Claire Delacroix | Ten Things You Can Do To Improve Your Chances Of Making Your First Sale
September 15, 2009
I know a lot of aspiring writers (and I’ll likely meet a lot more, during the
writer-in-residence program at the Toronto Public Library this fall. And every
July, after aspiring romance writers attend RWA’s National convention, many of
them come home determined to sell their first book by the next annual conference.
Selling a book by a specific date sounds like a good goal, but think about it.
We say that authors make sales, but who is really is charge of that part of the
process? Publishers buy books - specifically editors working for publishers -
while authors write books. So, it’s not really up to you when your book is sold.
This makes selling a poor goal, as the biggest part of it isn’t in the realm of
That said, there are a lot of awfully good goals that can put on the right path
to making that sale, and - good news! - they are all within your powers.
1/ Finish the (insert adjective of choice here) book manuscript.
Most authors make their first sale on a complete manuscript, plain and simple.
It’s the only way that any editor can know for certain that you know how to
write a book. If you want to be published, you’re going to have to not just sit
down and write, but finish what you started.
2/ Follow your heart.
Don’t write a book that you don’t particularly want to write, just because you
think "that kind" of book will sell and get your foot in the publisher’s door.
Most of the time, this doesn’t work. When an editor buys your first book, she or
he will want a second book that shows similar characteristics - for example,
another historical romance, or another funny paranormal romance, or another
romantic suspense. By marketing several books in succession that have strong
similarities, the publisher can "brand" you and build your readership. This is a
good thing. It means, however, that the first book that you write and submit
should be characteristic of the work you intend to do for the next five or six
books. Following your historical romance with a cookbook is going to confuse
everybody. Figure out what you want to write for the next little while, and make
sure your first book is of that type.
3/ Define what you do.
This is tough because it’s hard to be objective about your own creative output.
Some defining characteristics of your work will be easy to label, so start with
those. Do you write romances or mysteries? Do you write historicals or
contemporaries? If you write historicals, do you focus on one particular period?
Do you include other genre elements in your work, like suspense or mystery in a
romance, or a touch of paranormal in a mystery? Is the tone of your work light
and humorous, or dark and brooding? Is it literary or not? The really difficult
qualifiers are ones that you may need help defining - does your work have scope?
Is it fresh? Do you have a strong voice? Does your work belong in category or
single title? Figuring out what you do right now - because it will change over
your career - is the most valuable thing you can do beyond the writing itself.
Once you know the defining characteristics of your work, you essentially know
the shape of the piece that you need to fit into the puzzle of the market.
4/ Research publishers.
Different publishers specialize in different kinds of fiction. Different editors
like different kinds of work. Examine the publication and author lists of
different publishers and look for the patterns in what they buy. Listen to
editors at conferences to get an idea of their tastes, and a glimpse of where
the house is going. Figure out which half dozen authors do work that has the
strongest similarities to your work, then look at who publishes them. Find out
the names of their editors, if you can - dedications are great sources for that.
Using your list of what you do, make a list of potential "good fits" for your work.
5/ Watch for the changes.
When lines launch, there are new slots open for new authors. When editors change
jobs, changes result in the list and there are often new slots for new authors.
These are golden opportunities, especially if they happen at the houses you have
targeted in the exercise above. Watch also for promotions - a promoted editor,
especially one who was previously an assistant, has a low slush pile and a
desire to make his or her mark on the list.
6/ Research agents.
If you want an agent or feel that you need one, do exactly the same analysis for
agents that you’ve done for publishers. Find out who represents authors whose
work has similarities with your own - again, those dedications can be helpful -
and find out which of those agents will look at unpublished authors. Check their
websites and reputations. Remember that an agent relationship is more personal
than a publisher relationship (and possibly more long term) so you’ll need to
"click" with your agent. You should have similar perspectives or similar views
of your career path, or be so opposite that you balance each other. You’re only
going to know a lot of this by meeting a prospective agent in person, then
following your gut. Make a list of five or six agents, at least, and make an
effort to meet each of them face to face before making a decision. If you can’t
afford to go to New York, try meeting agents at a conference.
7/ Get a critique.
Ideally, get a critique from someone who isn’t reliant upon you for the
essentials of life (your significant other, your children), someone who won’t
tell you bad news (your best pal) or someone who thinks everything you do is
just fine (your mother). Get the opinion of somebody who knows something about
what you’re trying to do. Ask the person at the local bookstore who recommends
good reads to you, ask another member of your writing group, enter the
manuscript in a contest judged by published authors and editors in your targeted
genre. Get an informed opinion that you’re not utterly missing the mark. If
you’re asking for the critique as a favor, thank the person and show them in
some way that you appreciate their help.
Check the spelling, check the grammar. Check not only that the words are spelled
right but that they’re the right words in the right places. Make sure there are
no words missing. You’re a writer - you’re not supposed to mess that part up.
Check the format and the pagination. Check your margins. Check your contact
information on the cover page. (That isn’t a joke.) Check the manuscript and
check it twice before you even think about sending it out. Make sure that you
print a fresh copy for each submission, that the manuscript is neat and clean,
and that the toner is nice and dark.
9/ Submit the book manuscript.
In order for an editor to read your manuscript, the manuscript will have to be
submitted to that editor. It will only get there if you or your agent sends it
there - and your agent will only send it there, if you’ve sent it to your agent
first. You’re just going to have to put that thing in an envelope and push it
out into the world if it’s ever going to be published. The good news is that you
already know where to send it (see above) so there’s no need to waffle over
10/ Finish the (insert adjective of choice here) book manuscript.
If you don’t finish it, you can’t sell it. It doesn’t get simpler than that,
Bestselling author Deborah
Cooke. always loved stories, both telling them and hearing them. She sold
her first romance novel - a medieval, THE
ROMANCE OF THE ROSE - in 1992 and has
been happily writing romances ever since. THE BEAUTY, part of her
bestselling 'Bride Quest' series, was her first title to land on the New
York Times Extended List of Bestselling Books. Deborah has published close to
forty romance novels and novellas. As Claire Delacroix, she has
published historical and urban fantasy romances; as Claire Cross, she has
published contemporary romances, ChickLit, time travel and paranormal romances;
as Deborah Cooke, she
writes the bestselling Dragonfire series of urban fantasy romances. She has been
nominated for and won numerous awards and accolades. In October and November
2009, Deborah will be
the writer in residence at the Toronto Public Library, the first time they have
offered a residency focused on the romance genre. More information about the
residency is here:
I notice you wrote time travel books, those are my favorite. I'm looking for a time travel I read years ago from the library. I do not know the author or title. It started off with a woman in the dentist office and she ends up in the old west as a mail order bride. I've asked different authors, still haven't found out who wrote it. Any Ideas? (Theresa Buckholtz 12:50pm September 15, 2009)
Claire Delacroix/Claire Cross/Deborah Cooke: Thank you so much for your list. Your advice is most helpful, especially concerning one's writings in the long-term perspective of one's career.
Your recommend to aspiring authors, "Once you know the defining characteristics of your work, you essentially know the shape of the piece that you need to fit into the puzzle of the market." This is most encouraging to those of us who are pushing the envelope, defy formulas, and bucking trends. Too often I hear how writers like us haven't a chance. Yet from your POV, even we have a place in the overall picture.
Your second piece of advice recalls to my mind Sir Phillip Sidney's famous poem about his writer's block. When he was stumped for inspiration, and imitating others wasn't working, he asked his Muse what he should do. Her reply? "Fool! Look in thy heart, and write." (Mary Anne Landers 1:33pm September 15, 2009)
Hi Theresa -
My time travels have been out of print for a while now. It's a very tough subgenre to sell these days, although it's a lot of fun to write. I don't remember the one you mention, although I read a lot of them. Have you looked at all of the Time Passages titles released by Berkley Jove in the late 90's? They published one a month for quite a while, and someone somewhere must have a list. Two of mine were published there. Good luck!
Hi Mary Anne - I believe actually that being distinctive is the key to new authors placing their work in the marketplace. The trick is to recognize how to structure your story in recognition of the expectations of each genre - it is very difficult, for example, to place a romance that ends badly. The HEA is a big part of why readers choose to read romance. But if you tell the story of a love story gone awry, you can structure it as a women's fiction story - i.e. the story of the female protagonist's emotional journey - or as literary fiction - i.e. fiction with a stronger author voice - and have a much better chance of selling that work. You would also submit it to a different selection of agents and editors than you might a romance. So, there's a balance to be struck there, between deciding how to tell your story and what the conventions are within each genre. Of course, the market changes all the time, so some conventions are always on the move. I suspect that the HEA, though, will never really leave the romance genre. Good luck! Deborah (Deborah Cooke 2:11pm September 15, 2009)
Clair, this was a well thought out and clear, concise explanation of how to be published. Thank you! (Rosemary Krejsa 7:47pm September 15, 2009)
Lots of great advice. I just wanted you to know I love your Dragonfire series (Diane Sadler 10:50pm September 15, 2009)
Hi, Deborah, I've noticed that you are very good at getting the right words and the correct spelling. This is one of my bugaboos when reading anything written. If I find too many mistakes in spelling, grammar, etc., I'm very disinclined to continue reading any more of that writer's work, no matter how good the stories. I just find that the flow of the story is always disrupted for me, and this definitely annoys me. This is probably a reaction of any English teacher, especially those who like me taught it to non-English speakers. Ive just read a book where the words 'reeked' and 'wreaked' were confused, among other problems. 'Lie' and 'lay' are seldom used correctly, as are 'it's' and 'its.' Every writer should have a grammar and dictionary handy. Just don't drop the attention once you have a published book. I read the first book by one writer with great pleasure, because there were almost no mistakes. The next book was a disaster--probably because of time constraints--but I have not read a book by her since. (Sigrun Schulz 11:18pm September 15, 2009)
thank you for the great list. You really spell it out nicely. (Karin Tillotson 11:24pm September 15, 2009)
Reading this blog gave me a lesson in publishing and even more encouragement to write in my favorite genre. I feel as though I've taken a master class. Thanks for the insider's edge. (Alyson Widen 12:07pm September 16, 2009)
One of the best top ten lists I have EVER read!! And I'm right there beside Sigrun when it comes to typos, whether spelling or grammar. As a copy editor, mis-spelled (or is it mis-spelt?) words, the incorrect words (what does spell-check know after all?), and bad grammar send me screaming from the room. When I come back into the room, I have that dreaded RED PEN held firmly in my hot little hand, and it usually gets a workout!
Yes, it can sometimes be very distracting to read something with errors, especially when you KNOW that author can do better, in fact HAS done better in the past, which is why you bought their new book in the first place, but sometimes you just have to grin and bear it. When it's too much, I will give up on a book, and pass it on, with instructions to my reading buddy to pass it on when she's done with it. In all our years of reading, there has only been one author who had a book that neither of us could finish. Finish? Heck, we couldn't even get past the third chapter, it was so bad! Fortunately, that was the only time that we've had any problems with that author, which is good, because she's a favourite of ours.