My Journey from Failed Mid-Lister to Successful Author, by Beth Orsoff

Hint:  It didn’t happen by waiting around for New York to say Yes

I want to be honest here.  We all have different benchmarks for success.  Am I on the NYTs or USA Today Bestsellers Lists?  No.  Have I sold millions of books?  Not even close.  But in January 2011, I made more money as a writer than I did as a lawyer (my day job).  That, to me, equals success.  This is how I got there:

People always ask writers when they knew they wanted to be a writer.  Most writers say they always knew, that they’d been writing stories since they’d learned to hold a crayon, and were making up stories in their head before that.  I’m not that writer.

I bought my first “How to Write a Novel” book a month after I took the California Bar Exam.  Seven years later when I still hadn’t gotten farther than a few chapters I decided it was time to take action.  I quit my job to take a year off to write.  (Yes, that was an interesting conversation I had with my parents when I told them my plan, but we’ll save that for another blog post.)

I was unemployed for exactly one year and two weeks.  In that time I wrote five drafts of my novel and  sent out my first batch of query letters.   Two years, two more drafts, and seventy rejection letters later, I landed my first agent.  Six weeks after that I had an offer from Penguin/NAL.

My first book, “Romantically Challenged” was published in April 2006, approximately six months after the chick lit markettanked.  I had a small print run, no publisher support, and, not surprisingly, my book was not a huge success (massive understatement).  While I was waiting for “Romantically Challenged” to be published I wrote another book, also chick lit.  NAL elected not to option it and my agent started sending it to other publishers.  Then my agent “disappeared” for a few weeks and I decided it was time to find a new agent.

I began querying but was told that since Book #2 had been “shopped,” I needed something new.   I wrote Book #3.  This time I knew better than to write a chick lit book.  I wrote a mystery instead.  Unfortunately, even when I’m not writing chick lit, I have a chick lit voice.  Although the plot of “Honeymoon for One” is a mystery (not a single shoe is purchased, I swear!), the characters are still wise-cracking twenty-somethings.

I began querying anew and after only a couple dozen rejection letters (progress!) I had offers from three agents.  I was sure this one was going to sell.  Three agents couldn’t all be wrong.

Well, actually, they can.  Agent #2 shopped “Honeymoon for One” to all the NY Publishers and for one reason or another they all passed.  But by this point, I had already started writing Book #4 aka “How I Learned to Love the Walrus (an Arctic Romantic Comedy).”

“Walrus” was a difficult book from the start.  At my agent’s suggestion, I sent her a chunk while I was still writing the first draft.  She hated it.  I don’t mean she wasn’t thrilled with it, I mean she actively despised it.  She made suggestions, I made changes.  We did this a couple of times until I casually mentioned that I was considering hiring a freelance editor.  My agent thought that was my best idea yet and suggested someone one of her other clients had worked with.  I ended up hiring that person for two reasons.  First, I spoke to her on the phone and loved her.  Second, I thought surely my agent can’t reject a book her own editor has approved.  Wrong again!

The freelance editor my agent suggested loved the book.   She made some suggestions, of course, which I implemented, then sent the book back to my agent as the editor-approved version.  My agent still hated.  Thus began the Great Agent Hunt, Part Three.

After too many rejection letters to even count, I signed with Agent #3.  She began submitting “How I Learned to Love the Walrus” to all the usual NY Publishers in January 2010.  In the meantime, I requested my rights back to “Romantically Challenged.”  I had been reading Joe Konrath’s blog, knew a few people that owned Kindles, and thought what the hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.

I hired a cover designer and a formatter and uploaded “Romantically Challenged” to Amazon at the end of June 2010.  I sold four copies the first week having done nothing but list the book.  I thought hey, maybe there’s something to this e-book thing.

I joined Kindleboards, started learning the self-publishing ropes, and uploaded “Honeymoon for One” a month later.  That book sold even better than “Romantically Challenged.”  In July 2010, I sold 118 e-books.  The following month I sold 570.  By this point, most of the NY Publishers had rejected “How I Learned to Love the Walrus.”  The usual reason given:  We don’t know how to market this/we don’t know how to break this out of the midlist.  My agent wanted to start sending the book to e-publishers.  This time I said no.  Why would I want to give half the royalties (or more) to an e-publisher when I’d already done all the work?

I asked my agent: What can an e-publisher do for me that I can’t (and haven’t) done for myself?  She never could give me a satisfactory answer to that question.  We decided to wait another two months for the last NY Publisher to get back to us (they never did by the way).  In November 2010, I published “How I Learned to Love the Walrus” myself.  That month I sold over 1100 e-books.

Thanksgiving weekend I uploaded all three books to B&N via their PubIt program.  I sold 9 books at B&N in November.  In December I sold 500 books at B&N.  In January 2011 I sold almost 7000 books at B&N.  Between Amazon and B&N, I sold over 13,000 books in January.  Will I continue to sell books at that rate?  I don’t know.  But I’ve already had much more success as a self-published author than I ever did as a traditionally published author, plus I get to write the books I want to write, choose my own covers, and publish on my schedule, not someone else’s.

Is self-publishing for everyone?  No.  Is my success typical?  Probably not.  But if you’ve followed the rules of publishing i.e., learned your craft, written good books, perhaps even landed an agent, and you still can’t get a traditional publisher to take a chance on you, why not self-publish?  What have you got to lose?

Visit Beth’s Website

Beth was a regular attendee of UCLA Extension Writers Program workshops and working as an entertainment lawyer in the Warner Bros. Theatrical Legal Department when she decided to quit her job so she could finally write that novel. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Comments

  1. Tonya Kappes says:

    Wow, Beth!! Amazing journey. Thanks for coming by WG2E and giving us hope. I’ve always said tha agent has become the middle man and not sure where they will fit in with the every changing publishing world~if for foreign rights or movie deals. I’m at the point in my career where I struggle with self publishing or continue the goal of the big six. It’s hard to decided and jump into the unknown or even let go of a goal that I’ve had for YEARS!! I, of course, write chick-lit and belong to all the chapters. Will you continue to try the big six?

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Hi Tonya,

      I’m not anti-Big Six, but I think especially if you write chick lit, it’s not really a viable option right now. It is next to impossible to sell chick lit to NY at this point in time. I’m not saying if I was offered a lucrative contract I would turn it down, but I don’t see that happening. I do still have an agent though, and she is trying to sell subsidiary rights. Perhaps as the business evolves more and more agents will start focusing on that rather than trying to sell to the Big Six.

  2. Ruth Harris says:

    Hi Beth…Great post! Your titles are irresistible, your covers say “come hither.” I’ve been TradPubbed, even been on the NYTimes best seller list & am now making my back list available in e-version. My new work will go straight to Kindle. No reason, anymore, to put up with the rejections, requests for edits, umpty-ump drafts to “please” that don’t end up pleasing anyone, least of all the author. Your story is well told and very inspiring!

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Thanks Ruth! Good luck with your books. Self-publishing really is a crazy ride!

  3. Misa says:

    Welcome to WG2E, Beth. So glad you shared your journey with us. I’m with Ruth…love your covers!!! Very come hither. ;)

    What has been the most challenging part of the self publishing venture? And what is your most effective marketing strategy?

    Wishing you continued success.

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Hi Misa,

      Thanks for hosting me today. I think the most challenging part of self-publishing for me is trying to find time to do it all. Although the refrain of “not enough hours in the day” applies to traditional publishers as well. The most time consuming part for me (and I suspect most) is the publicizing/social media. But that applies in traditional publishing as well. Unless you’re James Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc., a Big-Six publisher isn’t going to put a lot of promo time and money into your book. You’re going to have to be out there yourself doing guest blogs, on facebook, twitter, etc. So in that respect, it’s really no different than any other method of publishing.

      Re marketing, it’s hard to know what works and what doesn’t, and I truly believe a lot of it comes down to luck. I’ve paid for the Kindle Nation Daily sponsorship and for one book it worked really well, and for another book it was only moderately successful. I’ve tried banner ads on different sites and sometimes they seem to help, and other times they seem to make no difference at all. I still think what ultimately sells books is positive word of mouth. So whatever you can do to get that buzz going is what you should be doing. Just make sure you don’t cross the line and become one of those obnoxious people who spends all of their time online plugging their own books!

      One of the nice things about self-publishing (as opposed to traditional publishing) is that your books aren’t going to be pulled from the digital shelves if they don’t perform right away. Books have the opportunity to build over time. Also, if something isn’t working, you can tweak it. You can upload a new cover, or change your price. I’m sure you’ve heard of Victorine Lieske, author of “Not What She Seems.” Her books weren’t selling well so she dropped the price to 99-cents. She is now on the NYT’s Bestsellers List. I know other authors who changed their covers and saw immediate increases in sales. You can just keeping trying new things until you find what works. And if nothing works, then sometimes you just have to accept that it isn’t going to happen for this book and move on to the next one. Sometimes it really is just luck.

  4. D. D. Scott says:

    Big ‘ole kudos to you, Beth!!!

    Not only do I luuuvvv your How I Got To Indie Epub-ville & Beyond Success Story…I luuuvvv your books!!! I have all three on my Kindle and can’t wait to get started on them!!!

    I sooo admire your guts and instincts…and most of all, admire the fact you had the courage to believe in ‘em and follow ‘em too!

    I’m sooo proud to share the Indie Epub Journey with super smart and gutsy gals like you!!!

    You go, Girl!!!

    And Welcome to The WG2E!!!

  5. Jeff Salter says:

    Beth, I’m truly inspired and encouraged by your determination and success.
    But I’m also slightly stunned that you’re on your third agent in 7 (?) years.
    I’ve heard of other authors who’ve parted company with agents and I’ve wondered for some time how this is accomplished. When signed by an agent, there’s a contract with certain stipulations. I gather that either the agent or the author can declare the representation absolved.
    But if the author can drop the agent with (what seems like relative ease) … can’t the agent do the same to the writer? [I mean, if they get 'bristly' about the writer's cooperation or flexibility.]
    I guess I’m saying that being ‘signed’ by an agent no longer seems to be the brass ring that I used to think it was.
    Any comments?
    [BTW, the 'full' of my 4th ms. is in the hands of an agent and I'm awaiting her decision.]

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Constantly changing agents was never my goal. Sometimes it just happens that way. Agent #1 was never my ideal agent, but I signed with her because I was tired of looking for an agent and she was the first one to say “yes.” Was it a mistake? I don’t know. She sold the book so I can’t really say that it was.

      I really liked Agent #2 and we parted ways on very good terms. If she hadn’t hated my most recent book I would likely still be with her. But when your agent hates your book you have to make a choice–your agent or your book. I chose my book. Again, I can’t say that was a mistake, especially since I found another agent who loves the book. This is a subjective business, I think we can all agree on that!

      I’m still with Agent #3. She is being very supportive of my self-publishing “experiment” and is currently trying to sell subsidiary rights. Hopefully this relationship will last longer than the other two!

  6. Wow, what an amazing journey, Beth. Congrats on your success and more to come. I love a chick-lit voice whether in a chick-lit novel or a mystery so I’d probably really enjoy your books. I’ll be sure to check them out and perhaps recommend them in my book club.

    I also admire you for not giving up on your agent search after 70 rejections. I had about 40 rejections and just couldn’t take it anymore! Especially with people screaming “chick-lit is dead” in my ears! After considering self-publishing, I submitted and published with an e-publisher instead because I liked the idea of not having to do anything myself besides writing the darn book. I work full time and didn’t have the time nor the money. And as a newbie, the reassurance that a publisher requested and contracted my novel felt good. I was, in fact, pleased with the editing and the cover art and still am, but I still have to do all my own promotion. And while I’m selling books, I’m not making much money at all because as you said, my publisher takes most of it!

    With my second novel almost completed, I see I have lots of options out there to consider.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Meredith

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Meredith,

      I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone and I would never fault an author for wanting to work with a publisher. In fact, for a first-time author I would probably recommend that if they have an opportunity to work with a publisher, they should. I’m glad I did. If for nothing else, you want the experience of working with an editor.

      In the case of my most recent book, I worked with a professional editor (she had been an editor for one of the Big-Six for many years before she started freelancing), I just did so outside of the traditional publishing system. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t feel that a small e-publisher had a lot to offer me. Had I not already worked with an editor on that book, I might’ve felt differently.

  7. That’s fabulous, Beth! I’m so proud for you! Envious too but so very proud! I am also self published, have been since the beginning of my career in writing. My choice. I like doing things my way.

    Kristie

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Thanks Kristie! I loved your book “No Lady and her Tramp.” Very, very funny.

  8. Bob Mayer says:

    This is a story that is becoming more and more common for midlist authors. I’ve seen two others who followed the same path and I’m also on it. After 45 books traditionally published, hitting all the bestseller lists, etc. etc. I started bringing my backlist out last year myself. This year I made the difficult to decision to part ways with traditional publishing. The reality is, if you aren’t a ‘brand’ author that the publisher backs, your career is almost guaranteed to be doomed. The days of surviving on the midlist are dwindling. I’m releasing my Civil War trilogy direct to eBook and POD on 12 April because it’s the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. Not only do I like having more control, I also know that no traditional publisher could have gotten the books out that quickly after it took me two years to write them.
    I believe succeeding at self-publishing is as hard as succeeding in traditional publishing, the difference is, more of the control is with the writer rather than the vagaries of others.

  9. Katie Klein says:

    Beth said: “What have you got to lose?”

    My thoughts exactly. Congrats on your success!

    KK

  10. Helen Smith says:

    Fantastic! I have read Beth’s “How to Love the Walrus” and really enjoyed it – I went straight out and bought “Romantically Challenged” and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I’m English and live in England – Beth’s books seem to go down really well over here from what I have read in Amazon’s reader forums. I think they have a universal appeal. I’d love to see them turned into movies. I bet Beth would, too!

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      That would be nice, but as someone who works in the entertainment industry (day job), I know how few books get optioned, and of those lucky few, and even tinier number actually get produced. Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath!

  11. Beth! I am so glad your books are doing so well. I loved the Chicklit blip and mourned its demise. I knew there was an audience for these books (you’ve inspired me to take another look at one I wrote right before the bubble burst…maybe I’ll sp it!). I’m sure it helps that your covers strike just the right chicklit tone, too.

    Thank you for sharing your story here.

  12. J.A. Marlow says:

    Sounds like quite a journey to get to where you are now. Congrats on the success! It looks like it was a long time coming, and surely ‘about time’. ;)

    Going the Indie direction is one more and more are walking, thanks to the better control, royalties, and other benefits. I also love being able to release a work when it’s ready and not having to wait for a scheduled slot in a big companies catalog.

    It’s been interesting to see how authors do in different sales channels. All the more reason to be in as many channels as possible, as you never know which one will break out. :)

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Yes, definitely. I’ve just gotten my books up on Smashwords and they are slowly being distributed via their premium catalog. Very few sales at SW so far, but you just never know if/when things will pick up.

  13. I love, love, love this story. Thank you for sharing it.
    Consuelo

  14. Rex Jameson says:

    Great to see someone climbing the ranks like this. Congratulations and good luck on the next leg of the journey!

  15. Paulita says:

    Inspiring. Yet another thing to freeze me in indecision. Is it the novel? Is it the query letter? Should I revise more? Or could it be the agents and publishers?

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      It’s so hard to know. I still struggle with this. Why does this book sell better than that book? Is it the cover? The title? The subject matter? We can make ourselves crazy with it.

      I think what William Goldman said about the movie business applies just as much to the publishing business–No one knows anything!

  16. L.C. Evans says:

    Wonderful post, Beth. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  17. Lee says:

    Wow, Beth that is a encouraging story, and one I hope to copy in the future. I do believe indie publishing is the best route for me. As you said it’s not for everyone, and doesn’t work that will for everyone. I hope it does for me.

  18. Love your covers, Beth! How are your books selling in the UK?

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      My UK sales are nowhere near my US sales, although I ran a promotion for Valentine’s Day (reduced the price to 99-cents for the long weekend) and that definitely gave them a boost.

  19. Dru says:

    WOW…the statement that got me was you made more as a writer in January than you did as a lawyer. WOW. Kudos and now my interest has peaked for your books and I’m heading over to Amazon.

  20. Definitely a big wow and congratulations are in order!!!

  21. Lucie Simone says:

    Hi Beth,
    I heard you speak at B&N’s PubIt event a couple weeks ago. I opened my own small press last fall and released my first book, Hollywood Ending. At that time, I didn’t issue a digital edition. I had previously had 2 ebooks published with e-publishers and neither sold well. So, I didn’t have much faith in them. But I have seen the light! Now that the Nook & Kindle are becoming so popular, it only makes sense to issue a digital version as well. I also just got that rights back to those two stories that had been previously published, and I’m re-releasing them for the Nook & Kindle at bargain prices.

    Congrats on your sales! And much continued success!

    • Beth Orsoff says:

      Thanks for coming, Lucie! Yes, if you are self-publishing then you should definitely do ebooks too. The ebook market has really come a long way in the last year or two. Good luck!

  22. Sibel Hodge says:

    Congrats on your success, Beth. It’s inspiring for new authors to read your your story. I was in the same boat as you, never managing to get a trad-pub deal for my novels. The Kindle revolution has changed so much in the publishing world now. It’s time for readers to choose what they want to read!

  23. Beth–this is so awesome and inspirational! Way to persevere!

  24. Congrats on this, Beth! Very interesting; I’m going to be tweeting this post. Do you have any tips about getting covers designed and the formatting that goes into getting e-books up on various platforms? Thanks!

  25. Thanks for sharing Beth, and congratulations on your self publishing success!

  26. Terry Spear says:

    Beth, you’re an inspiration!! I started self-pubbing shorts a couple of weeks ago and will add novels to the list in an effort to provide readers with in-between reads before the next urban fantasy release when I have the time, but you are a real inspiration in not letting others hold you back! My publishers (none of them NY), still keep the writer limited to how many releases they can have per year.

    With self-publishing, we can release more if we’ve got the stories! :)

    Too often I’ve seen comments from readers who wonder while all NY published books seem the same. And there you have the MOLD. Fit into the mold and you might sell. But readers love new and different. So this is a wonderful way for writers to spread their wings and offer different. :)

  27. Mirella says:

    Congratulations on your success. I have also abandoned the traditional publishing world and put out my first book, The Blighted Troth, a month ago. I’ve also sold more books this month than I have in the 1.5 years my other novel has been listed with a small press.
    Don’t know why I waited so long….You are an inspiration.

  28. Beth;

    Can you tell me why you need an agent when your’re self-publishing? As the ‘publisher’ don’t you hold ALL the rights to your work? Does your agent get the same percentage as if your work were traditionally published?

  29. By the way – very interesting and inspiring post. Congratulations to you!

  30. Beth,
    Your story gave me goosebumps. What an inspiration.
    Proud to know you.
    Bet your parents are thrilled.

  31. Megaera says:

    I would like to be able to add this blog to my Google Reader, but when I put the address in the subscribe to space, it says it can’t find the feed. Is there anything that can be done about this?

    • Misa says:

      Hi Megaera,

      I just tested and it worked for me. Did you try the feeder option at the bottom of the right sidebar? Email me privately at misa@misaramirez.com so I can try to figure out what’s going on, if you don’t mind!!

      Thanks!

  32. Loved your story. Very inspiring. Diana Hrabowecki forwarded this link to me. Nice to meet you via the world wide web.

  33. Linda Giella says:

    wonderful and inspiring post. I feel like I can do anything after reading this…

    Thanks!

    (and thank you Diana Hrabowecki for turning me on to this website)