How I Sold My Novel

Last Friday morning, I received the call every writer dreams of answering.  I’d been trading emails with a publisher over the previous month.

This time the phone rang.

“We want to buy your book.” “Our editor loved it, and when she loves something, we listen.” “Her words were ‘I want to read more from this writer.’” “I want first right of refusal on the next one.”

The publisher actually said, “We want to buy your book.” several times. It was amazing. My wife and I discussed having champagne for lunch.

Here’s some of what lead up to that call.

First, write the dang book. You have to know your story inside and out. And then be able to give the gist of it in two sentences. That took months to craft. I workshopped my pitch over three separate meetings at the DFW Writers Workshop, giving the pitch and getting feedback and complete rewrite suggestions from published authors in our group. They were brutal. It was humbling. But you learn why this is absolutely necessary.

I wrote a synopsis that was four pages – some agents wanted to see that. I wrote a one-pager, a single paragraph, an elevator pitch, and compacted my entire 80,000-word novel into a 240 character tweet. And at some point in the process, I used them all.

I purchased the upgraded Query Tracker account and filled it with submissions to agents and publishers. They returned the favor with rejections. Mostly. An impressive number never bothered to return anything. Several took months to respond with a form rejection. My personal record is 11 months. And then they misspelled my name. I don’t know who Calvin Holmes is, but your novel “is not right for us at this time.”

One of the great things DFW Writers Workshop does is start every meeting by recognizing who has gotten their work out into the world – members who have submitted, received rejections, and the rare acceptance. Writers rise and tell the group their news. In this Zoom world, members just own it on the video chat. Submissions and rejections are the norm and get applauded for the courage to get the work out there. I submitted a lot, many more times than I had the cajones to stand before the writers group and admit. And I was rejected just as many times. But, occasionally, someone gets to say they’ve gotten a request for pages, or the full. That’s huge.

I attended several annual DFWCon Writers conferences over the course of this process and pitched to agents face-to-face. Ten painful minutes of forced conversation to be enthusiastic about your book. Those presentations earned requests for the first few chapters, but eventually just more rejections. Two long years of pitching, submitting, and rejection.

I signed up to help at DFWCon, volunteering on the Conference committee. That put me in closer contact with agents and editors and the opportunity for elevator pitching. Again, some polite requests for chapters, but eventually, always, “not right for us at this time.”

In the end, it was a Twitter pitch day – #PitMad. I mentioned paring down 80,000 words into 240 characters? Yep, it works. That Pitch Madness pitch party tweet earned a like from a publisher. It was not the first time, and my now jaded response was that it was not a big deal. One of a half-dozen glimmers of faint hope.

But this particular publisher sent a positive response to my synopsis and a request for a partial, then a full manuscript. Four and a half months later, after the publisher had gone through the holidays, a bout of covid running through their office, and their computer system getting hacked, I got the call.

Through these past few years, it did get close. I had one “publisher” even offer a contract. That was exciting and turned out to be false hope. They talked of a multiple book series featuring my main character, something I hadn’t considered. We had serious conversations, but the contract stipulated that they wouldn’t release my book (nor would I see any money) until after I delivered book three in the series. A series I hadn’t ever planned on writing. Then the pandemic hit, and we went our separate ways.

I spent a good six-months working with a university press. The story is set in a college town, and I’d always thought they might be a potential publisher, even though fiction is not their forte. They liked the idea, and after a long period where they had editors and one of their authors read the manuscript, they appreciated the main character and the setting, but the story was too far-fetched. They offered reconsideration contingent on a rewrite and resubmit, but only if I’d take out most of the elements that underpinned the spine of the story. I passed.

After the PitMad “like,” the publisher directed me to Submitable.com to fill out an in-depth look at my book for their consideration. Character studies, first ten pages, first three chapters, last chapter, best chapter, the full manuscript. I’d built most all of this while writing and pitching, so it was a lot of cutting and pasting.

Then they asked about my readers. Specifically. Demographically. Knowing your book is one thing. Knowing your targeted reader is another. They wanted competitives. Where did I see my book shelved? Some of this I knew. Some, I now need to really study.

I did the best I could on the submission, and it took the bulk of a day to complete. A full three months later came an email.

“Are you available for a call on Friday?”

Colin Holmes
Author, writer, adman, barbecue enthusiast, baseball fan, and collector of speeding tickets.