Thanks for all the support on the bad news. I suspect that was a big part of why I didn't end up feeling totally devastated or upset. I ended up not bingeing on anything or getting into a big, weepy state. Aside from one brief outburst of bitter anger when on the phone with my agent, I was amazingly even-keeled. Instead, I just got really, really focused, which is potentially scary because when I get focused and angry about something, things tend to happen. Not in the Owen kind of way, nearly blowing up a city, or something, but more like get out of my way because I'm on a real mission. The closest I've come to bursting into tears was this morning when I knocked over a glass that then broke all over the floor. It wasn't as though I shattered the family crystal -- it was a glass from a set I bought at a housewares outlet when I had my very first apartment while doing an internship in college -- so I suspect that the brief outburst of tears was related to something else. I think I'd feel better if I could find something good to cry about, but there's a stubborn part of me that refuses to do something so wimpy as cry about a business matter.
Instead of answering comments individually, I'll address them all here so everyone can see the answers more easily.
For the reason why, it comes down to numbers. The second book sold a lot fewer copies (so far) than the first book (as I said, never mind that the first book has been on sale a year longer and is still selling), and because of that, bookstores (primarily the major chains) ordered far fewer copies of the third book. The publisher thinks that means there's not a lot of room for growth in the series because it's on a downward trend. They said they still wanted to work with me, but they thought I might have better potential for growth with something totally new. And then, maybe, we could revisit book five. However, them passing on this book means I'm no longer under option, which means I am now free to go to any other publisher with any other book, so they knew that passing on this book meant the potential for losing me, and that doesn't say much about their desire to work with me. So, yeah, I'm unemployed again.
I'm not entirely sure why the numbers are shaking out this way. Readers seem to like the books, they get good reviews, and most of the time, just telling people about them makes them inclined to buy them. Booksellers tell me they're an easy sell. So why aren't they selling better? I think maybe they're misplaced being put in general fiction as chick lit. When the first book came out, chick lit was the hot thing, but it seems like the chick lit readers don't really care all that much, while it's the fantasy readers who are all over them, so maybe fantasy would have been a better fit. It also seems like at the chain level, the stores have missed the opportunity to build momentum with the series by not reordering the previous books when the new book comes out. You start hitting critical mass with a series when you get that additional shelf space, and there are people who don't notice a series until there are multiple books, showing that it's a series. My agent has made the suggestion of releasing the first book as a mass-market paperback, repackaged and shelved as fantasy. I haven't heard yet what the response was, but I'm not sensing a lot of enthusiasm over there. They seem to have thrown in the towel altogether.
This does not mean there will never be a book five. We may see if anyone else wants it (though that's a long shot because few publishers want to pick up a series near the end -- however, I know there's at least one editor who is already looking at it). Or the original publisher might end up wanting it if sales suddenly start picking up for the series or for whatever I write next. The hard part there is that while I'm still seeing new people getting on board with the series, most of the stores I've visited are only carrying the first book and the third book, so new readers will have a hard time finding the second book, which makes them less inclined to try to third book. To continue with the series, they'll have to make a real effort to find the second book. It will take one of those tipping points I've mentioned before to make the whole series really take off in a way that will make a difference.
Will I e-publish or self-publish book five? I won't say absolutely no, but it's very unlikely. Because I am now essentially unemployed, I need to be writing some other stuff to see if I can get a new publisher or my old publisher to pick me up so I can go back to making money. That means I don't have time to be writing something that probably won't make much money. I also don't have the budget for the up-front investment that self-publishing requires, and I have no desire to deal with the distribution issues. Unless there are a lot more lurkers than I realize, there are only about 200 or so regular readers here (on all three sites where I post a blog), and that's not enough people to support selling a book off my web site. Besides, I don't want to close off any options. I'd guess that there's about a year window in which someone might still be open to picking up book five, depending on how book four does when it comes out, and if it's been e-published or self-published, that can't happen.
I'll admit that there was a moment when I found myself asking why I'm killing myself promoting my books when it doesn't seem to be doing any good. But, as I may have mentioned before, I'm a wee bit stubborn, and you never know, one of these things I have lined up this summer may be part of the tipping point I need that could make a real difference. I'm looking at this as a marketing problem/opportunity. I've got a good product that people seem to enjoy. It appeals to a broad range of people. When people find out about it, they tend to be interested. What needs to happen is for more people who might be interested to find out about it, and then make them highly motivated to buy it and then tell others. The "highly motivated" part is key because they may have to look for it if they want to read the series in order and start at the beginning. I'm mostly going to focus on the Internet because the main sure way of being able to get the first two books is by ordering online or getting the e-book (and by the way, Enchanted, Inc. has now been discounted slightly at B&N online -- right after I ordered a bunch of copies, and perhaps because of that big order).
So, what can we do to make things happen? Keep spreading the word, and make sure people you get hooked on the first book go on to get the other books (and remember, only books bought new count for the publisher). Nagging may be in order. A letter-writing campaign will make no difference to the publisher, but if you were one of those people who had a very difficult shopping experience at one of the major chains, like you had to go to four different stores to find the book, then I posted the customer service contact info a week or so ago. If you write online reviews for other books (particularly really popular books) at online booksellers, list mine in the "also recommended" part of the review. If there's a bookstore you frequent, suggest that they carry all three books. They'd be great in a display of "what to read when you've finished the Harry Potter series" books.
Speaking of which, I have another idea of a campaign I'm going to try to carry out, and I could use some help. I think the most obvious target audience would be Harry Potter readers (and there are a few of them, I think), so with this being a huge Harry Potter summer, I really want to go after that readership. If you read your local newspaper, a magazine or a widely read blog and there's a writer covering the Harry Potter books who might be open to writing something about what else you might want to read with that series coming to an end, I'd appreciate any pointers (name, publication name, contact info). If you feel so inclined, you could also contact that person yourself to suggest them writing about other books for HP fans and mentioning whichever ones you feel are relevant (hint, hint).
If you're on any fan lists, boards, forums, whatever, and there's an appropriate opportunity to bring up reading suggestions, that would be good, too. I may come up with Great Blog Campaign, HP Edition, for this summer, but I'm not sure what prizes there might be, other than publication of book 5 if it works.
And now, to add insult to injury, I have to go to the dentist. However, I almost always seem to get good news on my answering machine when I'm at the dentist. When my agent called to say she wanted to see the complete manuscript of Enchanted, Inc., I was at the dentist. When I got the news that books 3 and 4 had sold, I was at the dentist. I think there was at least one other big call that came while I was at the dentist. Somehow, though, I think it's a little too soon to be getting big news on this particular issue. Hey, maybe that's when that movie deal will come through all of a sudden.