Last weekend I was honored to moderate a panel at Killer Nashville on getting a debut book to print. My co-panelists Patricia Dusenbury, Danny Lindsey and Rona Simmons were such a pleasure to meet and we each had a different story to share. The morning of the panel we spent some time thinking about our message, sharing our stories of path to publication, and ruminating about what we wanted to do next or do differently. This conversation led to the realization that the most important question any author can ask is: what is my goal. That became the theme of our panel.
My goal was the start of a lasting relationship with an agent and publisher to launch a series. Series equals long term relationship with ‘the team’ made sense to me, however I’ve come to realize that if someone has a stand-alone book a long term relationship may not be as important. Several members of our audience expressed a sense of urgency due to age or health or another time factor. They wanted to see their book in print and the immediacy of self-publishing made sense to them. There were, of course, pre-conceived notions about the path of agent/publisher and self-publishing. One of the biggest seemed to revolve around marketing. In today’s world I think that anyone publishing a debut book will have to engage in marketing – even if you have a large marketing team coordinating an effort, there will be social media and local appearances that the author takes full responsibility for. Decide to embark on self-publishing and you’ll need to take on marketing whole heartedly – there was general agreement among the audience that once your book is launched you really do want it to sell regardless of any initial dream of simply seeing it in print. When you learn that Amazon launches 5,000 books a day you understand how hard it is to garner attention for anything being published.
There were also cautionary tales of self-publishing, not necessarily bad business practice or dishonesty but the need to do the research to find a publisher or platform that truly meets your needs. For example, if you are publishing a mystery find a publisher who understands what that cover looks like, not a publisher who has a stock of romance covers that will make you grit your teeth every time you see it (a ‘wrong genre’ cover also hurts marketing). There was one horror story of self-publishing that proceeded smoothly except for the fact that the finished books were in a warehouse in Asia and the fee to get them to the US was not included in the original cost. Read the fine print is the take away here.
My story, by contrast, has been a joy. I met my agent and signed quickly thereafter, she sold the manuscript within a few months and I have been thoroughly pleased with every aspect of the process – lovely cover, love the title, wonderful copy editor, supportive editor, encouraging marketing staff (I’m at the end of my adjectives now). At the Killer Nashville Conference I sat through many cocktail conversations and panels thinking that I needed to reach out to my agent and publisher to thank them, it is easy to forget to thank people who are wonderful, not as easy to forget the tales of woe.
For my path to publication I had some thoughts about the process, which I shared, including these points:
- To obtain an agent go to conferences. A face to face meeting gets you over a huge hurdle.
- Sign up for on line help. Specifically, Writers Digest First 10 pages or Synopsis critiques (there are others, but as a panel we had experience with these and they were entirely positive).
- Enter contests. There are contests for a variety of manuscripts/books. There are also contests for short stories, which provide an outlet for a new manuscript that doesn’t necessarily take months and months to write.
- Be ready to revise. Among my panel there was consensus that the suggestion of a major change often results in a knee jerk reaction of NO! I want that sad ending or happy ending or whatever the suggestion is. Take some time to think about it. Ask why. If you are talking with an agent or editor then you are speaking with an experienced professional. We all fall in love with our story, we also have to learn to kill our darlings. (This may not be correct but I believe that Patricia Cornwell first wanted to publish a thriller series with a very different character and someone said to her – what about a female coroner as your central character, that would be unique and make you stand out. Perhaps she jumped on the idea, but I suspect she was very disappointed they didn’t simply take the character she had already created and say Yes!)
- Be ready to revise again. Seriously. Two times I thought I had ‘finished’. Not so. I was fortunate to have a beta reader who suggested some structural changes that I incorporated prior to sending to my agent (without too much detail they were the kind of changes that meant cutting and chopping everywhere…. I had to think about them for two months to get up the courage. Even the idea of doing it was so painful I wasn’t sure I could. But I did!). I had another great reader make suggestions after the manuscript was sold and I knew they were the right changes – it meant taking a small suggestion and really going for it. I could have gotten away with an easier edit (trim a little here and there) but the better decision was to trim by re-incorporating. Harder, yes. But infinitely better. Ironically both changes came at critical moments which meant that they were made before I sent the manuscript to my agent (perhaps getting her to sign me) and then after we sold the manuscript, which means my editor thinks I am an editing genius! (Hope she’s not reading this.)
If you have a chance, take a look at my co-panelists’ books. They are great people and I enjoyed sharing an hour with them.
Patricia Dusenbury – A Perfect Victim; Secrets, Lies & Homicide; A House of Her Own
Rona Simmons – Postcards from Wonderland; The Quiet Room; Into the Light of Day
Danny Lindsey – The Pres; Justice