From Self-Published Success to Agented Author

For a new writer, finding an agent sometimes feels like you’ve been sent on a snipe hunt. Other writers insist they are out there, tout the glories of bagging one, and share their wild adventure stories about when they got theirs. But are agents really out there? If so, how do you get one? I searched for an agent in the same way most people do—through trial and error querying. My queries improved over time. My book summaries got better. I learned more about how to get published as I went along. But after two finished books and hundreds of thanks-but-no-thanks letters, I adopted a new philosophy: “If you build it, he will come.” Guest column by Colleen Houck, whose first book, Tiger's Curse, claimed the #1 spot on Kindle's children's bestseller list for seven weeks. The book arrived in print in Jan. 2011.
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For a new writer, finding an agent sometimes feels like you’ve been sent on a snipe hunt. Other writers insist they are out there, tout the glories of bagging one, and share their wild adventure stories about when they got theirs. But are agents really out there? If so, how do you get one? I searched for an agent in the same way most people do—through trial and error querying. My queries improved over time. My book summaries got better. I learned more about how to get published as I went along. But after two finished books and hundreds of thanks-but-no-thanks letters, I adopted a new philosophy: “If you build it, he will come.”

Colleen is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Katy won.)

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Guest column by Colleen Houck, whose first book,
Tiger's Curse, claimed the #1 spot on Kindle's children's
bestseller list for seven weeks. The book arrived in
print in Jan. 2011. She has worked as a nationally
certified American Sign Language interpreter for
seventeen years and lives in Salem, Oregon, with
her husband and a white stuffed tiger. Find her
on Facebook and Twitter, or see her website.


I RESOLVED TO CREATE SOMETHING SPECIAL

I’d already created what I thought was the foundation for a successful series before I even started writing. I made a list of the most popular books and took a look at what was on my bookshelf. I started figuring out why I bought those books in particular and why I kept some and discarded others. Quickly, I realized that I buy books for one of three reasons—I love the author, a friend has recommended the book, or it’s gotten media attention.

For a new author that’s two strikes. Media attention is hard to come by and for a debut novel there is no prior fan base to take advantage of. I knew that I’d have to write a book so compelling that people would not just like it, but gush about it, tell all their co-workers, and buy extra copies to give out for Christmas. There are really only a few books I am willing to do that for. All of them are fantasy. Almost all of them have been made into movies and almost all of them are sitting on my bookshelf at this moment. Most other books, though I may like them, end up at a used bookstore where I get store credit to buy other books. But these certain books, the ones I love the most, I will read over and over again. They’re unique. Special.

That’s what I needed to write.

THE DECISION TO GO MY OWN WAY

I set about creating a series, since all my favorite books were series books, made it fantasy, and created something that would easily translate to film. I put in everything that I loved about books and movies. When I finished the second book in the series, I sent out queries and crossed my fingers. Nothing happened.

Well, that’s not exactly true. What happened is that I often got my hopes up only to end up disappointed. Determinedly, I started writing book three, feeling very strongly that I had something others would enjoy. My husband and I talked it over and, together, we decided to self-publish. I knew self-publishing was risky, that it would make it easier for agents and editors to dismiss my material, but I wasn’t willing to let my books collect dust.

I published my first two books through Amazon and, about a month before they were ready, the publisher offered a discount on e-book adaptation. I added the Kindle versions to my package, figuring the more lines I cast the better my odds were at catching a fish.

Though creating a media presence as a self-published author is difficult, I did the best I could. As we neared publication, I called several bookstores, planned a book signing, took out an ad in the local newspaper, and placed books in all the local libraries. My brother set up a website so I’d be able to blog and respond to fan mail.

My books went live on Amazon in late September 2009 and my support network of friends and family began sharing them. Because I offered Tiger’s Curse for only ninety-nine cents, it was soon picked up by Kindle bargain hunters and was placed on several lists for good reads-cheap. The second book in the series, Tiger’s Quest, sold well as an e-book too even though it was listed for $6.99. Fans e-mailed me and I wrote back, thanked them for reading, and asked if they would write reviews for me on Goodreads and Amazon. I also suggested that they ask for my books at their favorite bookstore.

THEN SOMETHING AMAZING HAPPENED

In mid-January 2010, I woke up one day to find that I had gone from selling three hundred e-books a month to selling three hundred a day. Costco contacted me about selling my series in some of their stores since fans had filled out numerous request forms. I was contacted by China, Thailand, and Korea to see if the translation rights had been sold. A film producer emailed me. We met for lunch, talked about tigers and movies, and signed an option agreement.

But I still didn’t have an agent.

My world was spinning and I had just decided that I could earn a living doing this all by myself when a literary agent contacted me. His name was Alex and he wondered if I was represented yet. He said he’d found me on Amazon and was impressed with my reviews. Two days later I had representation at one of the top if not the best agency in the country—Trident Media Group. My new agent, Alex Glass, went to work immediately. [Editor's update: Alex Glass formed his own agency, Glass Literary, in 2015.]

Within a few weeks, I had a book deal. The self-published versions of my book were taken offline to prepare for the very aggressive marketing of my new publisher, Sterling, and in less than six months the new version of my debut novel, Tiger’s Curse, was headed to bookstores all over the country.

Colleen is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Katy won.)

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