So this week on my Facebook author page I asked readers what they wanted me to talk about on this blog, and this was one of the first suggestions: how did I get published? Warning: my experience is not typical.
I wrote my first published novel, DO UNTO OTHERS, while working full-time. I had written an earlier novel that I wasn’t really happy with, and I’d decided to try something new, with an entirely new character and a small-town setting. I decided to attend a writers’ conference being held at my alma mater, Rice University, and noticed they had a manuscript contest where you could submit the first chapter of a book to a panel of published authors who served as judges.
No cash prize, no meeting with an agent, just a certificate of awesomeness. I figured I could write one chapter and see what kind of response I got.
So I wrote the chapter, about a young man who’d taken over the librarian job in his hometown after coming home to help take care of an Alzheimer’s afflicted parent, who finds the murdered body of a book burner in his library, and sent it off.
To my shock, I won the manuscript contest.
“You should really send this in to New York,” one of the judges told me.
“I, uh, only have the one chapter,” I said.
“Well then you should finish it.”
So I did. Armed with a bit of self-confidence, I went back and wrote the book over the next several months. Now at this point, with the book finished AND polished, I started querying agents. So I did, and I wasn’t really getting anywhere. I had been going to conferences, and had befriended some published writers, but hadn’t asked them to recommend me to their agents. I just hadn’t; I didn’t want to impose on the friendships. And it’s sort of like asking a new friend, hey can you get me a job at your company? It just wasn’t my style, so I had researched agents through Writers’ Market and had a small list I was approaching. I had queried about four agents, with no luck, when I saw that two mystery editors–one from St Martin’s, one from Ballantine/Random House–were going to be at a mystery writers’ conference in Austin that I would be attending.
As Baldrick liked to say on the classic Blackadder comedy series: “I have a cunning plan.” I did a little research and found out both editors, while based in New York, grew up in the South. And here I was writing a small Southern town mystery. I thought, just thought, maybe I could get either of them to commit to looking at sample chapters if I got a chance to meet them, wasn’t pushy about asking, and followed up with a letter to them.
As it turned out, my friendship with one author got me on a panel talking about true crime in the South–even though I wasn’t a published author. One of the editors was in the audience and later told me I was funny. The second editor sat next to me (I engineered this–cunning!) at a dinner. I told her I was writing a book BUT this is key: I didn’t pitch it to her. Not at all. I thought it would be bad form to pitch her while she was a captive audience at a dinner. Instead we talked about books we loved.
So I’d met both editors, they knew I had finished a manuscript, but I had not pitched it to either of them or even asked if I could send them sample chapters.
The last night of the conference, I was in the bar, and both editors were there, each drinking a beer, sitting at separate tables with authors. Urged on by a published friend, I approached each of them as their groups broke up, thanked them for coming to the conference, and asked if I could send them the first three chapters of the book. Both immediately said yes, but to send the entire manuscript. This could have been to get rid of me, or it could have been that I hadn’t been pressing the book on them for the last three days. I hadn’t been a pest, so why not say yes?
So. I sent off the manuscript. Six weeks later, on a Friday, I came home late from a post-work happy hour to discover a voice message from one of the editors: “I want to congratulate you on your book, I’ll give you a call on Monday.” The most analytical weekend of my life followed; a published friend said, “He’s not calling you to REJECT it.” Which I thought was true, but I also wasn’t quite ready to say he’s going to offer me a deal. Maybe he wanted a rewrite before an offer; maybe he wanted to turn it down but ask me to send him the next book I wrote. I didn’t know.
On Monday the editor called me again. He wanted to offer on the book. The next day the other editor called; she also wanted to offer on the book. I was beyond stunned. At this point, I did indeed ask my published friends to recommend their agents and they were very happy to do so. I interviewed several agents on the phone; when you have two offers in hand from publishers, it is going to be easier to get representation, but at the same time I wanted to make a good choice, not a fast one. To my surprise, some agents still would not return my phone calls even though I had multiple offers in hand. (and yes, I still remember their names–did they think I was lying? I’ll never know). I did find an agent, and then I accepted one of the offers (which said agent negotiated into a two-book deal).
So. That’s how I got published. I don’t know if I would recommend this approach for everyone, but there are three key points to remember:
- I acted like a professional before I was one
- I did not pester anyone for help until I had sound reason
- I had a finished, polished manuscript
Those points still apply today, even with all the massive changes in the publishing business.