This is a guest post by Madona Skaff-Koren.
I’ve been in love with creating tales of adventure since I was a child. As an adult I started submitting short stories and a modest number were accepted. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for my attempts at novel length works. I managed to pique the interest of a few publishers who asked to see the full manuscripts, but not enough to buy them. After a while I decided to concentrate on the more successful short story market.
But I couldn’t abandon my dream to become a novelist. I thought about the types of books I’d written before, (thrillers and science fiction) and decided to try my hand at a cozy mystery. I created a protagonist that had been recently disabled by a serious multiple sclerosis attack, but was forced to turn sleuth when her childhood friend disappeared. I remember that I finished the final draft on a Friday and had plans to spend the weekend at my computer with a cup of tea in hand, easily making a long list of publishers to contact. I envisioned that by Monday morning I’d start sending out queries and before long I’d have a book contract.
I hadn’t realized that while I’d been concentrating on the short story market, the book publishing world had changed drastically. Many of the major publishers that had welcomed fledgling writers, were now only accepting agented material. And the number of major trade publishers in Canada and the U.S. was dwindling as publishing houses either closed their doors or merged.
Only one thing left to do: more market research. This time I looked at places other than the major companies. One useful resource was the Canadian Authors Association, which – among other sites – helped me put together a list of publishing houses of varying sizes that didn’t require an agent. Hedging my bets I also made a list of potential literary agents that had an interest in cozies. I sent queries to 20 publishers and 18 agents and all but one publisher and one agent responded, which is an excellent rate. Unfortunately they all said no.
I also attended writing conferences that provided the opportunity to pitch your book. After I muddled my way through my first in-person pitch, the agent, in his own gruff way, explained everything I was doing wrong. Actually, he sat back in his chair, shut his eyes, exclaiming, “Stop! I can’t see the tree for the forest!” I guess my high speed synopsis was like throwing the entire forest at him, when he only wanted one tree. He told me to study the blurbs on various back covers. That’s what he wanted. Something short that would make you want to read that book. Though he wasn’t interested in my novel, his advice was invaluable.
By the time I attended an Ottawa conference, I felt more comfortable as I signed up to pitch my novel to two small press publishers. Only one asked to see the entire manuscript. But I’d been here before, and tried not to get too excited.
Then early in the New Year I received an email. My novel had been accepted! Not long after that, I signed my first book contract with Renaissance Press, an Ottawa based small press publisher.
The road to publication of a first book is different for each person, but I’m sure it’s just as emotional. When I finally held a copy of my debut mystery novel, Journey of a Thousand Steps in my hands, well let’s just say tissues were needed.
Perhaps one disadvantage of being with a small press publisher is that it can be difficult to get into the large chain bookstores. Getting to know the consignment manager is a great help. Though it’s a bit harder these days with COVID-19, if you phone first to introduce yourself, you can usually get your book in their store. With independent bookstores, though their shelf space is usually more limited, most owners are there because they love books and are willing to give precious shelf space to local authors.
There are also numerous advantages to small press publishing. One is definitely speed to publication. I pitched my novel in October. It was released the following September. I told several author friends that my first novel would be published only a few months after I’d signed the contract, stunning a few of them. One had to wait to see her book come out the following year, even though she’d finished all the edits. Another complained that she had to wait two years due to the long line up ahead of her.
The short time frame needed to launch a book didn’t mean that quality suffered. My novel went through a major plot edit in order to fix a dragging middle before we got into line and copy edits. Most small press publishers are quite conscientious and take pride in their projects. I also had the exciting opportunity to choose which scene would be depicted on the cover. I even provided the model that best represented my vision.
Being a first time novelist, I sometimes felt a bit overwhelmed. But never alone. Any time I emailed or messaged the publisher or editor they would answer usually the same day, and frequently within the hour. Everyone had day jobs, yet they still managed to make me feel like I was their only author. Without my small press publisher, I might still be waiting to realize my childhood dream.
And even after my debut novel was published, there was still plenty of work to be done… Such as work on the next one!
Madona Skaff-Koren is the author of the Naya investigates series. The first, Journey of a Thousand Steps and the sequel, launched this year, Death by Association, were published by Renaissance Press. Her short stories appear in several anthologies, most recently, Nothing Without Us: an anthology featuring disabled protagonists who are the heroes not the Sidekicks. And In the Key of 13: an anthology of music and murder. And coming this fall, A Grave Diagnosis: 35 stories of murder and malaise.
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