How to Sell Your Novel

Authors Chloe Benjamin, Ashley Ream, and Judith Claire Mitchell presented “How to Sell Your Novel” last Saturday at Madison’s Central Library.

These three ladies gave a fantastic talk that left me equal parts encouraged and disheartened. By the end of my post, you’ll understand why.

Judith, a historical fiction writer, presented first. She came to writing (and Iowa State’s MFA program) a bit late in life. Her path to publication was “a miracle”: she was approached by an agent while finishing her MFA — none of those painstaking agent queries  for Judith. But the miracle quickly turned into a writer’s worst nightmare: the book got published, but didn’t sell. It even got good reviews, yet nary a reader bought it. On top of the lack of book sales, Judith, a self-professed introvert, didn’t enjoy having her “sock drawer dug around in” by the media.

Ten years passed before Judith wrote a second novel (forthcoming). In the passage she read, her prose and extended metaphors were delightful and surprising. I was completely entranced by the way she moved one of the relationships along with a reflection on “then” versus “than” versus “but then” versus “and then.” It’s hard to convey here – you’ll just have to read it when it comes out.

Up next, looking like a literary Hillary Duff, was author Chloe Benjamin of The Anatomy of Dreams. She’s had both positive and painful experiences in publishing. After being referred to an agent through her MFA advisor, her first short story collection failed to sell. Chloe was rejected by a total of 19 New York City publishing houses. The manuscript was rejected because it was “a very quiet book” and  wasn’t “commercial enough to sell.”

But did Chloe give up, even after 19 rejections? Of course not. Instead, she realized the importance of plot, and, in The Anatomy of Dreams, Chloe made sure to use plenty of it.  An editor ready to cut her teeth loved it and saw that it was brought to print.

Last, but certainly not least, was Ashley Ream, the journalist, fiction writer, and ultra-marathoner. She started out in journalism, moved to mystery novels, then finished out with literary fiction. Ashley is one of the most persistent writers I’ve ever heard of (as well as a lesson in how hard the industry can be to break into).

Ashley’s humorous novel about suicide, Losing Clementine, was the seventh she’d written and the first she’d gotten published – but not for lack of trying! Ashley got an agent with her sixth novel, but much like what happened to Chloe, every publisher they sent it to rejected it. With Losing Clementine that was certainly not the case. As a matter of fact, it went to auction, meaning that editors at several big publishing houses had a day-long bidding war over it.

What advice did Judith, Chloe, and Ashley have for aspiring writers?

1.) Don’t go after the Whale, meaning don’t look for an agent who represents Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, or Tom Clancy. He or she will probably have a full client list.

2.) Go to the book store and find books similar to what you’ve written. Check the acknowledgements section and look for the name of the author’s agent. Email him or her about your manuscript, mentioning the commonalities between your book and the other book(s) this agent represented.

3.) Don’t self-publish before you’ve had some success with a big-name publisher. You may realize down the line that your book wasn’t as good as you thought it was, and most likely agents and publishers will think the same. That said, if you’re a genre writer who’s mid-series with a big publishing house (though apparently contract free?), go ahead and self-publish – you’ll bring your following with you.


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