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That First Sale - Suzanne'e Journey Toward Publication



Today, I have another special treat for you.  My crit partner and about-to-be-published author, Suzanne Johnson is sharing the story of "THE CALL" and her journey toward publication.  I always find authors first sale stories inspiring, I hope you all do as well!

The Journey Toward Publication: Suzanne's Story
I’ve been writing about fictional character development at my blog this week, but at Roni’s suggestion I’m talking today about my own journey toward publication. And in a way, it fits the theme, because the publishing process certain helps develop character!
I feel like a poser in some ways because I haven’t spent years as a starving, struggling novelist. I had written a couple of horrific short stories as a teenager, gotten a degree in journalism, and set off on a career as a magazine writer and editor. It’s been a good career. I had no plans to do anything else. People would say, “You should write a book,” and I’d think, “Why?”
But a convergence of events in August 2008 set me to try my hand at fiction. I had an idea for a novel, using my own experiences as a Hurricane Katrina survivor from New Orleans. I set a daily word limit, got hooked on writing along the way, and plowed through it, finishing (heh) in time to enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in February 2009. The book, ROYAL STREET,  made the first couple of cuts and I was feeling pretty sassy by the time it got axed in mid-April as a semifinalist. That also happened to be the first time it got read all the way through, beyond the spit-polished first chapter.
Because, frankly, after the first chapter it sucked, which I realized when I finally picked up some books on fiction writing, took a local class, and accepted that I was clueless. Plot? Pacing? Goals? Motivation? Conflict? Huh?
The idea for the book was sound, though, so I began a series of overhauls. By June 2009, I had it finished (again. Heh.)
While I wrote and polished my query letter (which I’ll be happy to share with anyone who’s interested—just e-mail me), I looked at the acknowledgment pages of books I loved in my genre and joined the QueryTracker website. I made a list of agents, excluding those who didn’t take electronic submissions. Because I am not patient enough for snail-mail, and I wanted quick responses. (Heh.)
I ranked them, and shot off my first ten queries (plus whatever else the agents specified on their websites) in mid-June. Within a week, I’d gotten three form rejections and three requests for full manuscripts. Every time I’d get a rejection, I’d query to a new agent off my list. By mid-July, I had seven full manuscripts out. Meanwhile, since I thought the book had series potential, I began plotting a sequel (but hadn’t started writing).
In late July 2009, “the call” came. Actually, it was an e-mail. It said (and I know, because I saved it): “I've read ROYAL STREET, loved it, and would like to speak with you regarding your writing. If we suit, we can discuss representation. Please let me know a time during business hours that works for you.”
I was at work, and had to jump up and down and scream quietly in my office. I talked to the agent over my lunch hour, and the first question she asked was not “Who do you see as your audience,” or “What are you looking for in an agent or publisher.” She asked: “Tell me what you’re working on now.” I hesitantly told her my idea for the sequel. She wanted to know I was serious about a career, that this was a long-term interest for me. We hit it off, and she offered representation. We exchanged a written agreement spelling out her commission (standard 15 percent for English-language rights plus 20 percent on foreign-language), and the deal was done.
While she began submitting ROYAL STREET to publishers, I started writing the sequel. By this point, I realized the first book had some problems, and I’d learned a whole lot about how to put together a novel. I wrote RIVER ROAD, book two in the series, between August and late October. In the meantime, ROYAL STREET had been passed on by a couple of publishers (not enough romance, said one. Feels too dated since it was set in 2005, said another).
But Tor Books, an imprint of Macmillan, had had the book three months and was in “second reads.” My agent decided to go ahead and send them the second completed book in October.
On November 11 I got this e-mail from my agent: “Suzanne. Are you near a phone?” ARRRGH. And yes, it was an offer from Tor for both books, plus an option for a third. There would be advances! There would be contracts! Some books go straight into mass-market paperback, but mine would come out first in trade paperback, followed by mass-market. The second book would follow the first by six months.
There was more jumping up and down and screaming quietly in my office.
I guess it’s bad form to talk money, but I can tell you author Jim Hines did a recent survey on first-book sales of science fiction and fantasy books to one of the Big Six publishers and found the average advance is in the $10,000-$15,000 range per book. Authors receive a third of the advance on signing the contract, another third on acceptance of the manuscript (after all revisions are completed to the editor’s satisfaction), and the final third when the book hits the shelves.
All of you probably know this, but I didn’t. The author starts earning royalties only after the book “sells through” and earns the publisher back the advance money. Most authors who aren’t named Stephen King or JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer or Nora Roberts or Charlaine Harris don’t make much beyond their advance.
It took two months for the contracts to arrive, and three months for the first revision letter to arrive. This is NOT a process for the impatient. And did I mention I am not a patient person? The revisions, as I expected (since I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the book), were pretty extensive. They were followed by two more rounds of revisions over the course of the next months. I just completed revisions on the first book and am getting ready to begin them on the second. I’m told they will be much less extensive. Meanwhile, I’m working on the proposal for the third in the series, plus an unrelated novel that’s about 90 percent done.
And that’s where I am. Next come galleys on the first book, at which point a release date will be set (all I know right now is…sometime in the next year). I don’t have any real decision-making power on the cover, but the folks at Tor have asked if there was anything in particular I would absolutely hate. I still don’t know what the process for marketing will be, or how it will feel to hold an ARC of my actual book in my hand. But stay tuned…it is a process! And did I mention I am not a patient person?

So, did anything about Suzanne's journey so far surprise you?  Do you have any questions for her?  Ask away!  And thanks again to Suzanne for sharing with us. :)
In her “daylighting” job, Suzanne works in university magazine publishing and currently is at Auburn University after stints at Tulane University, Rice University, and the University of Illinois. Visit her daily writing blog at, or her website at If you’d like a copy of her query letter, you can reach her at
 **Today's Theme Song (Guest's Choice)**
"Acadian Two-Step" - Beausoleil
(player in sidebar, take a listen to a little Cajun music--good for the soul)


Reader Comments (17)

Thanks for sharing this. I'm working on my first novel and I'm in revisions so I'm no where near querying. I'm always interested to read how others 'got published' so this is helpful.
I would love to have a career as an author but I'm just starting out so we will see where that goes. I'm enjoying the ride so far.
Do you have any recommendations on how to books? Do you recommend taking classes?

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Danek

Thanks for sharing your story, Suzanne. I've sold two novellas to an epub, one out and one coming soon. My full-length is in revisions and my self-imposed goal is to have it ready to submit to agents by Sept 30 but I'm hoping it will be ready sooner.

Congrats on your success and I can't wait for your books to come out.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRiley Quinn

Thanks for sharing, and for being so open about terms. The best part about the post is that it's clear she knew she was in for the long haul and didn't get depressed about rejections. Here's to hoping I can maintain the same positive attitude :)

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJEM

Thanks, Christine! I think the most helpful book I've read is agent Donald Maas' "Breakout Novel Workbook." It's a series of exercises that helps you plot out and populate your books. I've sworn to buy a copy for every book I begin.

Good luck with your full-length submission, Riley--I'll be keeping fingers crossed for you!

JEM. Oh boy. I did get depressed over rejections. I think paranoia and depression are requirements to be a writer--LOL. But you have to take a long-term view of it.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

It's glad to know someone out there is meeting with success. Congrats on the deal.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

I love reading stories of author's path to the call. Hopefully, one day I'll write on myself!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole Zoltack

Very cool and inspirational!

Key lessons I took away:
o Don't give up.
o Keep writing! Have current WIP when they ask. They need to sell multiple works from you, not a one-shot book.
o If it gets rejected, consider revision.
o Simultaneous submittals are a MUST. Submit submit submit! Unless you sign a contract, don't let an agent convince you to stop submitting while they review!

- Eric

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric W. Trant

Thanks for the congrats, Travener, and Nicole--you'll get there!

Eric, you got the lessons right. And the final one: be patient. Everything moves at the speed of a glacier. I'm still working on that one!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thanks for sharing your experience! It's always good to be reminded how glacially slow the publishing industry moves.

Good luck!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTere Kirkland

Ugh! Patience!

I didn't know some of that..and thanks for doing this post! Its really nice to know what the process is like.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

I'm excited for you, Suzanne. Congratulations.

I have my first pitches on my first novel this August [working on the spit & polish now]. I also have the first draft of the second done & will spit and polish that next.

Thanks for sharing what the agent asked, etc ...

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM Pax


Congrats on your success! What surprised me was the amount of revisions you were asked to do after the call. I would think they'd want those done before they offered you a contract, but I guess they saw the potential in you.

And thanks for talking about the numbers. It's always good to know what to expect in all aspects of the business, not just the writing part.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Wesley

Thanks, Tere and Oddyoddyo--I think the slowness of the process was my biggest surprise. When I got the deal I wondered why they said it would take 12-18 months to get the book out. Now I know why :-)

Good luck with the novel, M Pax! Sounds like your getting close :-)

Jamie--I feel incredibly lucky to get the contract and going through the revision process has been an eye-opener. I've talked to others and some go through one round of revisions, others five or six. But my editor honed in on exactly the places that I innately knew were weakest and had great suggestions. So I hope the second one goes faster!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne, this is so cool. Thanks for telling this story. And congrats!

I was interested to hear you have a full time job. I'm always interested in writers who do, because I do, and I definitely can't quit it.

Looking forward to reading your blog and following your continuing journey.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

Thanks, Sierra!

I do have a full-time job, and sometimes--like when I'm in full-blown revisions--I feel as if I have TWO full-time jobs. Unfortunately, I don't see that changing anytime soon but it's still such a fun ride!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thanks for all the comments and questions today and thank you to Suzanne for stopping by!

Hope everyone has enjoyed guest week, I'll be back tomorrow. :)

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

thank you for sharing! I sure care about the money and I think we novelists should be more assertive. Hey, it's not all fun we work so hard to make it saleable

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterUma

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