Breaking In: How to Sell Your First Novel

Last weekend at Norwescon 35 in Seattle, I had the chance to attend several workshops and panels on writing.

The first one I attended was a panel called Breaking In with panelists Jay Lake (author), Gordon Van Gelder (editor) and Tina Connolly (author).

Since I am currently shopping around my first novel, I was eager to hear what these three had to say and it didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a basic point by point run down of what the panelist suggested for success in Breaking In with that first book deal.

1. Write a really good book.

All panelists agreed that this has to come first before anything else. Both Jay and Tina talked about the importance of improving your craft, of working daily to become a better writer. They each talked about their Trunk Novels, a trunk novel being a novel you write that isn’t good enough to submit to agents and publishers and so it eventually gets stuck in a trunk somewhere. A trunk novel is practice, it is an apprenticeship for later novel writing. No one sits down to write a trunk novel. No one says, “Let me spend the next 6-24 months writing something that isn’t good enough.” It is only after the fact that an author realizes what they’ve written is a trunk novel, a practice novel that they wouldn’t necessarily want to be their debut in the publishing world. And most successful authors have more than one trunk novel. I think Tina said her new debut novel Ironskin was her sixth or seventh novel written. Jay also has a stack full of trunk novels. While some authors do debut with the first novel they’ve written, the point was driven home that good writing takes years of practice and perseverance.

2. Breaking In means different things to different people.

Breaking In is relative. To some Breaking In means getting that first novel published with one of the major publishing companies. To others it means making a certain amount in royalties. To others it means being able to quit their day job and write full time. To some it means making the New York Times Bestseller list. To still others it simply means seeing their work in print, however that is accomplished. As writers and individuals, we get to define our own goals for Breaking In.

Jay pointed out that in the field of writing Breaking In is an ever-receding horizon. He compared getting his first novel published to graduating from high school. While you are in high school, graduation is the end all and the be all of high school. After graduation, it isn’t that big of a deal because you have your whole adult life looming ahead of you. Before you have a novel published, getting that first novel out is the “biggest thing ever” but afterwards, it’s just something you did on the way to your writing career as a whole.

This led to the discussion that a writing career is a process, not a means to an end. After the first novel comes the second, and the third and so on. This can be a good thing if you love writing, but if you are a person who needs an end to your means, it can be exhausting and frustrating. You will never get done writing. You will never reach the pinnacle of your career. There is no top to this mountain. It just keeps going up and up. Or more likely, it goes up and down (think of a roller-coaster). The worst case scenario is that it never goes up, or it goes up and back down for good. The point is writing isn’t an event, it is a lifestyle.

3) There is no standard way to Break In.

Traditional publishing. Self-publishing. Indie publishing. Internet publishing. Getting a book deal from your blog writing. An agent seeks you out. You find an agent. You don’t use an agent and submit directly to publishers. You get your book noticed by way of a contest or an internet book vetting venue (like Webook), There are as many paths on the road to getting published as there are writers seeking publication. And in the end, no one really cares how you Broke In (except perhaps other writers wanting to emulate you), they just care about reading a good book.

4) How easy it is to Break In given the current financial and publishing climate?

I was expecting to hear bad news on this one, but this was the question where Gorden Van Gelder began to weigh in and what he said was actually quite encouraging for new authors. He said it is currently easier to Break In with a first novel than ever before, and here is why.

In the old days, when information about book sales was not released to the general public, publishing houses often signed a new author with the intent of building their career over a series of published books. In other words, if their first book didn’t do well, that was okay. Sales would likely build on the next book, and the next, until they had a profitable author on their lists. In this way the author’s profit margin was expressed in a slowly increasing upward arc over their career.

But this is the age of free information. Book sales and profits are plastered all over the internet the moment a book goes on sale. If an author shows a downward trend on sales, everyone knows it, including the publishing house investors. They are less likely to publish a second or third book if sales aren’t great. They are no longer as willing to support an author through a sales slump, or see them as a long term investment. And that sounds like bad news, I know.

But there is an upside. New authors are the unknown entity. We don’t have a sales slump. We don’t have sales period. For this reason, publishing houses are willing to take a greater risk with a brand new author because it can be argued that there is only potential for an upward arc in sales. You can only go up from zero. However, if that first book doesn’t do very well, or if sales plummet, publishing houses are much less likely to invest in future books or an authors career in hopes they can pull it out of a dive. It is much easier these days to publish a first book. It is, however, much harder to publish a second or third.

5) Breaking In with a series is a good idea.

Because of the issue mentioned in item 4–the need to show an upward trend in sales beyond the first book, all the panel members agreed that writing a first book as a potential series is a great idea. Publishers are looking for this. They want to sign multiple book series deals, because if the first book of a series snags an audience, that audience is likely to stick with the series, and that audience is likely to build over the life of the series. And that equals an upward arc in sales to show to investors.

However, it was suggested to write a first book that can stand alone, but has potential to be a series. This way you leave your options open if that first book doesn’t do well. If you are shopping a book that is a potential series, mention that in you query letter. Say it is a stand alone book with series potential, or something like that.

To sum up the panel, Jay said this (not a direct quote)

“The key to Breaking In it to be psychotically persistent. Write because you love to. Then write more. And some more. Keep writing and keep submitting and eventually you will Break In. The only thing between you and Breaking In is self-doubt and the urge to stop. Don’t ever stop and you’ll eventually make it.”

He also said, “The publishing world is open to new talent. But the key word there is TALENT. Work on your craft and you will become that talent.”

Thanks so much to the panelists for your sage wisdom.

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Ripley Patton lives in a 22-foot camper in the woods of Southern Illinois with a cat named Lemmy. Her two young adult children, a daughter and a son, are her favorite people. When Ripley's not out exploring nature and getting her hands dirty, she's usually reading or writing a book.

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