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Virgin In The Church
#3, September 2001: The Nitty Gritty

(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.)

Being a first-time novelist at the lowest levels of the mass market means a couple of things: my name doesn’t matter at all, yet, astoundingly, I’m getting a good bit of input on the book package. Apparently, this varies depending upon the publisher, and usually cover control (or at least some influence over it) doesn’t come until after an author has proven successful.

Oh, and my novel will undergo no conceptual editing; that is, my editor will pretty much pass the book straight to the copy editor without asking for any significant structural changes. This is not necessarily because I told the story perfectly after the first four or five drafts, though I have done my best. It is more a function of the publisher having a slot to fill less than year from accepting the manuscript. And my experience is different from that of many other authors, because every book and every editorial relationship is unique.

"The Red Church" is a mass market paperback, a form which is automatically snubbed by literary types and "smart people" in general, those who wouldn’t be caught dead holding a paperback with a lurid cover and foil lettering. As an additional incentive for high-brows to avoid my novel, it is being marketed under the "horror" label, which most people associate with Freddie Kreuger slice-and-dice with the occasional evil poltergeist thrown in.

People in the know know better, of course, because genres are nothing but artificial marketing categories invented by Twentieth-Century publishers. So my trick is to make the book look like a literary novel, a romance, a Southern book, and, if at all possible, like the latest Dean Koontz or Stephen King. I’m not being deceptive. I feel the novel has something to offer readers with a broad range of tastes.

With that in mind, when my editor asked for cover ideas, I instantly thought that a striking image of a red church would be obvious and evocative. So I forwarded digital images of some old Appalachian churches and thought to myself, "This is great. I can’t believe the publishers are so impressed by my work that they are asking my advice on the cover elements."

After I thought about it for a while, I realized the probable truth, which is far more humbling. The cover artist will not read "The Red Church." Kensington, my publishing house, releases 500 titles a year. That’s about three books every two days. I believe their graphics department consists of two people, and like everyone else in the world, they are probably overworked and underpaid.

The publishing business at that scale has little room for artistic sacrifice. It’s a pipeline, a flow chart, a steady system of product placement and replacement. For the first-time novelist, the name on the cover is the least important part of the product design, because the new author’s name is practically meaningless on the racks of America’s grocery stores.

Next time you’re at a mass market rack, take a moment and study the array of the graphic elements. If the book title is most prominent, then the writer is in many cases replaceable. If the author’s name is across the top in large letters, that author has transcended genres and become a "genre of one." Orson Scott Card doesn’t write science fiction or fantasy anymore, he writes Card books. Sharyn McCrumb doesn’t write Southern Appalachian literary fiction, she writes McCrumb’s Ballad novels.

So that’s a first-time novelist’s goal, to continue writing and publishing as his or her name slowly grows larger on the cover of each subsequent book. You do that through hard work and hard thinking, and a little luck.

With "The Red Church" being a marketing slot book for the summer of 2002, I have to do things that separate it from the other books, and the other horror books, that it will be competing with. Guess what? My publisher is giving me the chore of seeking cover blurbs, which is a mixed blessing, since I’m a nobody. But it also gives me some control, so I’m not asking many horror writers for cover blurbs. I’m asking Sharyn McCrumb, Orson Scott Card, Kevin J. Anderson, Stewart O’Nan, and Joe R. Lansdale for blurbs.

I may be asked to come up with some jacket copy for the rear cover, something to entice readers into purchasing the novel if they’ve gone so far as to pluck it off the rack for a closer look. I can write that with my eyes closed, because I rewrote my synopsis many times in the process of sending out query letters to agents and publishers. I can fit the hook into two paragraphs and several sets of hanging ellipses...

Meanwhile, a couple of specialty houses have expressed interest in doing a limited edition hardcover of the novel. Kensington has a basic formula for sublicensing that pretty much is out of the price range of most small presses. That’s another downside of being a first-time novelist: Kensington will control all sublicensing print rights until 2009, which means I have absolutely no say in reprints, foreign editions, hardcover, etc., though I do get a slice of the small pie in my royalty checks.

In other words, if Kensington can hustle the book and market a bunch of the rights, they can turn a profit off of me before the book even hits the press. They can do two deals and make more than they’re paying me for an advance. Perhaps not likely, since I’m a nobody and "The Red Church" is America-oriented.

Though Kensington will control the print rights, we (my agent and I) still have electronic rights and movie rights. Which means I can write the screenplay if I wish, or put out an e-book. I love having those kinds of options, and I have promised myself that all future book deals will not leave me feeling so helpless. Maybe for the next book, I will have to make some sacrifices, but by my third novel, I hope I’m selling well enough that I can let my agent handle sublicensing. Of course, it’s equally likely that I will have no third book, that my sales record will be so shameful that no publisher will touch me.

I’m grateful that my publisher has faith in me, and I hear that Kensington’s distribution is excellent. I believe we will be successful, but life, love, and publishing offer no guarantees. I never for a moment forget that I am one of the luckiest guys alive, and that I have a foot on the bottom rung of a very long ladder.

And that next rung is really not so far out of reach.

(This article may be freely published or distributed as long as Scott Nicholson's byline and web address are credited.)

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