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Recently, the Florida lotto was $85 million dollars. Did I buy a ticket? Yep. Ten of ‘em. Did I win? Nope. But someone did – someone who bought the ticket in the same town where I bought mine. A quick pick, no less. So close, I could almost smell the leather interior of my brand new Porsche, see how sharp my Manolo Blahniks would look leaning on the accelerator, hear the engines of my private jet revving up for a trip to Cannes. Did I mention the gorgeous pilot? All right. You get the idea. Somebody won. In my tiny burg of 6,000. How do you get that lucky?
I know this feeling of envy and awe. I’ve had it before.
I had it when I was trying to sell my single title manuscript to a major publishing house. I would see in Romantic Times, or read on an e-loop that someone sold a first book ‘a single title romance’ to a major publishing house. You’ve heard the stories ‘sold off the slush pile to Jennifer Enderlin (No! Quick, query Jen E.)’ Picked up by Warner after winning a contest (Really? Enter every one this month.)’ Taken on by an uberagent and sold to MIRA (She’s taking unpubbed clients?) Why couldn’t that be me?
If you study the romance publishing industry closely enough, it might seem that it would be easier to win the lottery than sell to a major, mainstream publishing house. Statistics and sales figures show that the vast majority of “first sales” to these houses are most often made by talented writers who have had successfully sold into category. And that makes sense. They are writers who have proven that they can deliver a solid, complete manuscript; they have demonstrated an ability to build a readership; and they have shown a talent for crafting a character-driven, emotionally compelling story.
But what if your manuscript is 110,000 words and will simply never fit any of the category lines? Must you follow the more common career path, and “just get started” by writing category?
I say, emphatically, no. First of all, you must read, love and respect category romance to understand, write and sell it. And, secondly, first time sales are made into mainstream publishing houses but the odds are highly against it. Not 14 million to one. But high. However, there are steps that reduce the odds in your favor. I took every one of them before I received “the call” from Pocket Books.
You gotta get in line and buy the ticket. And that means, write the whole book. An unpubbed writer is not going to sell on proposal. Period. Write the best damn book you’ve got in you and polish it until it shines like that sports car you’ve been coveting. When you finish it, stock up on tenacity, confidence, thick skin and supportive friends and family. You’re going to need them.
Critique, Contests and Conferences
When I first started trying to sell my manuscript, I found a web site featuring dozens of interviews with first-time romance authors, conducted after they made their first sale. All of the writers were asked about their route to publication. I made a list of responses, seeking the magic formula, or at least a pattern for their success. I quickly found one. To an author, they all mentioned the role that critiques, contests and conferences ‘ one or a combination of all three ‘ played in getting published.
Could you sell without one or all of the three C’s? Yes. But, I recommend that you invest the time and money in all of them to increase your chances.
Hundreds of articles and workshop tapes exist on the finer points of the three C’s. There are a few specifics to consider when you are focused on the goal of getting published in single title. With a critique group, find partners who read the types of books you write ‘ they will know the market, the tone, the voice, the style that is selling. Seek encouragement and suggestions, of course, but don’t let anyone change your “voice” ‘ it is the key element that ST editors love. If yours is fresh, don’t let someone tell you it won’t sell. Your voice is the number one talent that will sell your book.
When entering contests, start off with the goal of getting feedback. Good, bad or painful, it will help you when you start to see a pattern in the score sheets. Once you’ve honed your manuscript, then enter only those contests that include one of your target houses or editors as a final judge. It’s a great way to be read by an editor who might otherwise never see your work.
For unpublished writers, conferences are one of the most direct routes to publishing. Networking with editors and agents, either casually or through an appointment, opens doors that are normally closed, if not locked. Conferences offer the opportunity to learn, to hear other’s stories, to practice your pitch and to associate faces with names. In many cases, a conference will afford you the chance to send a completed manuscript to an editor or agent bearing the two weightiest words in the submission process: Requested Material.
Of course, some houses still say you don’t need an agent. But I don’t believe mere mortals can sell a single title without one. Oh yes, you will hear the stories of slush pile sales. Just like that guy who won the $100 million Powerball. Do the math. Editors are inundated with manuscripts. The agent acts as a trusted screening process and editors will tell you, they read agented submissions first. The key word in that statement is “they” not “first.” The editors who make buying decisions read agented submissions. Unagented submissions at many (not all) houses are most often read first by individuals who have no buying authority. They may be perfectly capable assistants and readers. But they do not have the authority to march into the publisher and say, “This one sings.” They may not have the experience to recognize that the voice is there, the story just needs some tweaking. This is not to say an unagented submission will not sell but an agent drastically reduces the odds in your favor.
Again, the process of identifying, querying and signing an agent is the subject of a mountain of articles. My advise is this: Keep Five Alive. It will take many, many queries and submissions, so I recommend that you do your research, pick at least thirty you would be happy to have, and get queries in the mail five at a time. With each rejection that comes in, send another out. Personalize your query, do your homework on what clients they represent, respond to requests for full manuscripts immediately and don’t hound them. If your manuscript is publishable, you’ll click with someone eventually and then you will be ready for the next step.
Doesn’t the agent do that? Well, yes. But the more you give him or her, the easier the job. Discuss a plan and timeline with your agent and then give her the tools to promote you and the book. Make sure she knows your biography, what other manuscripts you can offer and which editors’ work you love. If you get a written rejection, have your agent talk to the editor in person to get a more information than is usually in the letter.
Then, while you are waiting for the sale this is the most important thing you can do, WRITE THE NEXT BOOK. That might be the one to sell first, or it might be the difference between a single book contract and a multi-book deal.
With the lottery, it’s all luck. With publishing, it’s all you. So when that call comes in, be prepared. It’s nothing like winning the lottery. It’s better.