October 3 – 9: Why do some authors make it, and some don’t?

For every successful writer, there are many more who aren’t able to break in. They write well, tell a good story, pay their dues, and yet, despite their efforts, they remain unpublished.  What’s the difference between a successful author and the not-yet-published?  Is it a well-connected mentor? An agent who can open doors?  Sheer, dumb luck?

Join Karen Dionne and Ron Barak as they lead this thrilling discussion!

Detroit native Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of two environmental thrillers, Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Vice President, Technology, and is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, where she organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held every May in New York City. Karen is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America.

An Olympian, USC honors law graduate and partner for over 30 years in two national law firms, Ron Barak is an experienced Los Angeles trial lawyer, now balancing his law practice, golf game and recent passion for writing, not necessarily in that order.  His debut novel, A SEASON FOR REDEMPTION, was a number one “hard boiled mystery” bestseller on Amazon and Kindle this year.  He is now working on his second novel.

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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25 Comments
  1. Seven years ago, I co-founded a writers organization, Backspace. Since that time, I’ve been privileged to watch literally hundreds of Backspace members become published. Some got huge deals at major publishers, some ended up with medium-sized or small publishers including e-only, and some have not reached their publishing goals – yet.

    Why some authors are successful and some are not is a big topic, and I look forward to discussing the different aspects this week. To get the ball rolling, I’ll toss out a couple of qualities that I think are shared by successful authors: perseverance, and a willingness to change what’s not working.

    These two qualities might seem to contradict. After all, not giving up on a project and doggedly sending it out to agent after agent after agent does often eventually result in success.

    But at the same time, I think an author who’s ultimately successful has to know when to fold ’em. I’ve seen authors work on a novel for years – rewriting and revising it over and over and over again because they’re absolutely convinced they have a great book, and they’re determined not to give up.

    All well and good. But If the book is repeatedly turned down by agents and the author is unable to find representation, the problem might not be the writing – it might be the book. The smart author shouldn’t be afraid to set a book aside and try something different.

    Many times, an author doesn’t break in until they’ve written a number of books. So persevere, by all means – just don’t get stuck!

  2. I was thrilled 🙂 to hear that Ron and Karen were starting this discussion. First of all, the topic is great, and second, it exemplifies what I love about ITW–the kind of give and take that happens when uber talented folk come together.

    I agree heartily with Karen’s point, or what I take from it, which is: Keep at it. Keep writing. Keep querying, but also, write another book. I once emailed Jodi Picoult, sort of sadly and all wish-I-could-be-anywhere-near-where-you-are, and she wrote back: Sometimes the second book sells before the first.

    The funny thing is that first book then sometimes finds life, or perhaps it was a practice book (as mine was), destined only to gather virtual dust in a virtual drawer.

    In my case, I had to write more than two books before my debut sold. For a while there I put myself on a schedule of roughly a book a year, just like any published author–only I wasn’t published.

    Ultimately one sold, and it did so in a way that I can honestly say I’m glad none of those other books, or almost-deals, came together. I think when you finally get published, if you’re lucky, you find that you’re in the best, exact, right place for you.

    This brings me to another quality I think plays into the published game. There’s a slice of luck involved. Of course, they say fortune smiles on the prepared or whatever, which brings us back to Karen’s point that if you’re not in there, trying, then luck can’t find you.

    In my case there was one more factor, which boils down to: It takes a village to sell a novel.

    Some people already know that if it weren’t for a favorite author of mine–someone whose books inspired me over many years–then my debut probably wouldn’t have sold, certainly wouldn’t have sold in the way that it did.

    So one thing I’d recommend is meeting other authors, being a friend to them, supporting them at their signings, and just getting to know people in this writing world. It doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily anything anyone can do to help you get published.

    But it does mean that if it turns out there is something they could do–or simply if they love your work–that you’ll be out there, ready for it to happen.

    Dennis Lehane calls an author helping another author “sending the elevator down”. Between published and unpublished, there’s sometimes–not always–a little of that.

    1. “Ultimately one sold, and it did so in a way that I can honestly say I’m glad none of those other books, or almost-deals, came together.”

      I think this is SUCH an important point. I have just two novels published. The second is definitely better than the first. I’ve sometimes wished that THAT book had been my first book -why? Because you only debut once. A debut novel gets TONS more attention from reviewers and just about everyone than the subsequent books do.

      So while an author will naturally feel disappointed if they can’t find an agent or a publisher for their first novel, as long as they write another one, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The book they eventually break in with is bound to be their best and strongest book to date, so if it takes a little while, in the Big Picture sense, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      It’s hard to see it like that at the time, I know. The key that’s been said here in various ways is, “Keep writing.”

  3. Great discussion topic: Why do some authors make it, and some don’t?

    Karen and Jenny you both have great points. Perseverance and willing to change definitely worked for me. Although I didn’t receive many rejections for my first novel, my rejections came from the same genre gatekeepers. I was hoping to become published with a CBA (Christian Bookseller Association) publisher, because I worked in that industry. However, despite my connections, I was told my main character was too edge for that genre. After reflection I agreed. When I submitted my book proposal to an ABA publishing house editor, I received a book contract.

    Jenny, your points a slice of luck and it takes a village is like icing on the cake to what Karen had stated. Although I was reflecting on what my editor buddies told me about my manuscript, I hadn’t decided to submit a proposal. I had put the book under the bed and began writing another one, that would fit the Christian publishing more. But then I received a spot of luck.

    My writing buddies had entered my novel in a writing contest. I won. Part of the win was the chance for me to submit my book to a specific editor. The host of the contest loved my submission, but didn’t think it would do well for that editor who was supposed to receive my entry. Instead she contacted another major publishing house senior editor, who agreed to read my story blind (without an agent.) That agent signed me pretty quickly. That was quite lucky and I’m very luck to have her as my editor. She’s very respected in the industry. As you can tell from my story, it definitely took a village of writers to get me where I am and beyond. lol

    I would also like to add, since I am a publicist for published authors and consultant to publishing houses that packaging the content into something marketable is paramount. You could have a great story, but if it isn’t what the marketplace is anticipating or what the marketplace needs you will have a challenge. Novel submissions, during this constantly changing industry and because of the digitization of the industry, has changed the game for acquisitions. Doesn’t matter the genre, but it does matter whether or not marketing and sales can visualize a cover for your book very easily.

    It also matters whether the book you are submitting isn’t something that is already met in the publishing house line. If there is already three southern gothic suspense authors in that publishing house, they may not need a fourth, so research the lines you want to submit, too. When I submitted my proposal my cover letter stated how my novel was a book missing from the line that their competing publishers had. They agreed and have marketing me as such, which has helped me stand out this year. So my second ingredient this Getting Published Soup would be to put on a business thinking cap when you create your book proposal and when you decide who to pitch to.

  4. Two excellent comments by two excellent writers who have been there and done that and who are known for their concern for others who are trying to figure out this thing that we do.

    There are times that a writer feels like a perennial recruit stuck on Parris Island with no0 shortage of drill sergeants. The ones who make it through know they’ve endured some of the toughest rigors life can throw at them. That’s not hyperbole. How many people can endure a constant stream of rejection and still pick themselves up, rationalize the situation and keep going?

    As was mentioned, luck plays a big part. So, too, do shifting trends in an ever-changing publishing world. Years ago I had a book receive a tremendous advance for the time, make it all the way through senior editing approval, only to have the publisher nix it. (As it turns out, the house–a very large one–was being acquired and was shedding most of it’s projects: it shed the publisher not long afterwards).

    So I did what any sane person would do (after trying first to sell “soiled” goods: I gave up the idea of being a novelist–not writing, mind you–I still wrote for a very big newspaper–but fiction. For a long time, until I found I could no more stop writing fiction than stop my cat from clawing me (what–you expected maybe breathing?).

    So I started again, with new projects–a few one them. Sure I had plunged back to being one of the new kids (maybe not kid) on the block, but this time I’d been around that block a few times. Secured a good agent, got my share of rejections again, then connected with a prominent (dare I say legendary) editor who, like my agent, believed in me and my book(s). A great editor: one who actually still edits. The book and it’s prequel were bought and here I am, a full-time novelist.

    Not that it’s easy. In fact it’s harder than many–perhaps most–jobs I can think of. There are days I hate not only to write, but writing itself. But then, with great love, there is always great hate. Passions run high. My wife, a pastor, is sometimes asked if it’s OK to hate God. She usually replies that if you truly love God, then there are times you will hate God. Such is the nature and deep relationships. But love always triumphs over hate if that relationship is authentic.

    So it is with writing. Do you have to be a touch mad to be a novelist. Maybe not, but it helps, if only to explain why you do what you do.

    Remember, the writer is but one part of the equation. Talent does not always win out, nor does persistence because the other parts of the equation are often crazier than you are. (For example, never wanted the new thing, but always wanting the second or third or . . . of that new thing once it’s proven itself). That alone would be enough to drive most away from this field, but it doesn’t.

    The King or Queen AKA the novelist knowingly has no clothes: with luck, someone in the crowd will toss out a straight-jacket!

    1. BTW, I see while I was typing nonsense others responded with meaningful replies. My post referred to the responses by Karen and Jenny, the only two on the board at that time.

    2. Love your comments, Gary! I think this point is SO important, I want to highlight it again:

      “Remember, the writer is but one part of the equation. Talent does not always win out, nor does persistence because the other parts of the equation are often crazier than you are.”

      This is so very true, and I think it points out another quality that’s essential for a successful writer: the ability to depersonalize the process.

      That’s not easy, because the act of writing a book is very personal indeed. But once the writer moves on to the business side of things and tries to sell their book to a publisher with or without an agent, the book becomes a product, and much of what happens next is completely out of the writer’s hands. A good agent helps a great deal, but the publishing business is so fraught with disappointments and perils, it’s absolutely essential that the writer learn how to take a step back from the book emotionally.

      Put your emotions instead into writing the NEXT book! (I’m sensing a theme here . . .)

  5. Wise (and funny) words from Gary. I like cat’s scratching. So not a cliche.

    And Miranda makes a good point about wearing that business hat. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of positioning the book on a publisher’s list, but it’s definitely something to consider if you have that kind of wherewithal–and knowledge of what you’ve written.

    So what do we have on the List?

    Luck
    Help
    Passion
    Business-sense

  6. As long as you are writing, you have made it. Even if you are not published.

    That’s because commercial publishing is a business, and sometimes, your writing will not fit into the business parameters of publishers.

    In the old days before the Internet, that’s when you hit the brick … if your writing did not dovetail with the commercial interests of publishers, you couldn’t go any farther than typing words on a page. Now, of course, with e-books and the Internet, every single person who wants to publish, can.

    Which makes your devotion to your craft–the act of writing, not the act of publishing–even more important. Because if anyone can publish, everybody can. Therefore, where you will “make it” is in the craft of being a writer–making your prose sing so loud and subtly that readers cannot look away.

    Only then can you go on to “make it” in a commercial sense, by being paid by a house to publish and support your work.

    But at that point, you already will have “made it” by being a successful WRITER.

  7. That said, I agree with Karen: Love your first book to pieces, but write another. And another. And another after that. The market wants what it wants, but it may not want any particular manuscript at any particular time. You have to keep shoveling coal into the furnace, because some of the lumps will not catch fire right away.

    Personal example. I wrote two fine books. (Well, *I* thought they were fine. Editors differed. Pesky editors 🙂 No. 3 was the one that got picked up, and went on to become a national bestselling series. If I’d stopped after manuscripts one or two, I would never have become published.

    So keep on plugging. Your writing improves with every go-around, as does the speed with which you can complete a manuscript. The only way you can lose is to stop.

  8. The other thing I’d like to add to this “How to Succeed in Publishing” discussion is: Write the right book.

    Breaking in at the major publishers is SO tough, but at the same time, authors do it all the time. How do they manage it? I’d like to offer my friend, Jon Clinch, as an example.

    Jon writes literary fiction, which is about the most difficult kind of fiction to get published that there is (okay, maybe a book of poems is harder, but not by much . . .). Over a ten-year period, Jon wrote 5 books and was never even able to interest an agent.

    He met an agent at a conference who, when she heard he wrote literary fiction, responded, “Why?” In other words, that category is SO hard to sell, why would anyone do it?

    Jon came away from the experience determined to write a book that would satisfy his literary sensibilities, and at the same time, get agents excited. He’d been thinking of a topic for some time, and decided this was the one.

    Long story short, Jon’s 6th-written, first-published novel is FINN, the very dark story of Huckleberry Finn’s father. If you read that sentence and thought, “Oh, cool!” you’re not alone. Jon got an agent for the book after he only had 38K written. When the book was finished and the agent sent it on submission, 8 publishers wanted to buy it. In the end, it sold to Random House, who made it their lead title.

    There was nothing wrong with the writing quality in Jon’s other novels. He was a talented writer who was writing the wrong STORIES.

    It takes a year or more to write a novel. Don’t settle for a good idea, or even a great one. Choose a story that will make agents and editors and ultimately readers say, “Wow! I’ve GOT to read this book.”

    Write the RIGHT book.

  9. Karen and Shane,
    Great advice to “keep writing” and working on the next book. So well said. I’m sure we all know writers who get rejections and then stall. Because of my day job, I can be sort of “in your face” and, I must admit, stubborn about the way “I” think things should be. It reminds me of advice my agent gave me early on.– Write a couple of chapters on your way to chapter one. When you know your characters and the story, be willing to cut those. Then you’re at the true beginning. Maybe it works that way with some books. Sometimes we have to know ourselves as writers before everything clicks. Though I’m generally happy with the way my earlier books in another genre came out, I still find myself cringing a bit when someone tells me they picked one up. Without fail, I say something like: “You should read one of my later books to see how I really write…”
    Great discussion points by all.

    1. “Without fail, I say something like: “You should read one of my later books to see how I really write…”

      Man, I do this ALL the time . . .

      Terrific advice from your agent. I’ve always thought of those first couple of chapters as the writer finding the story. Doesn’t mean they should be in the book!

  10. If the novel you start with is the novel you end with, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

    It’s fine to create characters and fill out all the forms as to hair and eye color, laxative used, and so on, but until you reach the point where the characters say “screw the forms and your own ideas about who we are and start listening to us” then, IMHO, you probably don’t have a novel that’s going to go anywhere.

    Oh, sure, you can imitate a successful author. (Whose great quote was it–John Lennon, perhaps–but I have to paraphrase it anyway: Inspiration is what happens when you can’t find some suitable for imitation.) And, yes, some publishers will still fall for the old paint-by-the-numbers book, but that’s not writing. Good chance that the plot will change as well, since the characters will have something to say about that.So make your outlines if you must, and perhaps their general shape will remain at the end, but be prepared to take different routes getting from here to there.

    And when these things start happening, that’s the time a good perceptive agent and/or editor really comes in handy. They can join the conversation and help maintain the zone. This is the serendipitous part of the process, the part when you interact with the key-born offspring who bear your creative DNA and yet are different from you.Revel in it: the business part comes later. (Although you can do a certain amount ahead of time: market and trend analysis, benefit branding, audience segmentation. . .al that good stuff. But remember if you’re following a trend, your already behind the curve.

    Most of all remember this ain’t a science. If it were, then every novel written would be a No. 1 bestseller. That’s both the frustrating and the beauty part of this thing we call writing. I repeat what I said earlier: one must be mad–in all it’s forms–to set pen to paper.

    But, then, being mad there is nothing else they can do but yield and write.

  11. Hi All,
    I’m the “new” (didn’t say young!) kid in town. My “pen” name is Ronald S. Barak. I’ve been called worse, but my preferred name is…Ron Barak.

    I’m the one who originally proposed this particular Roundtable discussion topic. It was then improved, considerably, by the early joinder and contributions of ITW members Dan Levy, Karen Dionne and Jenny Milchman.

    As both the new kid and…the originator, it seemed only appropriate that I hang back for a while, get the lay of the land and see what others would have to say. See how others would post comments and just what they would have to say. Now feels like a good time for me to offer some observations, and questions.

    In addition to an assumed ability to write and a strong work ethic, important qualities expressed so far include the following:

    Perseverance (not just patience) and flexibility—Karen; Jenny; Gary; Shane

    Community (both among writers and readers—Jenny (quoting Dennis Lehane); Miranda

    Industry business savvy—Miranda; Jenny

    I originally had in mind something in addition to the discussion comments posted so far. Paraphrased, my original proposal read in pertinent part “What accounts for significant breakthroughs today on the part of unbranded or unheralded authors?

    Assuming writing ability and work ethic on the part of all, what’s the difference between those who succeed—achieve that breakthrough—and those many more who don’t? Is it a special mentor, a well-connected agent or just good luck? Is there a demonstrable common thread among those who make it, and do so pretty quickly?”

    In contrast, the final post reads in pertinent part “For every successful writer, there are many more who tell a good story, pay their dues and work hard, but remain unpublished. What’s the difference between a successful author and the not-yet-published? Is it a well-connected mentor? An agent who can open doors? Sheer, dumb luck?”

    In the final version, “success” seems to have been equated with “published.” Tacitly, “published” seems to exclude self-published. I admire and agree with Shane’s posted rejection of this definition, and what Shane instead offers as a measure of success. Having had the pleasure of speaking with David Morrell on a number of occasions, I think David would wholly endorse Shane’s definition of “success.” I don’t think landing a publishing contract should be required to be a “successful writer.”

    I would like take a few noteworthy examples of those who did and did not quickly break through and see what common threads we might find:

    Steve Berry, Vince Flynn, John Grisham and John Lescroart all tell the same story, toiling long and hard before anyone paid them…the time of day (or much of anything else). Does this mean their earlier efforts weren’t any good? Hardly!

    Consider John Grisham’s first novel, A TIME TO KILL, initially ignored by scores of agents and publishers. It was finally published by “indie” Wynwood Press (a limited printing of only 5,000 copies). Only when his second, third and fourth novels, THE FIRM, THE PELICAN BRIEF and THE CLIENT, became runaway bestsellers, did Doubleday (hardback) and Dell Publishing (paperback) re-publish A TIME TO KILL, which then went on to become a huge bestseller—and a big time movie too. With the advantage of hindsight, many critics now feel A TIME TO KILL was among Grisham’s very best works.

    At last count, Vince Flynn now enjoys no less than 15 bestsellers. He had to self-publish his first book. To hear Steve Berry tell it, Steve may hold the record for the most query letter rejections at the outset of a career, at least a career that ultimately achieved bestseller status. John Lescroart tells a similar story of toiling in the fields for many years before finally becoming as well recognized and regarded as he is today, and has been for some time.

    Now consider Erin Morgenstern (THE NIGHT CIRCUS), Tea Obreht (THE TIGER’S WIFE) and Kathryn Stockett (THE HELP). The debut novel of each of these three writers was an overnight bestseller, certainly much quicker than Messrs. Berry, Flynn, Grisham and Lescroart became bestsellers. Take Ms. Morgenstern: She first looked for an agent in 2009, signed with an agent in May, 2010 and had a contract with Doubleday in September, 2010. And Ms. Obreht: In school at USC and Cornell through 2009, she was signed by Random House and had a bestselling debut novel in 2011, at age 25. Ms. Stockett was a bit slower out of the gates, rejected at first by some 45-60 agents (depending on whose account you read), but her debut novel was nevertheless very quickly a bestseller and also a blockbuster movie.

    So, how do we account for these differences? Consider these possibilities:

    1. Could it be a gender thing? Was it simply their misfortune that Messrs. Berry, Flynn, Grisham and Lescroart were not born with different chromosomes?

    2. How about the genre? Were thrillers just unappealing when our thriller brethren turned out their earlier works?

    3. Is it perhaps best to be from Mississippi, like Ms. Stockett? Probably not because Mr. Grisham hails from Mississippi too.

    4. How about a good agent? Ms. Morgenstern and Ms. Obreht signed with agents very quickly, right out of the blocks. No doubt, that was a major help in how they came to land publishing house deals so quickly. But doesn’t that beg the question? How did they get agents so quickly when so many others do not, including some whose rejected manuscripts ultimately attain very respectable numbers? Perhaps Ms. Obreht’s journey sheds some light on this. While earning an undergraduate writing degree at USC, she had the good fortune to be taught, and mentored, by experienced bestseller T.J. Boyle. Ms. Obreht was reportedly well into THE TIGER’S WIFE while she was still at USC. One can only speculate that perhaps Mr. Boyle helped open a door or two for Ms. Obreht. Why did Ms. Morgenstern, Ms. Obreht and Ms. Stockett get there so much quicker than Messrs. Berry, Flynn, Grisham and Lescroart?

    5. Was it greater writing skills or a stronger work ethic? I doubt it. Was it just…plain, dumb luck? Possibly. However, I would put my money on some mentor or contact behind the scenes who went to bat and opened a door, or two, at the “right” place, and at the right time.

    Well, I’ve been hogging the spotlight here long enough, at least for now. Thank you all for participating in this discussion, and listening to what I’ve had to say. I hope many of you will take this opportunity to respond to my thoughts and questions. Thanks again!

    1. Hey, Ron – thanks for your comments. I can see that you’ve given this subject a great deal of thought. Addressing a couple of your points, my definition of “success” is that “success” is whatever meets the author’s expectations. There is no one right way. If they’re happy with how they’re published and how they’re selling, then they’re a success.

      However, when you talk about “breaking out,” generally, this is understood to be an author who’s published with a major publisher who’s hit the NYTimes list, or otherwise achieved some outstanding measure of recognition and sales far over and above the typical author.

      Recently, as in within the past year since we finally got a slew of decent and affordable e-reading devices, a number of authors who are entirely self-published have also seen this level of success.

      As to WHY these authors broke out, while so many others didn’t, my belief is it’s 100% a matter of story, and timing.

      Something about the stories these authors tell resonated at a time when readers were ready for it. It’s impossible to break it down into anything more specific than that, because if there were a formula for this kind of success, believe me, we’d see a lot more of it!

      (Actually, that’s a mostly a joke, because if everyone were achieving this level of success, it wouldn’t be a rarity anymore and we’d be aiming for a still higher level of success, if that makes sense.)

      Anyway, that’s my thoughts on that!

    2. Here are my answers to the following questions:

      So, how do we account for these differences? Consider these possibilities:

      1. Could it be a gender thing? Was it simply their misfortune that Messrs. Berry, Flynn, Grisham and Lescroart were not born with different chromosomes?

      Certainly not. Too many other factors are at work to isolate the reason to something as black and white as this. (And I suspect your question was actually tongue-in-cheek.)

      2. How about the genre? Were thrillers just unappealing when our thriller brethren turned out their earlier works?

      Again, too many factors to boil it down to such a simple reason. For instance, my first novel published in October 2008, right as the economy crashed. That month, sales of ALL books were way down.

      3. Is it perhaps best to be from Mississippi, like Ms. Stockett? Probably not because Mr. Grisham hails from Mississippi too.

      Asked and answered! 🙂

      4. How about a good agent? Ms. Morgenstern and Ms. Obreht signed with agents very quickly, right out of the blocks. No doubt, that was a major help in how they came to land publishing house deals so quickly. But doesn’t that beg the question? How did they get agents so quickly when so many others do not, including some whose rejected manuscripts ultimately attain very respectable numbers? Perhaps Ms. Obreht’s journey sheds some light on this. While earning an undergraduate writing degree at USC, she had the good fortune to be taught, and mentored, by experienced bestseller T.J. Boyle. Ms. Obreht was reportedly well into THE TIGER’S WIFE while she was still at USC. One can only speculate that perhaps Mr. Boyle helped open a door or two for Ms. Obreht. Why did Ms. Morgenstern, Ms. Obreht and Ms. Stockett get there so much quicker than Messrs. Berry, Flynn, Grisham and Lescroart?

      An agent can open doors for an author that are otherwise closed, but remember – agents don’t sell everything they take on. My opinion, it all comes down to the book.

      5. Was it greater writing skills or a stronger work ethic? I doubt it. Was it just…plain, dumb luck? Possibly. However, I would put my money on some mentor or contact behind the scenes who went to bat and opened a door, or two, at the “right” place, and at the right time.

      A mentor can help a great deal, but not necessarily by opening doors. A NYTImes bestselling author recommended my first novel to her editor at St. Martins, my agent submitted the book to him, and he passed. It happens.

      Another NYTimes bestselling author read the first 50 pages of my first book and wrote a glowing letter to prospective editors for my agent to include in the submission package which said in part: “Once I started, I could not stop — and let me tell you, usually it’s a chore to keep going. What a ripper of a story! The opening chapter is superb, a truly beautiful piece of work, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I can’t believe Dionne hasn’t been published before — this novel has the feel of an experienced master at work: her characters are engaging and well rounded, she has an intuitive sense of pacing, and the settings are richly realized. And the plot! A truly inventive mind is at work here. I loved every page. If Freezing Point is her first novel, I’d sure like to read her second. Here’s a writer with a very bright future indeed.”

      Despite this letter being included in the submission package and signed by the author, this author’s own editor also passed on the book. Lucky for me, the book eventually found a home, but it wasn’t because a mentor opened a door.

      If a mentor’s acting as a writing coach, making suggestions and helping to make an author’s manuscript stronger, then sure – having a mentor, or a helper, is a clear and definite advantage. After NYTimes bestselling author #1 mentioned above read my first 50 pages, she called me on the phone to discuss the book. As a result of that conversation, I decided I had ended the story too early, and so I wrote a second ending for the book in line with the author’s comment that a thriller has to end with a final confrontation between the hero and the villain, both verbal and physical – without which expanded ending, I don’t believe the book would have been published.

      But when it comes to opening doors, all a mentor can do is make the introduction. They can get a book read by an editor where it might not otherwise happen, but just because an author thinks a novel is the cat’s pajamas doesn’t mean an editor will. It still comes down to the book.

      Do I sound like a broken record? 🙂

  12. First of all, I love this quote by Gary: If the novel you start with is the novel you end with, then you’re probably doing something wrong. (Not to mention needing to know our characters’ bathroom habits).

    Second, what I take from much of Ron’s post, is the role of luck. A well-positioned mentor can sometimes do something–but sometimes cannot. Getting published takes not a lightning bolt, but a series of them. For dominoes to fall all in a row. The right book (as Karen says), right agent, right writer, right editor, right publisher, right spot on a list…Kathryn Stockett was Amy Einhorn’s very first author. Amy put enormous resources behind that book. To hear of them is staggering–8000 ARCs were sent out, and Amy traveled to bookstores with Kathryn.

    Other books get huge with hardly a dollar of promo money.

    Luck.

    And possibly something else? A great book that makes people want not only to read, but to tell their friends, and even strangers, about the incredible experience they’ve just had.

    In the end, as the self-published successes Ron points to prove, WOM is what truly makes a book take off, and that relies on a story that appeals widely.

    Whether the author’s from Mississippi or not 😉

    1. Yes. Word of mouth. An author has to have written a book that people – large numbers of them – not only want to read, but they want to tell others about it and get them to read it to.

      The Holy Grail for authors!

  13. Thanks, Karen and Jenny, for your responses.

    Of course, the importance of quality writing, subject matter and timing cannot be stressed enough. However, as Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL clearly demonstrates, those traits alone are generally not enough. A TIME TO KILL was certainly well written, was and is a great story and was as well timed on its first release as on its second release.

    The difference in the two releases: Word of mouth and contacts, from the “right” people in the “right” places. Frankly, I think it can be boiled down to word of mouth because support from the right people in the right places is just…word of mouth on steroids. 🙂

    Whether it was Amy Einhorn in Stockett’s corner, perhaps trying harder than Einhorn ever will again, or T.C. Boyle going to bat for Obreht, or Doubleday doing what it did for A TIME TO KILL the second time around, the value of that kind of support simply cannot be overstated.

    Thanks again for your feedback. Ron

  14. Karen, that letter is u-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-e (and well deserved). How let you down you must’ve felt after that not to have sold (yet).

    Love this, Ron–WOM on steroids.

    Thanks for triggering such a fascinating discussion!

    1. Re the letter – yes, I pretty much fainted when I read it – especially since these words came from a writer I’ve long admired! And it definitely still makes me smile. A LOT. Like this –> 🙂

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