How Books Get Publisher Support
1. Latest News from the Desk of Sooz:
July/August 2022 —
What a month July was! I finally turned in Luminaries 2 (title TBD), but before you get too excited on my behalf, I should admit that I didn’t quite finish the book. I got stuck right at the end (like at 96%), and my awesome editor was like, “Good enough. Turn it in.”
Bless you, Lindsey.
I also got to go to SDCC two weekends ago and it was so much fun. Oh my gosh, it felt amazing to be back at the con, both as a fan and as an author. So to everyone who came to see me, THANK YOU!!!!!!! (And to all my new friends from the weekend: you're awesome!)
Today, I'm off to C2E2 in Chicago! Find my schedule here!
P.S. Sorry this newsletter is going out a bit late. Do to Unforeseen Issues, my agent needed some extra time to do her part of our Daydreamers section below! Better late than never, right?
P.P.S. It's a looooong post below! But I hope educational!
This newsletter exists thanks to readers like YOU! To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
2. Writing Prompts:
Someone meets the person of their romantic dreams at a coffee shop—truly their Fated One—but...the timing is all wrong. It can never be. Oh, the.....angst? comedy? despair?
Having a weekend away at SDCC reminded me how much my identity has truly changed since becoming a mom during covid. It was refreshing and empowering to feel like Old Sooz again—and an important reminder to make time wholly for myself. What do YOU do that makes you feel wholly you? And are you making time for that in your life right now?
3. For the DenNerds: Happy Ten Years!
As I shared on Instagram, the ten year anniversary of my debut’s release was on July 24th. It was surreal to be back at the place where my first all started ten years ago--and promoting my tenth book, no less. (I even worse the same shirt because I’m enormous dork!)
But I wanted to quickly thank all the Misfits who first made this newsletter a reality.
I bet most of you didn’t even know that the name of this newsletter came from my first readers! Those handful of loyal souls who called themselves the “Misfits” after my heroine, Miss Fitt!
I am going to talk about what happened with my first trilogy below, so I won’t get into that tale here…
But thank you to everyone who has supported me this long! And thank you for still supporting me.
I love you forever, DenNerds and Misfits and Witchlanders and LumiNerds!
P.S. Don’t forget to preorder my upcoming title, The Luminaries!
4. For the Daydreamers: How Books Get Publisher Support
I am thrilled to have a special treat for you all today in the writing section: my agent Joanna Volpe has joined me (in the red boxes!) so we can talk about a poorly understood aspect of publishing.
How Books Get Publisher Support
(and why authors always moan about preorders)
It’s a loooong post, so please forgive me. But to tell this story to its fullest, I have to back up ten years…
Once upon a time, ten years ago, on July 24, 2012, my debut novel released into the world to a beautiful chorus of…crickets.
(For those who actually were said crickets and actually bought Something Strange & Deadly, I will love you until my dying day. 🥰)
From Jo: Ah! I remember all those years ago! And it was about 2 years before then when I first met Miss Fitt when you queried. 😊 But yes, that launch wasn’t as successful as we hoped (and as the Spirit-Hunters deserved).
Nine years ago in the fall of 2013, my agent and I were faced with a reality that most authors will face at some point in their careers: an inability to sell anything else by me. Because SS&D had performed “poorly,” no one wanted anything new by me.
From Jo: This is what we call the “sales track spiral.” In brief, an author can write an excellent book, but they have very little to no control over the distribution and sales for that book. Yet, it’s the author that bears the brunt of the burden if a book underperforms. If that happens, a publisher will often reference that the author now has a “difficult sales track” (or the gentler version: a “tricky sales track”). And this is an issue for the publisher as well as the accounts (retailers like B&N, Target, indies, etc)—stores won’t order books by an author if they didn’t sell well with their last book. And if stores won’t order the book, then publishers can’t publish it. Essentially, no matter how amazing a book is, the author is being judged based on their last book’s performance. And that’s what we mean by spiral.
I also want to acknowledge that the most vulnerable authors to this spiral are the ones that publishers and booksellers don’t do a good job at marketing at selling. Historically, that has overwhelmingly come down on BIPOC and creators from other marginalized communities the most. It makes sense that if a publisher or account doesn’t know how to access or market to certain communities and audiences, that inevitably the sales would underperform. This highlights how the sales track metric can be particularly insidious and potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy before an author’s career has even begun.
It is possible to overcome a difficult sales track though—we’ve helped many an author do so (including the very brilliant Susan herself!), but it takes so much more work because you have to convince every person along the way (editors, sales & marketing, booksellers, etc) that there is a reason this new book will sell better than last time.
My first publisher, HarperTeen, didn’t want my follow-up project (something you might have heard of called The Luminaries!). And in their defense: paranormal as a genre was dead, and I lacked the sales numbers to warrant taking further risks.
From Jo: I actually just checked back in my records, and we sent them four proposals—and all four were passed on. Luminaries was one of them! And so was Truthwitch.
You see, publishing is largely a speculative industry. Publishers buy lots of titles in hope that one will HIT BIG and earn them a ton of money. Most books, however, won’t take off. Most will fade into oblivion, adored by a handful of lovely readers…but largely forgotten.
From Jo: This is so very true it hurts.
It’s sad. It sucks to be the author of those books. (I would know!) And let's not forget it disproportionately affects marginalized voices!
In such situations, there isn’t much an author can do. A poor sales record is the anchor around your neck that only very, very good timing and a lot of very, very hard work can save you from.
One strategy in these instances is for the author to change their name. Go on submissions under a new name as a shiny debut because no sales record is better than a bad sales record.
From Jo: I don’t encourage a name change except for very strategic reasons! On the internet, things live forever. And when you change your author name in order to have a clean sales slate, you are doing it to appease accounts. (Note: “accounts” refers to the third party vendors who sell your book. So, B&N, indies, Amazon, Target, etc) When you change your name, you are doing so at the very real risk of losing the people that know and follow you. And it’s those folks that will be there for the next book and the one after. We unfortunately cannot guarantee that accounts will order your books every time, and authors don’t have control over whether they do either.
HOWEVER…an author can increase the chances of accounts ordering their books! More on that below. 😉
I was one of those people in the position of having a recognizable name! I had a successful online following thanks to my years of sharing free writing advice. Lots of people in our community knew Susan Dennard and loved how she talked about publishing and craft! Most of those people just…didn’t buy her books.
Because I was reluctant to lose that following by writing under a new name, I started researching and preparing to go hybrid—i.e. publish my next titles as an indie author.
Still, I did have this book called Truthwtich on my hard drive. It didn’t feel suited to indie markets at the time, so we might as well at least TRY to sell as Susan Dennard.
Remember what I said about hard work? Well, I just kept writing and writing until we finally had a project we thought could work to relaunch me (Truthwitch). And then remember what I said about good timing? Well, an editor named Whitney Ross happened to read and love the book enough to look past my poor sales record. Admittedly, I got a significantly lower advance than I had for my the SS&D series, but I 100% understood why.
From Jo: Yes, when going on submission with a book by an author who is perceived by publishers to have a difficult sales track, there is a lot of extra work that goes into it. Because the read being really strong is no longer enough (though the pages do, in fact, have to be really strong!). In this position, we have to really sell the publishers on the quality of the work, as well as on why this time it will be different and the sales will be stronger. And in the case of Truthwitch, I focused on the fact that it was secondary world fantasy (which was in the middle of a growth period at this time), instead of historical fantasy. And I highlighted the following that Susan was gaining online. I talked to editors more about her, and how Sooz is so great to work with (it’s true!). I had longer and more frequent phone calls about the book so that they could hear the passion in my voice. All of this was me doing my best at trying to distract them from the sales numbers of the first series long enough so they could read the pages and fall in love. I was also arming the editors I was speaking to with the talking points they’d need when they went into that acquisitions meeting and got asked about the sales track. In the end, it only ever takes one editor to believe. And we found her!
And so, eight years ago, in 2014, Tor Teen acquired Truthwitch. And hooray! I got to keep my name, Susan Dennard, on the book! At least…for now…
But because the advance for Truthwitch was low, the performance expectations were also on the lower side. As were the various budgets behind the scenes that would be used to get the book out into the world.
Numbers have to add up. It’s not that my team doesn’t love me or my book! It’s just that they’re still looking at that sales track and trying to be realistic about the investment.
From Jo: Is it fair that publisher’s base an author’s current chance at success so heavily on how the last book performed? No. No it’s not. That’s not even how author careers historically work. Don’t we all know that an author becomes a better and better writer with each book they write? So why, as they are getting better at what they do, do we judge them even more harshly based on factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the work? (Can you tell this sales track conversation really bothers me, lol.) But whether or not it’s fair, it is the reality we are currently working in. So that’s how we have to build our strategy when we’re in this position. And to be clear, we have successfully done this with many authors, and all with real partners in the publishing house, who were willing to do the work, too.
But I’m distracting us now….
That said, I knew that if I didn’t sell well with my new series, then I really was out of options after that. You can’t have two back-to-back series fail and hope to sell again under your current name.
From Jo: Well…you can. But it’s even more difficult to do than the first time around, and you have doing be introducing something really different into the mix. Like say, going from writing a YA series to writing picture books. Or becoming a huge influencers online. Or something else that dramatically shifts the criteria.
So I doubled down on online promo. Especially my newsletter and my street team, the Witchlanders, which I have talked about before—and which I’ll address more below.
One thing I haven’t talked about is what happened behind the scenes at my publisher while I was hustling. Building my own hype before the book came out led to all sorts of new opportunities within Tor Teen and for Tor Teen. They were/are such a great team!!
So here is a crude timeline of events so you can actually see what happened on both sides of the publishing curtain.
Spring 2013: I started writing a book called Truthwitch. It was adult fantasy, and because I often frame my writing advice through the project I’m working on, I talked at length about the project online. At this time, on my blog or on the group blog I cofounded and ran, Pub(lishing) Crawl.
March 2014: I started the Misfits & Daydreamers newsletters. That first email went out to just 148 subscribers!!! If you’re one of those 148, I LOVE YOU!!! There weren’t many newsletters in YA at this time, and I was taking a page from indie authors when I set one up. Now everyone in YA has a mailing list (sigh), but hey! I can at least say I was one of the very first! 😂
Spring 2014: Tor Teen acquired 4 books in the Witchlands series. (More on my advance and the finances of that deal here. That post also has Agent Jo’s input!)
From Jo: The advance was modest, but we had a partner in our editor, and we started talking right away about what we could do to counter the sales track between the time of acquisition and the time when the Tor sales team was pitching the book to accounts (which begins anywhere from 8-12 months before publication, depending on the publisher, the various accounts, and how much the book is prioritized).
I also sold the books separately to Tor UK to be published as adult and Listening Library in the US to be produced in audio. Susan had never been published in the UK or in audio before, so in a lot of ways, this was an easier sale to make for these—she had no sales track in these markets! (Though note, sometimes US audio publishers *do* look at the sales track of a print book…it’s not always the case, but it can be.)
What was exciting about these other sales was that for the first time, we’d be able to coordinate a more accessible worldwide release of the book in the English language. This gave us new angles to pursue, and Susan would also be able to promote to audio listeners and to her international readers in a new way.
Throughout 2014, I continued to frame all my writing advice through the lens of Truthwitch. Again, this was never an intentional strategy. I just always do this because that’s how humans operate—we teach concepts by contextualizing them in our own experiences. As I am literally doing right now with this email. 😉
April 2015: The cover reveal for Truthwitch went out exclusively to people in my newsletter.
By now, I had 1301 subscribers. And WOW. Amazingly, those 1301 people were HYPE for the book and the cover. I think because they felt a personal investment in its success having watched me go through every step of novel creation and sale with that book.
From Jo: Such a smart move to directly engage with these subscribers consistently. I know you do it because you enjoy it, Sooz, but keeping up a newsletter is so much work, and you have such great writing advice and content. 👏
April 2015: Preorder links went live for Truthwitch, and as usual, I shared them with my newsletter. We immediately had a nice little trickle of preorders start coming in!
From Jo: A few people to preorder is typical—family and friends usually are happy to support. But this was more than just a few, and it was enough for me to think it was worth asking Tor to bring you to Book Expo America (which was May 27-29). Sadly, that convention are no more (the pandemic made sure of that), but for decades Book Expo was the biggest publishing convention of the year to introduce booksellers to upcoming titles. The Expo tended to focus on fall titles, and Truthwitch was publishing in January 2016. Believe it or not, that technically falls into the fall season for some publishers, so I thought it was worth a try!
And…our request was declined. ☹️ The editor intimated that it wasn’t in the budget for the book. So I circled back to Sooz to see if she’d be willing to cover half the cost if New Leaf put up half the cost to bring her out. She was able to make that work. We also pulled together a list of the bloggers who subscribed to the newsletter that were planning to attend Book Con, which was a consumer-facing event right after Book Expo (it was in its second year). This was an opportunity to meet them in person, and I thought it might be compelling to the publisher for Susan to get some facetime with some influencers so early on, given that her preorders were something to take note of. To be clear, the Truthwitch preoders weren’t what most would consider high at this point. But when I compared them to other titles (including Susan’s previous books) it was clear that we were just starting to break beyond her last series sales level already.
So I went back to the editor again, armed with new information to share, and a willingness to share in the cost—all of us. It was a way to show the publisher how much we believed in this moment. And they decided, after reviewing everything, that they would make room in their budget for Susan to attend Book Expo after all.
Was I worried that we’d just convinced the publisher to spend their entire marketing budget on the book for just one trip? A little. But I believed more in what would happen once they saw how excited some of her subscribers were. Something special was happening, and they just needed to see it.
May 2015: With all the chatter online about the cover, an amazing human named Nicola reached out to me asking if I’d ever consider making a street team. She was so impressed by the online support for this unreleased book, she felt I had the perfect setup to make something really fun.
Thus the Witchlanders were born. (Thank you, Nicola, for that brilliant idea and all the help you gave me in creating such an incredible community.)
From Jo: The street team was AMAZING. They helped build so much of the hype for your attending Book Expo for a signing! And of course, they built up hype after that, too. But that first moment was big. It was like we all had a hand in what happened next.
May 2015, Book Expo: The Great Truthwitch ARC Stampede occurred at Book Expo America.
Basically, an ARC drop for Truthwitch was happening as soon as the BEA gates opened, and people lined early JUST for that! This was totally new for me—people lining up for me?!—and no one was more surprised than I was! 🤩
From Jo: This was definitely the turning point in terms of publisher support. Between the preorders and them seeing the reader excitement for themselves, they had the data they needed to push beyond the “tricky sales track” arguments. The editor called me the week after Book Expo to let me know that the budget for the book’s promotion more than doubled.
Summer 2015 - December 2015: With the help of an assistant I hired just for the street team’s management the Witchlanders spread the word online about Truthwitch.
It was a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of fun. It was also so effective. Social media was so different then than it is today, and we were really able to get the word out.
But truly: a lot of work and a lot of money. Like I said, I had to pay an assistant just to help me manage this because of they way we set it all up. But boy was it worth it!
More preorders started coming in.
From Jo: And this is when the accounts finally took notice. So the Book Expo experience was crucial because it helped the publishing team to see what we were seeing behind the scenes on Susan’s side. But it didn’t mean that accounts like B&N, Amazon, BAM, Target, etc suddenly changed their mind. Don’t forget—they still were going on their own data for Susan’s previous titles. And they didn’t witness the Great Book Expo Stampede. So now the Tor team had the job of convincing accounts to look past the sales track. And the anecdote from Book Expo would only take things so far. What we needed was actual data to counteract the sales track arguments accounts would make. And thankfully, the preorders were coming in at a steady stream—strong enough that the book retailers couldn’t deny that there was interest in the book.
December 2015: Uppercase Book Box selected Truthwitch as its book for January, and I got to fly to NYC to sign ~2000 copies—an enormous number for me!! It was so thrilling.
And while I was there, I learned Barnes & Noble had increased their order size—meaning they were buying more copies to put in their stores. Because of that, Tor Teen was already going to have to print more copies of the book! Before it was even out!
In other words, we had already exceeded sales expectations before the book had hit stores!
From Jo: This was a particularly happy moment since B&N hadn’t taken your last two books at all. It felt great to make it back in. You deserved it!
January 5 2016: Truthwitch released. I went on my first ever book tour with one of my besties Alex Bracken (whose Passenger came out the same day!), and it was amazing. Just amazing. Meeting readers will forever and always be my favorite part of the job. (Erin Bowman, another bestie, even moderated our launch event! THE BEST!)
From Jo: That launch event was so good—readers pouring out of Books of Wonder!
January 2016: Truthwitch debuted at #4 on the NYT list. It was more than I ever expected and more than I ever, ever dared hope for. And I knew 100% who I had to thank for such success: the Witchlanders and the Misfits & Daydreamers. YOU. (I wrote very sappy emails to the Witchlanders and the M&D readers after hitting the list.)
Truthwitch hung out on the NYT list for two weeks, and it definitely changed the trajectory of the series and my career as an author.
Having that title—NYT Bestselling author—is not something I ever thought I would have. Most authors never will, and I know that. Hitting the list is based on so many factors that we cannot control. Yet through all the lucky arrangement of events listed above, I did get that coveted title.
2016 - Present Day: Sales held strong for Truthwitch and Windwitch debuted at #2 on the NYT list in January 2017. The Witchlanders helped me again, and the series had an actual fandom behind it now—i.e. readers who discovered book 1 organically and loved it…
But of course, good timing and hard work can’t last forever.
My personal life took some serious dings from 2017 (dings that only got worse for the next 3 years), which made the constant hustle not only impossible for me to continue (from a time management angle), but downright damaging for my health. (Remember when Sooz got shingles?🙃)
Then, a series of unfortunate and uncontrollable publishing issues meant Sightwitch took a hard hit which has had an effect on the performance of the rest of the series ever since.
From Jo: Caught back in the vortex of the spiral again. It sometimes feels like we’re always fighting that—not just you, but all of the authors I work with have to keep auditioning for the same job, again and again. It can be disheartening, but it also makes me, as your agent, feel even more strongly about advocating for you! And it makes me even more appreciative of good publishing partners like we have now with Tor.
But it also doesn’t change the fact that your sales for your most recent title are now being factored into the discussions with The Luminaries. This is the case for all authors—at least while the sales data for your last book is considered so crucial in decision-making, industry wide.
It's not fun being in the spiral again, especially since I can't hustle like I used to.
BUT, I don't want to end this newsletter on a womp-womp note. So let's take everything from above and compile it into ACTIONABLE ITEMS FOR YOU.
What can you, the author, do? What, outside of writing the book, is actually within your control?
First of all, don't be a jerk to your publisher. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many people treat their team like the people are just there to serve. No. This is a team effort. Act like it.
But don't be afraid to ask questions! Your agent and your editor are here to answer you when something doesn't make sense.
I have been in this industry for 12 years, and I still know next to nothing about how it operates.
I literally learned new things from Jo in this newsletter. AND I WAS THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED.
On a similar note, advocate for yourself and make sure your agent is advocating for you too. It won't matter that you hustle-hustle-hustle if your publisher has no idea you've [insert whatever metric you've managed to grow].
ENGAGE WITH READERS! Consistently! Just as your team doesn't live to serve, your readers don't exist to fork over money and tell you you're amazing. They're people, so treat them as such.
Contrary to what The Internet wants you to believe, you don't have to be active on TikTok to achieve this. There are other social media platforms out there! Find one you like.
Or else, if social isn't for you, I always recommend newsletters! You can't go wrong with an email that someone actively signed up to receive. It means they care, and you can show how much you care in return by providing regular content.
If you're data-minded, then track patterns. The more you know about your readers, the more you can find and connect with them. Or the more you can write books you know they will enjoy.
Some people are able to write to market—I'm not one of those people! But if you can (and you're indie, where things move fast), then go for it!
If you're slow (like me) and in traditional, then find the elements your readers tell you they love most and always make sure to include those—even if you jump genres.
Or, from a social media standpoint, if you see people love your books on TIktok, then get on! Or if you see your readers might enjoy a Choose Your Own Adventure on Twitter...oh wait, I already did that. 😉
Make a plan.
Not everyone will be able to afford to make swag or pay their way to events, but there are plenty of free things you can do without much or any cost:
Connect with local libraries.
Connect with local bookstores.
Connect with local schools, if that is your target age group.
Learn how to make graphics and make them!
Learn how to build a website and make one!
ENCOURAGE PEOPLE TO PREORDER YOUR BOOK! If you learned nothing from this newsletter, I at least hope you've learned why we authors are always begging you to preorder.
LASTLY: keep writing. It sounds obvious, but it's probably the hardest piece of this puzzle.
The more books you have under your belt, the more books you have to sell to a publisher—one of which might be just the genre they're looking for at just this moment!
The more books you write, the better you become as a writer. Quality doesn't always guarantee success, but it certainly improves your odds.
And yes, I know it's hard to write when you're watching your career collapse. I have been there. Multiple times. (Trust me: finishing a series you are obligated contractually to write, but knowing that <100 people will likely read it and you might get cancelled at any moment is NOT a feeling I wish on anyone.)
Still, more books is—at the end of the day—the one thing you can always, 100% control. It is the one thing that will always, always improve your odds of future success.
Jump genres if you need to, but JUST KEEP WRITING.
There you have it, friends. I realize a lot of this will feel out of your control—because it is. You can't make an agent rep you or a publisher publish you or a reader buy your book (just as you can't make fetch happen).
You also can't avoid bad luck. (Oh, Sightwitch, you poor misbegotten thing.) It happens to everyone!
But, there is also plenty of good luck out there too! And the more hard work you can put in behind the scenes, the more opportunities you make for yourself. Then, when the good luck comes skipping along, you're ready for it.
Now, I will leave you with one final note (I know you saw this coming): if you enjoy the free writing advice I have been sharing for the last thirteen years, then please consider preordering The Luminaries.
And please considering preordering for all the authors you love too. It makes or breaks our careers, and I hope you now understand why!
Thank you for reading.
And thank you, THANK YOU to Joanna Volpe for yet again helping me out with all her insider knowledge. (She is the actual best, and she has stood by me for 13 years now! Plus, she always answers my questions, no matter how "stupid" they might seem! 😉)
Have you enjoyed what you read here? Then please considering subscribing or sharing! Or better yet, buy my books. 😉