While reviewing debut authors to cover in the Guide to Literary Agents 2018 feature, Debut Authors Tell All, I came across KD Proctor, who didn’t have an agent, but whose novel was coming out in July 2017. While I couldn’t include her in the book, I felt it important to feature KD in another way—as the story of someone who can make it in this business without an agent.
It’ll require just as much research to make sure that small press you’re going with is legitimate, but the rewards, as KD points out, can be tremendous. Just think, with a smaller press, you’ll often have their marketing team more focused on you. That publisher is more invested in you as an author.
Interested in reading about more debut authors? Be sure to pick up a copy of Guide to Literary Agents 2018, where you can find similar tell-alls from Jessica Strawser, Angie Thomas, Sophie Chen Keller, Danya Kukafka, Lauren Fern Watt, and more.
Quick Take: Trying to get her life back on track after her sister’s death, Charlie Conti never dreamed she’d be asked to work with her ex-boyfriend, Nate Walsh, to fulfill her sister’s last wish: creating a summer camp scholarship in her honor. What could possibly go wrong? (spoiler alert: everything)
Writes From: West Central, Minnesota.
Pre-Book: I’ll be the first one to admit that while I have a Bachelor’s in English, I never had plans to write a novel (though my mother will argue that she “always thought I should”). In my undergrad, I was active in student leadership and loved the college environment so much I never wanted to leave. I entered a Master’s program for College Student Personnel and have been working in some capacity at a college or university since. I’m now at a small, community college in rural Minnesota working with the senior administration on various projects and initiatives.
Time Frame: I actually stumbled upon the idea of writing a novel while researching the online community Wattpad. A faculty member wanted to use it in their online course. I had no idea what Wattpad was, and in researching it I was blown away by the work writers were posting online. It got me thinking about what I would write. That was spring 2014 and by late summer 2014 I had written my first draft of an action thriller. It was rough. And choppy. And a total disaster with the character arcs spinning out of control, erratic pacing, etc. But with feedback from those who read it, my eyes were opened to the process of writing a novel.
As I learned, it’s not as easy as it looks. I also learned “pantsing” (writing by the seat of your pants) didn’t work for me. I had to be mindful and deliberate about plotting. I also took my time to read more contemporary books and even picked up plotting resource book which helped me break down and understand the critical details around plotting and character arcs. I buddied up with other writers to critique and better understand how everything fit together.
That learning curve opened the floodgates and in March 2015 I got the idea for MEET ME UNDER THE STARS. I wrote the first draft in a month. Like my very first manuscript it was choppy and rough and it needed a lot of work. And while I had learned so much during my first manuscript of that action thriller, I was learning even more with this manuscript. By fall of 2015 I was getting closer, the plot much tighter and unnecessary filler and fluff were cut. I had a goal in mind: get my manuscript ready for PitchWars 2016. PitchWars is an opportunity for writers to submit their manuscripts to published and/or agented authors who agree to mentor the writer for eight weeks to get their full manuscript polished for an agent pitch round in November.
But to make sure I was ready for PitchWars, I took a stab at another pitching contest—this one on Twitter—called Sun vs. Snow. In late January 2016, I tossed my hat in the ring and was one of the first 200 entrants to the contest. The hosts narrow down the entries to the top 32. I never expected to make the cut—but I did. I was paired with a mentor who helped me polish my query and the first page of my manuscript. Like PitchWars, it would also be viewed by agents.
It was during that prep period that my mentor also encouraged me to participate in another Twitter pitch event, PitMatch. This was more challenging because I had to narrow down my query to a 140-character pitch (including hashtags). It was in that pitch that I was matched with several agents and a few editors, including BookFish Books. Combined with the agent requests from Sun vs. Snow, I knew I had a story on my hands that people were interested in.
In April 2016 my deal with BookFish Books was finalized and it is set for publication in July 2017.
Enter the Agent: With all of those Twitter pitch contests, it’s clear that I was interested in securing an agent. Every agent who requested my manuscript was someone I’d be honored to work with. The query (or Twitter pitch) hooked them and I got several requests for additional pages (including several “full” requests), but every one turned into a rejection.
The rejections didn’t faze me at all, but there was a common theme emerging. My book is technically falling into the age range called New Adult. Many scoff at that classification because they think it is just another way to market books. New Adult aged books are typically college students (18-25ish) and the arc is usually future focused relating to “firsts” that usually happen at that age—first major job out of college, first major break up, overdrawing that bank account and not having mom or dad to bail you out, etc.
As agents read it, the feedback was incredibly positive, complimenting me on all of the mechanical pieces (voice, writing strength, plot, pacing, etc., which meant my hard work in learning the craft paid off). But that emerging theme was a crusher: They are unable to sell New Adult books. Their request for more pages was to see if I could voice the book “up”—to more traditional adult contemporary romance, or “down” to young adult.
They all agreed: My voice was incredibly strong and changing it would take away from the book.
So ... now what?
Shelving my book didn’t feel right. I knew in my gut that this would be the book I’d be publishing. But I also knew self-publishing wasn’t the right option for me. I tried voicing the book down to young adult (which also meant changing the plot considerably) and the joy for the story was lost. I also tried changing it from first-person/present tense to third-person/past tense (the more common voice for adult, contemporary romance), and it felt stiff and clunky.
At the same time I was querying agents, I had queried the editors from BookFish Books. This is a common mistake that new writers often make in the excitement of pitch contests on Twitter. Those “likes” get your pulse racing! But writers should choose to query agents or editors, not both. But it played to my advantage because they offered me a publishing deal.
The funny thing is—I was hesitant to take their offer at first. Did I walk away from the agent search too soon? What if there was someone out there who could sell it? Am I just jumping at this because it was the first deal on the table? I mean, I did my research prior to sending out my query. But now with an offer I really wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that I would later regret. I contacted a few well-respected authors that I not only trusted, but who knew their way around the query and offer trenches. They provided me with several things to consider when looking at a small press that wouldn’t necessarily be found on places like Absolute Write’s message boards.
Everything came back positive. Yes, BookFish Books is a very small press (publishing on average four books per year). As a new author, though, I liked the idea of having the press staff giving me a little extra attention during every phase of the process. My personal goals for publishing are to write books that make me proud of the end product. Going with a small press would help me do just that.
So what about that pesky New Adult classification? Small indie presses are craving New Adult novels and readers are buying them! I will say, though, that going with a small press isn’t right for everyone. Just like agents, authors need to trust their gut.
Biggest Surprise: The editing process. When I saw the notes and suggestions, the first thing I asked myself was, “Are you sure you want to publish my book?” I’d never seen so many editing notes in my life! It was intense. I had 5 passes with my content editor and managing editor before it went to line edits! Then there was another pass with the managing editor before galley edits (the proof pages).
But the biggest surprise of the editing process goes back to continually learning the craft. I continue to learn so much and it’s amazing when I can catch my own mistakes during the writing process. Manuscripts I’m drafting currently have benefited greatly from the things my editors pointed out.
What I Did Right: Using social media and joining the 17 Scribes.
After I signed my deal I noticed a group on Twitter called the Sweet 16’s: Authors publishing their first book in the Middle Grade and Young Adult classifications in 2016. I searched for a group like that for Adult or New Adult books, but one didn’t exist. But then, a few authors got together and created one and the 17 Scribes was born. This group is for authors publishing Adult and New Adult classified books in all genres. We have mystery, thrillers, romance, historical, women’s fiction, LGBTQ+, Christian and much more. You name it, we have it! Being in this group means we support each other and share our successes, frustrations, and most of all, promote each other’s books when the time comes for our debut.
I’ve mentioned Twitter a lot and surprisingly it has been where I’ve made all of my book connections. The thing is, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to make those connections work. You can’t expect one tweet to be the one heard around the world and people will come running. Reach out. Engage. Comment. Use the hash tags. Participate in weekly events like #1lineWed (where a theme is given and you find a line in your manuscript that fits the theme).
At the end of the day, everyone is on the same street corner peddling their books. What are you going to do to get noticed so others share in your success with you?
I Wish I Would Have Done Different: While I love social media, it was eye opening (and a little embarrassing) to learn that there is a huge difference between “followers” and “genuine connections.” It’s a common mistake. People believe if you have 5,000 followers on Twitter, you have 5,000 people interested in your book or whatever you’re passionate about.
Not even close.
Instead, I’m now focused on building genuine connections with people. Keep in mind there is a difference between “connecting” and “spamming”. I treat Twitter like a giant 24/7 cocktail party. I make small talk where I’m comfortable.
Platform: I knew from the start I couldn’t be on everything, so I picked those I was comfortable with: Facebook (both an author fan page and author profile—I do not use my “in real life” Facebook profile for my author “stuff”, especially since I write under a pen name), Twitter and Instagram.
The cool thing about these platforms is the creativity you can have with it. For example, a lot of people asked what I was doing for a book launch. To be honest, I didn’t want a big party. So, instead I opted for a live reading via Facebook live.
I’ve also used Instagram to tease my book using photos to describe the plot and backstory, which I’ve written on my blog. Like Twitter, Instagram uses hashtags where I’ve found other author connections—but again, I wanted to connect. I’m not worried about follower numbers or “likes” on photos.
But I’ve also learned that you need balance. Those who use social media to do nothing but pitch their books and share reviews get the mute button on my side (again, the difference between “connecting” and “spamming”). I want to hear about your life, not just your book! So I try to model that behavior and share funny events that happen to me, like how my husband and I have a constant fight on the best way to load the dishwasher, or how my dog rolled around in a muddy patch of our yard—right after getting a bath.
It goes back to that genuine connection—I want readers to know I’m just like them!
Advice for Writers: Here are my top 10 advice points:
- You don’t have to write every day. Write because you want to, not because some meme or article or best-selling author said you had to.
- You have to be open to feedback, even if it doesn’t make sense or if you don’t agree with it—hearing feedback and learning to pick out the parts that can be of benefit is a skill worth learning. And don’t react to feedback immediately. Let it sink in first. You might be surprised at how well it will improve your story!
- Get a critique partner. No. Your mom, best friend, and/or partner don’t count. Neither do coworkers, the deacon at your church, or your hair stylist. (Hint: Four times a year there is a critique partner match up on Twitter using the hashtag #CPMatch.)
- Don’t be a jerk. People remember jerks. People especially remember jerks who proclaim that an agent or editor is making a “huge mistake” by passing them up.
- Your second book does not have to come out the same year as your debut. Take your time and publish when you’re ready.
- Self-publishing is not subpar. Don’t paint all self-published books with the same brush. Several of my favorites are self-published.
- If you do self-publish, take your time. Self-published books get a bad rap because authors rush the process. Hire good editors. Hire good cover designers. This is your first shot to make a good impression, don’t waste it.
- Reviews aren’t for you; they’re for other readers.
- In fact, don’t even read your reviews. If you are in need of a positive pick me up when you’re feeling down on your writing, have a friend scour the reviews for you and pick out the 4 and 5 star reviews.
- Find balance. Take time away from writing. Spend it with your family. Walk the dog. Do yoga. Bake cookies. Call your mom. Have coffee with a friend. Read a book for fun. Self-care is the best care and only you can do it.
Next Up: I’m publishing a novella in a holiday anthology with all the proceeds going to charity. Each of the stories cross over into one another, like the movie LOVE, ACTUALLY. My story is about a crown royal who is in hiding because she doesn’t know if she wants to take the throne her father is abdicating—and it just so happens she’s hiding out in the same New England town as her ex-fiancé. (I mean, really…what can go wrong?)
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