Susan’s Randoms: When First Books Don’t Top the Bestseller List

We all have dreams. And as a pre-published writer, who hasn’t dreamed of booksignings with crowds that could rival a Hannah Montana concert?

The following is an unabashed look at what has made up my experiences with the publishing world–both post-published and pre-published. Take what you will from these experiences; I know I have, and I’m the better for having experienced them.

The following are some of the surprises I’ve encountered with writing my first book (the biggest one, which isn’t mentioned below, is that first books don’t usually bring in those Hanna Montana-sized fanbases):

1) That my book wasn’t on the shelves on June 14, it’s publish date. I went to the big city near us and casually browsed Barnes and Noble, butterflies in my tummy. No book. I went to the counter. They had hundreds in the warehouse, but nothing in stock–and nothing on order. Ditto at Borders. I went to the local independent bookstore, tail between legs, feeling like a self-published author who has to tell family and friends that they could only order the book from Amazon. Lo and behold–two copies at River Run Bookstore! I was officially a published author. But it wasn’t until calls to my editor and woe-is-me e-mails to writer friends that I found out hardcover YA books aren’t as coveted as paperbacks. Unless you’re Rowling or Dessen or Meyer or [INSERT BIGGER NAME THAN ME HERE THAT WROTE A BOOK KIRKUS LOVED AND THAT IS GOING TO BE MADE INTO A MOVIE WITH ANNE HATHAWAY OR DANIEL RADCLIFFE OR LINDSAY LOHAN’S YOUNGER SISTER].

P.S. My book was in a ton of libraries, though. Libraries LOVE hardbacks.

2) That, crazily enough, I didn’t feel like selling my eggs to run an ad in Seventeen. As I said, two big chains weren’t carrying the book. And I’d just brought a new human being into the world. So I wasn’t exactly primed for doing a cross-country book tour. Heck, a tri-city book tour seemed like the equivalent of flapping my arms and flying to Mars to sign books for the natives. So I did what I could with a new dependent in my life–I wrote letters to libraries and newspapers asking them to promote my book. I had family and friends ask B&N and Borders to stock Black Tuesday each time they went into one. I started this website. I go to YA conferences. I’m not setting the world on fire, but at the same time, I’ll be a little more publicity-savvy come Book #2.

3) That I didn’t need an agent to sell a book. I didn’t get an agent until I’d sold my second book. In fact, it was a lot easier getting a publisher than an agent, at least for me. You might ask, “Why split your advance with an agent if you already have the book deal in place?” Beyond the obvious (higher advances, more savvy contract negotiations), they’re there to help you think about the things you didn’t (such as, oh I don’t know, self-promotion, for instance). Publishing is first and foremost a business. And agents are great about pulling your writer’s head out of the clouds and focusing on that aspect.

4) That selling the idea for the second book was harder than the first book. The first book was relatively easy. It was three months of back-and-forth with Dutton, honing the idea and going over my first few chapters. Coming up with a second idea took a bit more brainstorming on the treadmill. Granted, I was busy writing that first book and moving 3,000 miles across country, so a second book was sort of not a priority. But once I actively started going back and forth with my editor with the new idea, it took about five months to sell her the idea. Originally, I was pushing hard for a story about a girl bully. But she was seeing too many of those on the shelves, and stubborn me, I kept sending her revised chapters and synopses trying to sell that girl bully. When I finally cut myself from that idea (using the Jaws of Life, I might add), my next idea was snatched up in about two weeks (a girl whose family wins–and then loses–the lottery).

5) That winning essay contests, not fiction contests, probably made me ready for the publishing industry. I have a little, well, not secret, but tidbit to share. I put myself through my bachelor’s with essay contests. I started in fifth grade, winning first place in the local Daughters of the American Revolution contest. It was an essay on Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and their duel. There was lots of research. And rewriting. And sleepless nights with Mom as she told me to rewrite again, to cut down on the “flowery” language I was using. I won lots of essay contests, thanks to working hard and writing on everything from Arizona mining to world geography. And guess what? I never once won a fiction-writing contest, even though there are a ton of them, especially if you’re a member of Romance Writers of America (which I am). But I think I got a better taste for persistence and constantly improving my writing (and not just rewriting the first chapter 100 times for 100 contests) with those essay contests.

~S.C.

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3 Comments

Filed under Susan's Randoms

3 responses to “Susan’s Randoms: When First Books Don’t Top the Bestseller List

  1. Shelley Coriell

    Your comments about giving up your bully story really struck a chord with me today. Sometimes in letting go — both in life and in writing — we eventually get what we wanted in the first place. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Shelley,

    I keep in mind that old cartoon from the eighties (maybe even earlier). I remember it in my elementary school’s nurse’s office, and later on at a high school friend’s home, posted on her fridge:

    A bird is swallowing a frog, but the frog is grasping the bird’s throat, keeping it alive. The quote? “Never, ever, ever give up.”

    -Susan

  3. Great post–a lot resonated for me here.

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