Selling unfinished work

Some authors on my list were talking about selling on partials or selling projects from proposals. One or two said they wouldn't write anything unless they already had a contract for it.

Can one query an agent with a proposal if one has a good record of publishing under one's belt, or does this apply only to editors?

Let's be clear about what a "good record in publishing" means. It means sales. Over the cash register, actual books out the door sales. Not advances, not deals: sales.

And yes. You can.

You can't sell a debut novel that way (99.99% of the time) or memoir, but almost all non-fiction is sold via proposal and sample chapter/s.

I sell client's second and third books on chapters and outlines all the time.


Anonymous said...

Okay--a serious question on the subject of partials v. fulls. What if you are a very successful author--in another genre--say children's books. You have awards, sales records, etc. and now you want to break into fiction and have written the first six chapters of a novel, with a detailed outline of the rest--assuming the chapters you have are outstanding, can you sell this "debut" novel on a partial? If you are established in another genre in a big way(multiple book contracts, etc.)? I haven't come across this particular situation addressed.

Brandon Sanderson said...

I know of at least one author friend of mine who got an agent, then a contract, on a partial. However, the industry is rife with stories of editors who paid top dollar for a book when it was in partial, only to have to work very hard with the author to finish the book in an acceptable way.

When I wanted to hop genres and break into children's, I did it with a whole book. Perhaps I could have done it with a partial, but I've never been that fond of them. If you've got six great chapters and an awesome outline, why not just take a few more months and finish the book?

I did so, and I'm convinced that it was the ability to let the editors hold the full, complete manuscript--to make certain the ending lived up to the promises of the beginning--that let me do so well with that particular novel. It ended up going to auction and sold for six figures.

For my Tor work, I don’t ever send partials--or even proposals. I finish a book, send it to them and tell my editor how many books I want to do in the series, then let my agent work out the rest. It’s worked for me so far.

Anonymous said...

Also, the long shot debut novel -- if you have those chapters and a very detailed (like, 60 pages detailed) synopsis, do the odds improve?

Anonymous said...

Just finish the book already! You're going to finish it anyway, right? You have a brilliant partial and a complete outline--so why not finish it? I don't see the advantage of taking precious writing time to market a book now, when you're going to have to finish the book before a publisher can publish it anyway.

Let's say a miracle happens and an editor buys your manuscript on a partial. Now you have to hurry up and finish it to get it in before deadline. Not an ideal situation.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the selling of our work we neglect the writing. Write it now. Write the heck out of it. Take as long as you need. You are going to be a best-selling, highly-paid writer. You may never have this luxury of deadline-free writing again.

Anonymous said...

Children's books aren't very long. It seems to me that the reason you can't sell a debut novel on a partial is that not many people have what it takes to complete a novel. You have to write the first novel, first, to show them that you can.

On the other hand, I have to disagree with surfgrape. If you're doing commercial fiction, nothing sucks more than writing the hell out of a whole novel and then having the editor ask you to remove whole subplots, characters, or whatever. It's less heartbreaking for them to make big changes on your outline, and then write the novel. (In my experience, that is.)

Anonymous said...

So, are there any good reasons for a debut novelist sell a novel based only on a partial and an outline?

ec said...

After publishing 20-odd fantasy books, I'm working on a historical novel. It wouldn't occur to me to try to sell this on a partial, because a) editors who publish historicals have no reason to know my work, and b) even if they did, the ability to write one sort of book doesn't necessarily translate to another genre.

I can see how some writers could make the genre-hopping thing work, but I see no reason NOT to finish the book and let it speak for itself.

Also, there's always the possibility that you might NOT finish a story, especially one quite different from what you're used to writing. Even very experienced authors occasionally hit a dead end and realize that any more effort would be wasted. I'd much rather have a finished manuscript in hand before I approach an agent/editor than take the chance of having to say somewhere down the line, "Nope, sorry--this story isn't working."

Anonymous said...

My publisher has an option on my next novel, which, according to our contract, I may present in the form of an outline. But I wrote the 2nd book anyway. I figured I'd stand a better chance that way. You can only capture so much in an outline.

My lame 2 cents.

Poodle Girl

Anonymous said...

A friend is a professional writer. He lives off his writing. He's known in genre, but wants to make a leap to another. He cannot afford not to have an advance in order to write this book, which has been clawing at him for years. He needs the advance to live. With a wife and two children, he can't go below a certain income, and he can't opt out of his lifestyle for a year or so (which isn't extravagant, anyway.)
I hope his agent is able to sell on partial. I'd love to see this book.
In the old days, publishers were a bit more generous with advances, in terms of what they're meant to do: i.e., allow the writer to live until the next book. And a writer was a writer -- not a producer of the same book but different over and over again.
The system crushes creativity and keeps writers on a leash (sorry KY)where it's either write what you've managed to sell already, or give it up entirely.
It's sad. They system is broken in terms of art, and no one seems to care. The only way writers are truly free to write what they choose is if they are independently wealthy, have a rich or well-paid spouse, or a cushy writer-in-residence gig at a college, which doesn't happen for genre.