WARNING: The story of my first publishing deal will most likely make you roll your eyes, gnash your teeth and ask, "Why not me?" I know this because, if I were to hear the story and it weren't about me, that's how I'd react.
I'd attended enough workshops and read enough books to know that: (1) You never get a book deal without an agent, (2) You never get a book deal unless you've finished the book, and (3) You never get a book deal unless you already had a book deal (see numbers 1 and 2). It was a never-ending Escher-esque labyrinth of torture.
I should admit upfront that I had a lucky break. At a conference, I met an editor from Penguin who'd preread part of my finished novel. She requested the whole manuscript, but the novel didn't fit the direction her imprint (Berkley) was going; she told me that if I felt inclined to write a chick-lit novel, to get in touch.
I don't usually like chick lit. It always seems populated by girls who are prettier, thinner and drunker than I'll ever be, so I don't feel qualified to write it. But two weeks later, I awoke at 3 a.m. with an idea: chick lit for geek girls like me! I got up, went to my laptop, banged out the first scene and submitted 20 pages.
When the editor called to offer me a two-book deal for my series, Queen Geek Social Club, I floated on air for a day or two, then realized I'd be in for a grueling amount of work. I had a deadline for a book (I'd submitted only 20 pages!), and I was still teaching high school, finishing a master's degree and trying to raise two kids.
First, of course, there was the writing of the book, which was incredibly fun. I loved living in the world of my two girl geek characters who conquer their world by collecting Twinkies to send to skinny supermodels and by declaring National Invisible Boy Day. Then came the editing, revising and cover approval.
Eventually, I got my proof of the book and then pushed to meet my publicist at Penguin. I thought, We have to start planning our massive marketing assault! I need to know how to plan my year: to figure out where I'll be touring and speaking to adoring masses of teenagers, attending gala events, doing interviews, perhaps even double-billing with Lemony Snicket on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "
I did have an excellent publicist, actually; she arranged for my book to be part of two major magazine promotions, and she was wonderfully supportive. But what I found out was this: I was nothing special. People publish books all the time, and when your trade paperback is $10 at Barnes & Noble, you don't have to be a genius to figure that the publisher may not pour dollars into marketing it.
So, I got busy. While writing the second book (due to be turned in when the first book came out), I made promotional packages, complete with my own memo paper for the club. I spent hours compiling the addresses and contact information for bookstores that seemed likely to carry my book. I targeted 10 cities where I thought I'd have a couch to sleep on and sent packets to the high school librarians.
I hired a colleague to create an interactive website (queengeeksocialclub.com) and spent hours writing content for it. I published my first chapter on the site, which attracted readers. I got on MySpace. I made postcards. I called newspapers and TV stations with the zeal of a televangelist bent on collecting believers, and I shamelessly promoted my book to anyone who'd listen.
And I learned that writing and getting a lucky break are only parts of the process. You may have written a masterpiece, but without marketing, no one is likely to read it except your editor. Carving out your niche is at least as important as character and content when it comes to connecting to your readers.