Poor Jack Berger. Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend on “Sex and the City” is a writer whose first novel flopped. In the latest episode, Berger’s publisher declined to pick up the option on his second one.
Now Berger is suffering from second book syndrome. And it’s wrecking Carrie’s sex life.
Turns out Berger’s problem is an increasingly common one. For years, publishers have grappled with the challenge of sustaining a writer’s career from book to book. Lately, the problem has grown more acute.
“When you go in with a first book, there are no expectations,” says Janet Silver, Houghton Mifflin’s publisher and editor in chief. “That’s one of the great luxuries. You make the book. You have to build it from scratch.”
That’s not quite as hard as it sounds. Marketing departments rally around new authors. The media loves the thrill of discovering a new voice. And a publisher can charge into the market with an aggressive first printing, since bookstores have no sales data on the author to contradict the publisher’s sales pitch.
The second book is another matter.
If book one doesn’t sell, book two faces a steep uphill climb — especially if book one received a high advance. In a recent column in the Observer, critic Robert McCrum warned first-time authors not to sign two-book deals.
“In the excitement of competitive acquisition, publishers generally overpay,” McCrum wrote. When sales don’t match that excitement, he continued, the publisher and writer “embark on the second stage of the contract with all the carefree joy of a married couple heading for the divorce courts.”
IF THE FIRST BOOK IS A HIT, the second book faces a different challenge.
In 1999, Houghton Mifflin quietly published Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, a short story collection called “Interpreter of Maladies,” as an original paperback. It struck a chord with readers, sold 50,000 copies, then won the Pulitzer Prize. Lahiri was 32 years old.
“Interpreter of Maladies” has now been translated into 28 languages and sold half a million copies for Houghton.
In September, Houghton will bring out Lahiri’s second novel, “The Namesake.”
Silver said Houghton has sought “to set expectations that are realistic.” The house has announced a first printing of 150,000 copies, and brought the author and crates of advance reading copies to the trade show, Book Expo, in May.
“We want to base our publishing plan on the book itself and not on celebrity,” Silver said.
But that’s getting harder to do.
New York magazine last week caught up with the phenomena of soaring book advances. Citing Knopf’s $4 million, two-book deal for Yale Law professor Stephen Carter, and its $ 1.2 million, two-book deal medical student Daniel Mason, the magazine reported that “advances for first-time authors have blown sky-high.”
It’s strenuous enough for a publisher to grow sales from one book to the next. But if book one becomes a media sensation — either because of a big advance or as a result of an unexpected sales windfall like Lahiri’s, expectations for book two get ratcheted up quickly. And that means reviews tend to focus as much on those expectations — and the writers’ newfound celebrity — as on the writing.
Here’s Salon’s Peter Kurth on Dave Egger’s second book, “You Shall Know Our Velocity”:
“As a writer, I can’t be objective about Eggers at all, given the staggering, and to me somewhat heartbreaking, success of his bestselling memoir.”
Kurth’s review was favorable, but it isn’t the kind of notice that book publicists dream about. Sales of “Velocity,” just out in paperback, have fallen far short of his first.
A SECOND WORK OF FICTION also presents an aesthetic challenge. As Farrar Straus & Giroux editor Ethan Nosowsky puts it, “in literary terms, the second novel can prove more difficult for the author. Some writers tend to overreach and do something really different or try too much.”
A U.K. org, the Society of Authors, gives out a prize for second novels called the Encore Award. Nosowsky suggests that U.S. publishers adopt the practice.
ICM book division co-head Amanda Urban said a second book “is almost like a rite of passage.”
Urban’s client, Donna Tartt, waited eight years to publish her second novel, “The Little Friend.”
“Publishers will tell you it’s always hard. They don’t like it when there’s a four-year lag between books,” Urban said.
“The Little Friend” was a bestseller; and it sparked interest in Tartt’s first novel, “The Secret History.” Not every writer is so lucky. But Urban has words of encouragement for those who aren’t.
“Any number of people,” she said, “stumble on their second books and pick themselves up brilliantly on their third.”