And Now for Something Completely Different

by Erin Brown

Often, when I write these monthly articles, I try to illuminate the realities of finding runaway success in publishing to my readers (“wouldn’t you rather do something easy like cure cancer?”)—not to rain on anyone’s parade, but to honestly clarify how tough it is to get a book in print nowadays through traditional channels. And if you’re a regular follower of this column (yes, I’m talking to you four!), you know how I feel about the very high mountain one must climb in order to find self-publishing success: bring along crampons, an ice axe, and a Sherpa, please. But this month, I want to talk about two success stories—one of which is well on the way to finding success on the traditional path, and another that has found virtually instantaneous success through self-publishing and e-books.

The first triumphant tale is about a wonderful women’s fiction novel that I worked on last year as a freelance editor. This was a manuscript that I knew, right off the bat, had tons of potential—I laughed, I cried, I saw its incredible capacity to also translate to the big screen. The plot was extremely original (I can’t give away specifics because it hasn’t yet hit the bookshelves, but trust me on this one); the writing was authentic; the heroine was smart, yet goofy; confident, yet self-deprecating; chic, yet compassionate; often solemn and introspective, yet utterly hilarious. That brilliant combination that is so hard to find…and create! All of the elements were there—delightfully solid and innovative writing, imaginative and appealing characters, and a truly unique hook.

But there were no bites yet. When the author came to me, she was still very positive and upbeat, but realized that she needed some outside help—a new perspective. Enter moi: ta-da!! I knew I could help. So we worked on the opening chapters (usually as far as an agent will read), which weren’t nearly as strong as they could’ve been, made some significant tweaks throughout, and also changed the ending, which had veered off in the wrong direction. And just as importantly, we edited her query letter so that the first line would hook an agent like a striped bass (I really must stop participating in my husband’s hobbies). I also made sure that the query truly reflected the tone of the book—her first draft displayed none of her humor or sass. We also built her up as an author by highlighting the strengths in her background (college degrees and writing experience are always better than quilting ability and number of ex-husbands), and made sure the query was, overall, the best it could be. 

Once revision work was complete, I then helped guide her through the submission process, but honestly, she hit the ground running on her own. An author must have a lot of gumption, perseverance, savvy, communication skills, spirit, and don’t-give-up-ness. She has all of these qualities in spades. She would update me throughout the submission process, and I’d give my thoughts on certain agents who wanted to see the manuscript, but it was slow going, as it almost always is. Finally, about four months into the process, she got the big agent interest she’d been hoping for (of course, as I always say, you don’t need a big agent, per se, just one who absolutely loves your work and will give it the  time and enthusiasm it deserves). Then, it was another four months or so for them to ready and get the manuscript out to editors. I just heard from her and the novel went to auction, was bought by an incredibly big house, has already sold foreign rights in three countries, and she got a sweet advance. All in all, it’s one hell of a success story—and a rare one in these times. I couldn’t be more thrilled for her. It just goes to show that it does happen when you have the right combination—excellent writing, a unique angle, and an author that is willing to put the work in--both in the revision and the submission process. Sounds easy, eh?

The next success story is for you self-publishers out there. Now, don’t think I’ve changed my mind on this avenue: it’s still incredibly difficult to get even a few hundred copies out, and even then, you must self-promote out the wazoo and spend some serious dinero. But every so often, once in a blue moon, you hear about something such as E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, a self-published e-book that is taking the literary (and I’m using that term loosely) world by storm. If you’re one of the few people that hasn’t heard of it, this little gem catapulted out of an Australian e-book publishing community and leapt to the top of the New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists. The author of this little-novel-that-could then pulled in a seven-figure deal from Vintage. Is the writing going to win any awards? No. Is the plot a masterpiece? No. Will it go down in the annals of literary history as a classic? Hardly. But readers (especially those who like their antics kinky—wink, wink, nudge, nudge) are going crazy for this thing—desperately waiting for the rest of the trilogy, which hasn’t even been published yet! This success story was virtually all word-of-mouth. The author started out writing fan fiction and in fact, the two main characters appear to have morphed from Bella and Edward of Twilight fame. But lose a few vampires, make Edward and Bella into all kinds of S&M, and you’ve got a bestseller on your hands. Who would’ve thought?

So as the flowers begin to bloom again this month of April, let’s celebrate the success stories. They do still happen to the little people—the ones that work hard, dream big, and simply love to write. There are people out there, fans and publishers alike, who want to read your work. I hope you find some inspiration by remembering that dreams do come true, and that your writing can also find its fan base. Especially if you write about once-vampire characters who now love handcuffs and harnesses. (Okay, I have to stop reading this damn thing!! I’m entering a permanent state of blushing.)

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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