In my last post, I blogged about the challenges of writing a fiction novel. I acknowledged that writing a book is not easy. The requisite skills aside, it takes a true commitment. For me though, the emotional highs I achieved while writing Just Friends With Benefits were well worth the sacrifices I made to put in the time. I loved writing the book so much that even when I had no idea if it would ever be published, I began writing a second one.
While I was writing the book, I joined various groups for authors, like the New York City and Chick-lit chapters of Romance Writers of America, and I befriended someone who had also written a novel. It was through my association with these groups/friend that I learned about the publishing process. I thought it would be as simple as sending my completed manuscript to various publishers. Think again, Meredith! One cannot simply email or even snail mail a manuscript to a publisher! Like dinners at the White House or a wedding, one needs an invitation (unless her last name is Salahi, Wilson or Vaughn.) The most common gatekeeper to the elusive invitation is an agent who will act as the go-between for the writer and the publisher.
So that means I simply send my completed manuscript to an agent, right? Wrong again. Agents receive upwards of 100 requests a day to represent authors and do not have the time to read each and every hopeful’s manuscript. Instead, most* people seeking representation must submit a “query”, seeking permission to forward their manuscript for review. (I write “most” people because there are some lucky writers out there who are actually approached by agents instead of vice-versa and there are others with connections who probably do not need to write a query letter. I don’t know much about those people since I am, unfortunately, not one of them.) A query is one page letter which typically includes a personal greeting to the agent, a teaser about the book and a brief biography of the author.
You would think writing a biography was easy, however, no agent cares that I am the youngest of three girls, and grew up in Chestnut Ridge, New York. My only background of relevance is that which is related to writing. Since I had no publishing credentials nor true writing experience, my biography was very brief and to the point – “I am an active member in Romance Writers of America. Just Friends With Benefits is my first novel.” Less is more when you have nothing substantial to say!
Most agents who only represent mystery writers will bypass queries regarding self-help books or romantic comedies as will agents who are longer taking new clients. Although the research into what agents were most likely to take interest in my book was time consuming (I spent hours in the book store reading the back of other books in my genre to see who the author thanked as being “best agent ever” and several more hours on http://www.agentquery.com and individual agent websites), it was nothing compared to the drafting of my teaser, i.e. “Hollywood Pitch.”
You only get one shot with an agent and if you fail to interest her with the query, it doesn’t matter how great the book is because she’ll never read it. So how do you take a 300 page novel, describe it in one paragraph, and intrigue an over-worked agent to actually want to read it? It took me many, many attempts until I created something I truly believed was a good “hook” for my book. I tested the query out with friends, on message boards and with agents. When the first batch of agents didn’t bite with my first attempt, I re-worked it – again and again until I got decent feedback. This is part of the pitch I ultimately used ( I can’t show you all of it because if you haven’t read the book, and I hope you intend to, it might give some of it away). You might recognize it from the back cover.:
“When a friend urges Stephanie Cohen not to put all her eggs in one bastard, the advice falls on deaf ears. Stephanie’s college crush on Craig Hille has been awakened 13 years later as if soaked in a can of Red Bull and she is determined not to let the guy who got away once, get away twice.”
Those two lines took me forever and a week to write!
Once the query letter is drafted, you’re ready to go, right? Not so fast. Some agents also require you to include a brief synopsis of the book, outlining the plot in more detail and giving away the ending. (These requirements are collected during the all important agent-research stage.) But sometimes they want the synopsis to take up only one page. Sound easy? Well, it’s not. You try compressing a 300 page novel into one page. And some agents want a 3-5 page synopsis. Still others want 5-10 pages. What’s an aspiring novelist to do? Write a one page, three page and ten page synopsis, that’s what! And each version must be engaging and witty in its own right and not just a play by play of the book. Like my “hook”, I also tested my synopsis on message boards and used the feedback to tweak it to my version of perfection.
With my completed manuscript saved on my computer, I emailed my query letter and, where required, concise yet compelling synopsis to my well-researched group of agents, crossed my fingers and held my breath.
It was around that time that I went to a few seminars regarding selling manuscripts and acquiring agents and learned that my genre (“chick-lit”, “Humorous women’s fiction”) was no longer a hot ticket with editors in New York Publishing houses and therefore unless you had prior publishing success in the genre, had connections or an established fan base, or somehow got the attention of Oprah Winfrey, your chances of securing an agent were very slim. I found this hard to believe since so many readers still love a good, light, “chick-lit” read, however, the proof was in the amount of rejections I received from agents saying that my story “was not right for their list” or they were “regretfully passing on my novel” without ever reading any of the pages. Only a handful gave me a shot but ultimately passed.
At this point, I had three choices: 1) I could reach out to more agents, 2) I could stow away my manuscript in my mom’s basement never to be looked at again (I don’t have my own basement) or 3) I could cast the net wider into small-press and electronic publishers who didn’t require agents. I had a strong feeling that my luck with agents would not change unless I added a vampire or ghost to my novel or turned it into a pure work of romance, neither of which I considered a viable option. But I had worked too hard and believed in my story too much to simply throw in the towel. And so I chose option 3, researching different publishers. I had to eliminate the ones which were not open to submissions, others that were not opened to my genre and others that had bad reputations and was left with only a handful. I sent out my manuscript and waited and waited and waited.
Fast forward months, (and about two more rejections) and I’m at my mother’s house for Sunday dinner. I randomly checked my Blackberry and saw that I received an email from another publisher. Totally expecting another rejection, I opened the email and read the phrase, “We are pleased…”. WAIT. None of my rejections EVER included the word “pleased”. “We are pleased to reject you?” That would be rude! “ We are pleased to decline contracting your novel.” Never. So, my face turning white and my pulse racing, I continued reading the sentence, “We are pleased to offer you a publishing contract for your contemporary romance novel, “Just Friends With Benefits”. It is all a blur but I think I calmly told my family I was offered a publishing contract and while they (mom, dad, sister, niece and nephew) danced around me, I stood there in shock taking it all in. (I was very happy that with the exception of my oldest sister, my entire family was in attendance because it cut down on the number of phone calls and text messages I had to make.)
So there it is folks, the story of how I published my first novel. I wish I could say that the road to publication was as pleasant as the writing process, but I can’t. Writing the book was candy compared to getting it published. But while my book was contracted by a bona-fide royalty paying, non-vanity publishing company, was professionally edited, an artist created a cover I love, and copies are available for purchase on various websites (www.amazon.com, http://www.fictionwise.com and http://www.wings-press.com – GO THERE NOW), the author’s job is still not done.
Stay tuned for Part 3 – the stresses of marketing and promoting your book.
Until next time,