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Reedsy Live How to Get Published as a Debut Novelist HIGHLIGHTS.

These are my notes from the live stream on Wednesday night. I haven’t proofed, I’m afraid. They may read a little rough, so that I could get them posted more quickly. Some details might be a little inexact, but I’ve got the main gist of most of the salient parts.

There were a hell of a lot of questions in the comments, which obviously couldn’t all be answered in the session. I plucked out a few to answer here as they are either common questions or make good talking points.

Caroline Leavitt

She got an agent on the back of winning a short story competition, without even having a novel. This is a rarity. The novel did extremely well but her second book not so much. By her ninth novel her publisher went out of business and she couldn't get an agent because she was already an author with a tried and tested sales history. Turned to the writing community and with help from colleagues and friends – self-published? -- the book became NY best seller.

Gina Sorrell

Had interest with several agents but nothing came together. Got published at a small press, in the end. Every time she queried and received a full MS request, her MS was taken from the slush pile on the back of her great query. This emphasises how important the query is and that it is a myth that no one from the slush pile gets read or published. Make your MS and your query as strong as you can!

General notes:

Self-publishing works well for fan fic, big platforms, romance. (What they didn’t mention is that you better not be charging for fan fic because you could end up owing the original creator loads of money). Hard to get sales and book shop shelf space. Difficult to get trad publishing reviews. Big advances on novels through trad publishing: when book doesn't earn out within first few weeks, they turn to other books and authors. Gina cited a €200,000 dollar advance to one author to whom this happened. So, big advances do not necessarily equate to assured careers.

Both authors spoke about the dips and spikes of the publishing industry, citing cases where authors have had agents interested, only to find they are not a good fit, can’t sell the work, been published but then readership fizzles out, publishing house drops authors. There are no assurances.

Overall message, though: perserverence.

Some resources worth checking out:

·Poets and writers - list competitions and writing opportunities. Modern Love publishing podcasts. (there's also Query Tracker still, maybe?) Look for agents names in acknowledgements. Aim for 60 agents when querying. Mixed advice between query all and do it in batches. Maybe query all works better in bigger agent pond such as the US? Reedsy list of agents - fully vetted.

Dress your MS for success. Don't do anything weird or too arty. Readability.

Publicity and marketing

Publishers should do the publicity. Publicity is done 8-6 months before book release. Vanity presses have picked up on the phrase 'hybrid' publishers (half n’ half financing). Look for clues - bad covers, no reviews, etc. (read my February blog post on the subject)


Have a presence, get used to using at least one platform. No need to work it all the time, just ten minutes morning and evening, but be regular. Ultimately, do what’s comfortable for you. (To be fair, neither of these authors seemed particularly SM savvy. Seeing as Facebook posts have so little organic reach now and Instagram only reaches 7% of followers – no idea on Twitter, but I imagine it’s similar – it almost seems not worth it. I will write a post about what I know about SM at some point, but that’s not happening this month.)

Questions from viewers:

I have an interesting childhood story and a proposal written for a memoir, but I also have finished fiction. Which one first?

Not answering as a book publishing professional in any way here, but this is a good question to highlight because it depicts so well how little so many unpublished or inexperienced writers understand about how to position their prospective careers.

So, with my marketing hat on, I’m going to address these points.

First thing to consider is: when your first published book comes out, what do you want it to say about you as an author? Which audience do you want it to impact? If it’s the hit we all hope our debuts will be, your career is going to follow along that path for some years. What I mean is, if your novel is about a boy who finds out his parents were wizards and is sent to a magical school in a castle and that sells millions of copies and then the next book you have ready to pitch/publish is a gritty childhood memoir about how you suffered sexual abuse, that’s not going to be a good mix. Not only will it mix your message, it wouldn’t be working towards a consistent brand, nor serving the audience you have already sold to, which would be kids. Your memoir would be completely inappropriate. Effectively, you’d be starting out as a debut author again, because you would need to establish a separate audience for that memoir. Once you have debuted as a novelist, ride the wave and capitalise on the momentum while it’s there (go back to the beginning of this post if you think one lone novel will be enough to ride its coattails for years to come.)

If your memoir was about how you had ACTUALLY gone to a magical school and that inspired the novel, then quite possibly it would be worth pitching. So, is it related to the novel or entirely separate? Can it be used to leverage more sales of your fiction? Think of how your products (books) will cross-sell.

But let’s deal a little more with the subject of the memoir on the assumption that a real magical education didn’t happen and it’s much more based in reality. I’m going to be brutally honest here – what’s so great about your life that other people want to read about it? I don't mean that rudely, but that's what a publisher will want to know.

Let me put that into better context.

I’ve lived abroad to my home nation for a long time and run many a-writing group. I’ve met many immigrants from all over Europe who have moved here (and away!) over the years. I’ve also heard a lot of them say they are going to write a book about living in France because so many funny and interesting things have happened to them since they set up sticks.

Things is, every (expat) muther has written a memoir about their experiences in France. It’s hackneyed. I always ask them: so, what will make your book stand out from all the rest?

Then we watch the tumbleweed pass in the silence.

The same principle is true of all memoirs. If you are not famous for something, what’s going to make people want to read about you? Why is your life so interesting? Is it interesting, or is it interesting only to you? There is a difference. (Then there are the celebs that are really not that interesting but bring out a memoir, anyway, just because they can. Somebody hand me the matches!)

Let’s assume that you did have a really interesting, non-celebrity life and it is worth reading about. To me, the canny thing to do would be to hang back with that MS and focus on launching your career in fiction. This would be more marketing savvy to me. If your author career is handled right and goes the way you want it to with a large volume of copies shooting off the bookshelves, as an already established author in fiction in ten years’ time with a proven audience, a non-fiction book will sell immediately than as an unknown non-fiction author now. But switch it around – would a novel sell so well off the back of a memoir? Do you have more than one memoir in you? Are you really THAT interesting people would buy two books about your non-celebrity life? Common sense tells me that is a much riskier strategy, personally, but bods in the industry might know differently, so worth double-checking.

Let’s say one of your children had a severe disability and you’d written about the challenges of parenting over the years as they grew up. Your noble intentions are that you would like to shine a light on this disability so that people on the outside get a better understanding of it. Thing is, in the real world, the best of intentions are not all it takes to sell a book. Now, I’m not saying it could never sell or never sell in huge volumes, but consider what impact it might have if you became a celebrity author from your novel about kids going to magic school? Think of how many more people are going to be interested in that insight into your life? Yes, it would be selling to a different audience, but by the time you have established a career for fiction, it’s only natural by then to branch out into other avenues. Your brand has been established, people know what you stand for, what your message is, and your memoir will only add to enhance that in a different way, ideally.

As with anything in publishing (and writing, actually), writers have to learn to consider the bigger picture, the longer-term goals and a growth plan, rather than focus on one single project for the immediate future


Okay, I rambled a bit there, so I’m going to end this now. For the last Sunday of the month, which is when I usually post, I'll be posting my notes from next week's Prowritingaid Crime Writers Week. This is a free online event. If you haven't yet registered and would like to attend, there's still plenty of time.

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