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Virgin In The Church
#2, August 2001: The Selling

By Scott Nicholson

(Intro: I sold my first novel "The Red Church" through the slush pile. It will be released as a mass market paperback by Pinnacle Books in June 2002. I'm sharing my experiences in hopes that other writers can learn from my triumphs and mistakes, and, of course, to generate interest in the book. Scott's rule number one: build your audience one reader at a time.)

Kensington Books, my publisher, might be horrified to find out that my first novel "The Red Church" was rejected by fifteen agents and two other publishers, which accounts for the lag between the book's 1999 completion and its sale. In fact, the agency which represents the novel was the first to reject it!

My theory on selling books is that they are like lottery tickets, the more you're playing, the better your chances of winning. My previous novel had made the rounds, getting read by some top guns, so I felt like I was getting warm. I went down my agent list of top choices, querying four at a time. By the time the last rejections rolled in, 1999 was ending, I wasn't getting any younger, and I was about ready to start running down the list again for the novel that I was about to finish. (See, when you want to build a career, you are still writing novels, whether or not they sell.)

Since my top agent choices had passed, I decided I'd try a couple of publishers. The first was a long shot but had quick response times, so I figured I'd only lose a couple of weeks at most. The second place was a better fit, but still a long shot, as I happened to know they had only bought one or two unagented novels in the last five years. An editorial assistant there fell in love with the book and apparently fought for it, but someone bounced it along the way. The assistant sent me some rewrite suggestions which I quickly incorporated, but only because they made sense.

I hesitated before sending the manuscript to Kensington, because I knew that the book would have only a slim chance of initial release in hardcover. A first novel published in hardcover gives the author at least nine months of shelf life before the paperback comes out. Hardcover release also confers a bit of prestige as well as a tiny bit more support and marketing bestowed by the publisher.

I also made a conscious decision to choose Kensington over Leisure, two markets that were likely to look kindly upon a thriller with supernatural elements. At the time, and currently, Leisure is the dominant horror publisher, starting a hardback line and bringing writers old and new to a broader audience. While I love Leisure and their handling of books, as well as what they've done for the horror field, I felt editor Don D'Auria's stable of writers was getting a bit crowded, and with so many established names, it would be harder for a new guy to stand out. Kensington had only recently revived its horror line, so I had a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor there.

That said, I've purposely broadened what I write because I don't want to be only a "horror writer." I've written fantasy, mystery, science fiction, literary fiction, young adult, poetry, screenplays, and tons of non-fiction. My natural pull is toward the supernatural simply because the canvas is so much wider. Horror literature doesn't confine itself; market labels and bookstore sections do that. I don't apologize for writing horror, but I also don't apologize for wanting to reach all the other audiences.

I submitted "The Red Church" to Kensington, care of editor John Scognamiglio, in February 2001. As with D'Auria, I'd heard nothing but the highest praise for Scognamiglio. (The second "g" is silent, by the way, otherwise it's pronounced just like you think.) John called me at work on a Wednesday, leaving a message because I was on another line. When the message landed on my desk, I almost jumped out of my chair without using my legs. They never phone to reject you.

John said he liked the book, wanted to buy it, and then started talking terms. I told him he would have to negotiate those with my agent. John asked who that was, and I told him I'd let him know tomorrow. Remember what I said about lottery tickets? I actually had two agents reading other material at the time: one was based in the West Coast and had a screenplay of mine, the other was with William Morris Agency and had my most recent novel.

I went with the William Morris guy because he'd called me twice, once to ask for the manuscript after reading my query (I'd queried a different agent there), and then to say he'd received it but hadn't gotten around to reading it. The other agent, after returning one of my phone calls, had gone into a two-month bout of silence. Since William Morris is also one of the bigger players in Hollywood as well as New York, I felt it was the right choice for what I want to do with my career.

I called the agent and asked if he'd represent "The Red Church." We had a good talk about the novel of mine he was reading, he was up-front that it probably wouldn't break in as a big commercial hardback, but he thought I had talent. The fact that I'd had a story collection published by a regional press and that I had written multiple novels also made me appear a bankable commodity, though the investment might take some time to mature.

Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Since the moment I decided to be a professional writer, I have researched story markets, booksellers, publishers, agents, contracts, promotional tactics, distributors, and every other aspect of the industry. This immediately paid off with the agent. We skipped all that ground level stuff and cut right to the real matters: reversion clause, royalties, residuals. He didn't have to waste his valuable time on definitions, and I probably built his faith in me with my knowledge. We were professionals conducting business.

I knew there wasn't a lot of negotiating room with Kensington, because my book was basically purchased to fill a slot in the schedule, and I have no doubt that John's room is full to bursting with other manuscripts. And though the money from "The Red Church" is insignificant in the grand scheme of the publishing world, the agent got me more than enough of a raise to pay for his commission. I don't know what he said to John, though I suspect it was something along the lines of "This guy writes for me and he's going to publish a lot of books before we're done."

I plan to hold up my end of the bargain.

(This article can be freely distributed and published, but please include Nicholson’s byline and web address.)

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