20 years ago this week, I completed the first draft of my very first novel, Turning Point. This post is a reflection of that journey and what I learned about writing, editing, and publishing along the way.
I was inspired by fandom with a “what if?” question. What if the animosity between a pair of actresses was about repressed romantic feelings that she didn’t know how to deal with? This would definitely be a story of self-discovery as much as a first-time lesbian romance. So the WIP got the “working title” of Turning Point. That core theme and title never once changed. Despite working in a 70-80 hour a week tech job, I wrote an average of 2,000-4,000 words a week and shared the draft scenes to a private mailing list. I wrote (by hand!) on legal pads every morning, continuing through several events that shook both the entire U.S. and a death in my own family. I posted the last pages to the email group on September 16, 2001 when U.S. airspace reopened for the first time. My hope was the happy ending could lift mine and others’ spirits.
When all was said and done, that first draft was more than 184k words. I still have a paper box containing the pages written over 25 weeks (I had started April 14, 2001). Eventually I would cut the draft apart and rewrite it into TWO plot arcs. These second drafts were edited several more times, scenes added and deleted, and others generally revised until I thought it was sound.
In 2003, I started researching how I might get Turning Point published. This was before ebooks were a thing. Paperbacks were done in print-runs based on pre-orders or projected marketability. Most mainstream publishers were not publishing LGBTQ content (much less ones with detailed sexual content) because they didn’t see a sizable enough buyers’ market to justify the necessary 50,000-100,000 copy first-edition print runs that were necessary to turn a profit.
Around the same time, desktop publishing software improved (and the price point came down). While there have always been published books about, by, and for lesbian readers, around 2000 a growing number of small presses started up as “kitchen table” operations.
There was a revival of sorts of lesbian-focused fiction in the aftermath of the Xena television series. Many “bards” who had been fanfic writers became authors of original stories spurred by the concept of uber (simplest definition: think of fandom characters in an archetypal way and “transplant” them to new settings and somewhat new characterizations) presented by the television series itself. I wrote more about this in this blog post.
I submitted my manuscript to several of these small presses between 2003 and 2005. I received rejections. Four in total. Two of the rejections were kindly detailed, suggesting things I could adjust to improve the manuscript. So, taking a hard look, I went to work revising.
One last time, I submitted to a fifth publisher. And received the offer of publication from P.D. Publishing, a small lesbian-owned press based out of North Carolina.
The contract was a traditional one in the sense that it was royalty-based and I would receive an advance against those royalties as long as the book remained in print. The advance was modest, $200, but this was a small press and the initial sales were expected only to be around 5,000 copies. They used print-on-demand to avoid warehousing costs. I would receive a percentage from every copy sold.
I was given a publication date of April 2007. During the 18 months between the contract signing and publication, my manuscript would undergo two edits, both by freelancers paid by the publisher, and a proofread (also covered by the publisher). A freelance cover artist consulted with me on ideas for the cover art and was also paid by the publisher.
Once Turning Point was published, the publisher began recouping their up front costs to these freelancers. They documented sales until my advance was also recouped. After that, quarterly, I received royalty checks. The book’s sales in the first three months made back all the publisher’s money spent and I was able to receive a sizable royalty check by the earliest quarterly report: September 2007.
For the summer of 2007, I planned a book tour. Starting in 2006, I scheduled to visit five different bookstores, two conferences, two Pride festivals, two LGBTQ conferences, and two library fairs between April and October 2007. For this I needed physical books to sign and sell directly. The publisher arranged for boxes of books to be sent to me “at cost” which meant that I would pay them back out of the proceeds, keeping any excess as profit. (Most of this excess paid my “table” fees at festivals or for advertising space in program guides.)
I attended some event nearly every weekend, and sometimes took a few days from work for the travel time on either end. I traveled to bookstores Tampa, Miami, Ocala (all in Florida) and spearheaded some multi-author events in Orlando through the writers (not specifically LGBTQ) community here. I traveled to New Orleans (Saints and Sinners, an LGBTQ Book Festival) and the Decatur Book Festival (just outside Atlanta, Georgia) and joined several authors for a reading and signing at the lesbian/feminist bookstore Charis Books in Atlanta. In October, I traveled to Boston and Provincetown to attend Women’s Week and sign books at Womencrafts bookstore.
I created advertisements in co-op with other authors with this publisher, with other authors in my community and paid to run them in places where my research showed my target audience looked for new material to buy/read. I never paid for a review, and I obtained permission to use excerpts from reviews in marketing materials.
Throughout the winter of 2007, I sold signed books and mailed them across the country and around the world to readers and fans.
In March 2008, word reached me that Turning Point had been named a finalist for a Golden Crown Literary Society (lesbian books organization) Goldie Award in the category of Debut Author. Over the next few months, Turning Point received accolades from many lesbian fiction review sites and won the Lesbian Fiction Readers Choice Awards. I made plans to attend the GCLS conference at beginning of August (over my birthday weekend) in Phoenix, Arizona.
When the awards were over, P.D. Publishing revised my book cover to include the “finalist” tag it still holds today, as well as the back cover and catalog listings to mention my other awards and recognitions.
Out of Print
After the second book was released, P.D. Publishing was, unfortunately, going out of business, and Turning Point and Turn for Home went out of print. I looked around at the changed publishing landscape and went with a publisher who also produced ebooks, which is how the second editions came about.
What I learned…
- Writing the draft is the EASY part. Author Red Smith: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed” onto the page.
- Rewriting, revising, editing, and publication require a good grasp of what makes a story compelling to readers beyond yourself. And you need self-critical eyes to do it. If you can’t do that, you need to get other eyes. Use beta readers, editors, other writers, and target readers, to give your work the best chance to reach its true potential.
- Publishing has changed, yes, but I deeply respect the traditional model. Traditional publishers take on a lot of financial risk to publish a book. This understandably makes them choosy. I do not begrudge the publishers that rejected my work. They didn’t believe their established audience was the same as my target readers. I’m much happier I went with a publisher who felt that their audience was closely matched to my book’s target audience and they felt confident they knew how to reach them. I became a best seller in my genre that way.
- Marketing should be done by publisher and author alike and it should be an active process. Listing your book on a catalog page or a book seller’s portal is not marketing. It’s also not 24/7, if you learn calendaring and (technically) how to create queued or timed-release posts, and advertisements.
- Book awards can give you sales boosts, for a time, but word-of-mouth is still the most valuable marketing tool an author can have. If you are a reader, reblog or retweet your favorite author(s). If you’re an author, read and reblog/retweet your favorite authors too. Be a part of the community of your readers and they will be there to support you.
to all my readers, past, present, and future, who purchase a book. I know I’m not a “rapid release” author, but I hope I provide enjoyable stories that you feel good about recommending to others.