autograph Man, was not received with nearly as much hype (she reportedly succumbed to writer’s block prior to penning it).

Smith is not alone — according to an article in the Boston Globe, it took Junot Diaz eleven years before he could write his second book, following his first book of short stories, Drown, which was published in 1996. The reason, the Globe wrote, that he was finally able to delve into writing his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was because he finally set aside a sci-fi book he’d started that wasn’t going anywhere. In the interview, he described how he finally approached writing Wao: “I just bullied myself through it. I just kept throwing myself out into the wilderness of the word. I would write 200 pages, get [expletive] depressed and crazy, sit around for two months, and then come back and write another 200 pages. It was endless. Sometimes they don’t come easy.”

Diaz’s tribulations were also true for Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller, who has exhibited her own abundant literary talent. Miller’s debut collection of short stories, Personal Velocity, was critically acclaimed, but following that success, she struggled to meet the challenges of a longer format in her first novel, The Secret Lives of Pippa Lee, her first novel.

“There are so many themes and characters to be responsible to — to weave in, and a plot to bring home,” she wrote in an email to me. “One of the big challenges with writing Pippa was finding the authentic first person voice — I had to find a very particular way of thinking and feeling, a way of being, I guess, in which I felt I could be Pippa enough to write her voice. Once I threw three months of writing away because it didn’t sound right.”

Publishing It

At its core, living up to the hype of a bestselling debut can be tough. “I’ve had my writer’s career in reverse,” says Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose debut, The Deep End of the Ocean, was famously picked up by Oprah Winfrey to be the first pick for Oprah’s Book Club. “My career looks like a bad heart attack. You go back to the first, which was published in 1996, and those were the days when books would sell 200,000 copies. I don’t keep track of how many books of mine have sold, but I can tell you that my second [The Most Wanted] didn’t fly out of the stores.”

Mitchard didn’t experience the “third book bounce” phenomena either. “I was severely terrified that my second wouldn’t be as good as the first,” recalls Mitchard. “But then I got to a point where I fell in love with the story. That was a hard period for me. I went through a great deal of pain when The Most Wanted wasn’t received well… There was so much to lose, and I lost it. My halo got knocked sideways. I should have waited five years, but I’m not that kind of person.” She continues. “In fact, it’s ironic that now that my writing is stronger than it’s ever been, we’re into the age of cholera in publishing and we don’t know where it’s going to land.”

Mitchard’s publicist, Jocelyn Kelley, of Kelley and Hall Book Publicity, has had to find creative ways to tie books into the ever-shifting world of media and coverage. “Media outlets love a breakout star who hits it big, but a lot of people believe that those same people are waiting in the wings getting ready to pounce on the second,” she says. “It’s no mystery why there’s a fear to the second book; this effects the writer. They don’t want expectations to weigh them down… it’s so important to treat your second book as you did your first; you simply can’t allow a success to propel you forward.”

Twice as Difficult

The emotional roadblocks that authors can hit up against while shaping their second books are multi-faceted, and can occur no matter how well the first was received.

Greer Hendricks, vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster, believes that the second book can often be the author’s most difficult: “The first book is in an author’s head for years. Often, it’s been with them since they were a child. If the first book worked, there’s pressure to match that success. If the first book didn’t work, there’s pressure, because an author can begin to second-guess herself. And from a business standpoint, we now have to overcome a writer’s ‘bad track record.’”

Hendricks has come to believe that it can be valuable to consider the whole package when she takes on an author, in signing an author, rather than a book. “Before acquiring my two most recent debut novels I actually met with the authors before offering on their books. In both cases I fell in love with these women and I saw the potential for a long-term editorial relationship. These weren’t going to be one night stands; these were real commitments. I’ve also worked with writers who I believe in, whose first books didn’t do that well. Although by the third book you can usually tell if the relationship is going to work or whether the author would be better off forming a new relationship with a new editor.”

Of course, second books aren’t always so fraught with demons and bad news and one can find sophomore success, as did Alice Sebold with her blockbuster novel The Lovely Bones. Sebold’s debut book, Lucky, a raw and powerful memoir about rape survival, was published in 1999, but went largely unnoticed by the larger literary community. The Lovely Bones, published in a post-9/11 America, resonated with readers who connected with the story of a grieving family seeking retribution for a murder, much of it narrated from the afterlife. The books phenomenal popularity may have had just as much to do with timing, as with its virtuosic storytelling.

Another example, John Elder Robison wrote the successful memoir Look Me in the Eye, about Asperger’s Syndrome, and is in the process of selling his second book Geeks Rule. Robison has established a loyal following of readers to his blog, as well as his book, and often speaks at conferences about autism. As could be expected, he took a systematic approach with his second book, which is also a memoir. “Writing Geeks Rule was easier, because I have had more practice at the book-writing trade. For me, all the work that came before makes tomorrow’s work easier.”

Let that be a lesson for us all.

DISCUSS: Does the book biz set up second books to fail?

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.