The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had an article this morning on a subject I've heard alluded to, but have never seen discussed publicly.
The article called "The Name Blame," talks about authors taking new pseudonyms when a string of poor-selling novels jeopardizes their ability to get a new manuscript published.
WSJ reporter Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg says: "Now that retailers can track books (sic) sales speedily and efficiently with point-of-sale technology, the entire publishing world knows when an author's commercial performance takes a dive. For these unfortunate scribblers, such a sales record makes it hard to get good advances and big orders from bookstores. So some are adopting an unusual strategy; adopting an alias."
If you've had a book published and then approach a new agent or publisher, the first question they'll ask is, "What was your sell-through?" What they're asking is how many books (what percentage) of the books shipped to stores actually sold? For simplicity's sake, if the print run was 100K and the publisher shipped 90,000 and you sold 45K books, your sell-through was 50%, which means that 50% of the books were returned to the publisher as unsold.
Many writers who have had difficulty getting their manuscripts published by large print houses choose to switch gears and seek a smaller publisher or a regional press. This strategy can backfire. I sat next to an author at a conference last year who told me that, after two years of being unable to interest an agent or a large print house in her manuscript, she signed a contract with a small regional press. Her thinking was that she needed to get published somewhere, anywhere, to gain credibility. Once her first book was out, she began trying to shop her second manuscript. That's when she discovered an unfortunate reality. The small press she'd signed with had no advertising budget, there was very little marketing of her book and her sell-through percentage was very, very low. To her surprise and disappointment, she found that there was LESS interest in her second manuscript than there had been in the first, even though she was now a published author. The WSJ supports her experience by saying, "poor sales may reflect bad marketing decisions rather than negative reader reaction. 'A book could have a bad dust jacket.'"
New York agent Richard Pine is quoted in the WSJ article saying, "You're only as good as your last book's sales to much of the retail market."
This dynamic is not reserved for unknown or beginning writers either. William P. Kennedy who won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for his "Ironweed" found that his thriller novels were no longer selling by the early 1990s. According to the WSJ, "Determined to reinvent himself, Mr. Kennedy sent his publisher a novel involving kidnapping and high finance called 'The Trophy Wife.' His editor at St. Martin's Press thought the book would appeal to women if it was written by a woman." Thus was born Mr. Kennedy's new identity as best-selling author Diana Diamond.
A basic understanding of the intricacies of the publishing market is vital for a new writer trying to break into the industry.