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?
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.