How Not to Sell a Book

Most people sell because they write a great book, write an awesome query, and then land an agent and an editor. Now, I won’t say anything about the book (at least not now), but I sold because I can’t write queries.

This is the story of how that happened.

After literally months of struggling with a query letter while I polished my manuscript, I was ready to give up. Then Sherry Thomas announced on her blog that she was going to give away a query critique. I saw that, said, “I need that!” and entered.

Lo and behold, my name was drawn from a hat (a hat of random number generation, actually), and Sherry asked me to send her my query. I did. She was very polite—“Gee,” she said. “I can hear your voice here. Now, um, maybe we should work on mentioning the conflict. Because what you have mentioned doesn’t seem to be quite enough.”

She asked me a series of questions. I shot back rambling nonsensical answers. She very kindly pointed out that my answers didn’t add up to a hill of beans, and asked some follow-up questions. I rambled more. She asked more follow-up questions. Her follow up questions continued to be polite and kind, but started to get a certain edge to them. An edge like, “Wait, when did he see her naked?” and “Why didn’t you mention that his heir knew her for years?”

Finally, she gave up on getting me to describe my book and told me to send her the opening scenes. I did.
“I really like this,” she said.

Did I mention that she was being extremely patient with me? I took this Not Seriously at all.

“No,” she said, “I really like this. Are you planning to query my agent? I’ll tell her to keep an eye out for your pages.”

Planning to query Sherry’s agent? I was planning to pitch Kristin at Chicago North‘s Spring Fling conference. And oh, I desperately lusted after Sherry’s agent. The instant I had found out she was going to be at that conference, I had signed up for it—even though I lived 1000 miles away at the time. (Admittedly, my fiancé lives in Chicago—but he was just an added benefit.)

Fast forward a few days. It was Saturday. I had gotten two hours of sleep the night before, as my flight had been delayed six hours and then cancelled. I’d practiced my pitch a little bit, but I wasn’t particularly excited. I walked into my pitch appointment, full of neither vim nor vigor. Kristin looked at my name, said, “Oh, my client Sherry told me about you. Don’t worry—I’m going to request the full.”

What went through my mind was something like this: No! You can’t do that! I’m not done with revisions! My pitch went out of my head. So did all coherent thought. I peered at her and tried to figure out if my top choice for an agent really had just said that I didn’t have to pitch her. She told me how to submit the full, handed me her card, asked some questions about my job. Small talk. I didn’t really do very well at it. Then I left.

Five minutes after doing so, I realized I hadn’t told her one thing about my book. Not one word! Not that it mattered; I wasn’t done with everything I needed to do. There followed five mostly sleepless nights, after which I sent the full to Kristin and collapsed, assuming I’d hear from her much later. I didn’t query anyone else at first, because I figured Kristin had the full. When she rejected me, she might give me helpful feedback. After about a week, I decided I was being silly and I couldn’t wait the month or two it would take to get a response, so I bit the bullet and sent out a few queries.

The next day, my phone rang. The conversation went something like this:

Woman with pleasant and chipper voice: Hi. Is this Courtney?
Me: Yes…?
Woman: Well, this is Kristin Nelson, and I’m calling to say I love your book and want to represent you.
Me: <Dead silence.>
Kristin: Is this not a good time to talk?
Me: You read it already? Shouldn’t it take you months for that?
Kristin: Oh, was I supposed to take longer? I can call back tomorrow.
Me (suspiciously): Are you sure you’re really you?
Kristin: . . .
: Because if you’re not, it’s okay.
Kristin: Right. We’ll talk tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll send you my agency agreement.
Me: Right. Yeah. Okay. This never happened. La la la.
Kristin: Talk to you then.
Me: Sure, fantasy Kristin. Whatever you say. Let’s meet on the moon.

Eventually I figured out she was really Kristin and really offering to represent me. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. She sent over some suggestions for how to improve my book—smart, insightful suggestions that really took the book up a level. And then she sent out my book to editors.

Days after we’d gone on submission–before I’d even really run through all the possible rejections that I could possibly get–I got another phone call.

Kristin: So, I have offers on PROOF BY SEDUCTION.
Me: What do you mean, offers?
Kristin: Editors want to buy it.
Me: Editors? But that is a plural.
Kristin: Yes.
Me: Hm. How odd. What does all this signify?
Kristin: It means you are going to be published. But first, there will be an auction.
Me: . . . . Does not compute.

By this time, Kristin was inured to my inability to process good news. So she told me not to share my strange fantasy that editors wanted to buy my book until after the auction, and instead dragged me with her to parties at conference and introduced me to a staggering number of people who shook my hand and talked to me in a way that seemed to indicate that they had read my book. And yet they were not mocking me or throwing things!

By the time the auction started, I thought I had my disbelief well in hand. People wanted to buy my book—this was a Good Thing. And I was going to be a Good and Rational Author. Really. Truly. I would take everything in stride. I would ignore the nightmares in which the high bid for my book was $3.29. I would put everything in nice little columns, and balance the pros and cons. And I would keep my fingers crossed, just a little bit.

But when Kristin told me the terms HQN offered, I don’t even remember what I said. I think I offered the extremely noncommittal, “Okay. Sounds good.”

I hung up and stared at the wall.

And then, for the first time in this entire chain of improbable events–one that I never could make myself believe, at any stage of the process–I sat down and wept. Because you know what? It was real.

* * *

So there. I don’t advise shooting for that particular path for anyone. If you want to know how to sell a book, though, I will try to give you my best advice now.

Ready for it?

Surround yourself with awesome people.

No, really. That’s it. Because I would never have gotten to this point without the many, many others around me who offered help, criticism, support, and praise.

First and foremost, Tessa Dare and Amy Baldwin. I can’t describe what these two women have done for me. They read every scene I wrote, sometimes more times than you can imagine. They gave me snark and feedback and support. They pushed me when I needed to be pushed, hugged me when I needed a hug, and put up with me when I did not deserve it. They inspired me with their own writing and kicked my butt when I needed it (which is about 80% of the time). I love you guys!

I am also lucky to be part of an extended critique network. I’ve gotten comments and reads on my writing over the last two years from innumerable people, who have all pushed me and helped me understand what I can do to improve: Lacey Kaye, Amy Atwell, Erica Ridley, Darcy Burke, Jackie Barbosa, Lindsey Faber, Elyssa Papa, Maggie Robinson, Manda Collins, Lenora Bell, Terri Osborn, Sara Lindsey, Diana Chung, and Janga. I have tried to make this list comprehensive, but I fear I may have left someone off. If so, I apologize profusely–it’s not because I don’t appreciate you, but because I am extremely forgetful.

I’ve also gotten great feedback and comments from contest judges, who I can’t name because I don’t know them all. Thanks to all of you for letting me see my book with a fresh set of eyes.

I mention Anna Campbell separately. Last year, I won a critique from her on Brenda Novak’s Diabetes Auction. The advice she gave me was spot-on–a lot of support and praise, but a frank assessment of what I was doing wrong. “You need to fix your pacing and your scene setting and the emotion on the page,” she admonished me (although not in those words). “And these are all part of one related problem. Once you figure that out, you will sell.” It took me months and months to figure out what she meant, but when I did, I knew what she meant. And look, Anna–you were right!

Thanks to the entire FanLit community, too numerous to even dare to mention, for support and help and for voting for my chapters. Special kisses to Ervin A, for late-night fabric-of-the-universe-bending fun. Thanks especially to the Chocolate Mafia–we rocked!–and VaNo and the Vauxhall Vixens, for ongoing support and love. You guys are the best! The 2008 Golden Heart Finalists, collectively known as the Pixies, pushed me to query, and offered support and pixie dust at all levels of this journey.

Thanks to the FanLit authors, who read my finaling chapters and gave me such wonderful encouragement. I don’t think I would have had the courage to write with the goal of publication without your comments. Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Victoria Alexander, Teresa Medeiros, and Cathy Maxwell, I adore you all. If you weren’t all already autobuys because of the quality of your work, you made a fan for life with your sweet comments on the first fiction writing I had done in years.

Obviously, I have to thank Sherry Thomas. She’s tried to disclaim responsibility in subsequent e-mail conversation, but this story starts firmly with the moment of surprise when I saw my name listed on her blog as the winner of the query critique. She came up with a damned awesome query–and it’s also her fault that I never had to rely on that query in order to sell. Beyond that, she was already pimping my book at Nationals. Her encouragement means a lot to me, because she writes absolutely incredible novels herself–she is so obviously the Next Big Thing in historicals. If you have not yet purchased a copy of Delicious, whatever are you waiting for?

Finally, my agent, Kristin Nelson. If you read her blog, you’ll know that she’s smart, competent, efficient, and relentlessly nice. You’ll also know that she knows how to sell books. But what you can’t tell from her Publisher’s Marketplace listing is what an incredible agent she is–an all-round star. Yes, she sold my book. But she also really worked to make sure that the house was a good fit for me. She brought me around to meet what felt like hundreds of editors at Nationals, so that I would know who I clicked with. She was really absolutely phenomenal behind the scenes, and showed that she is interested in my long-term career, not in just inking the deal. She is the epitome of a perfect agent.

I have hated trying to come up with this list because I just know I will leave someone off. So if you are not on this list, rest assured it is because I’m forgetful. Nudge me, and I’ll put you on.

The great thing about being part of this community is that I know that of the unpublished friends I have, others will soon come on board. I can’t wait to celebrate when they do!

42 thoughts on “How Not to Sell a Book

  1. Courtney,

    What an amazing call story. Wow! And you tell it so well.

    I’m thrilled that you sold and look forward to watching your career take off.

    Love from one of your Pixie pals.

  2. Courtney, what a fabulous story! Congratulations! And I LOVE Sherry Thomas! I picked up Private Arrangements and read it pretty much in one sitting. Amazing, beautiful work. Delicious is next. 🙂

    Now, I can’t wait to read your story when it’s published. 🙂 It’s been awesome being a Pixie with you.

  3. I’ve been reading Delicious in small bites, because it makes me too hungry and stunned by her prose. (I did skip to the end, though. Now I’m just savoring.)

    CM, thanks for including me on your list. As I recall, after reading a chapter you wrote, I said I felt as though the bus had hit me and I was in a ditch. Just imagine the shape I’ll be in when I read a whole book.

  4. CM, thanks for including me on your list, too. And thank you for all the help you’ve provided to me with my writing.

    And thank you for sharing your call story. I love call stories. And this one is a bunch of awesome. It’s just amazing, and I’m so happy that your dreams of being a published writer are coming true. I’ll be pre-ordering PROOF BY SEDUCTION as soon as I can!

  5. Congratulations! I’m not at all surprised, but really pleased to see talent recognized. Let us know the minute you hear the details on book number 2! 🙂

  6. Courtney, I’ve said it privately but I’ll now say it publicly – awesome effort, my friend! Congratulations! So happy for you – the Fanlit stable featured some real thoroughbreds, didn’t it? I honestly couldn’t be happier for you. And while I love that you say the critique was a turning point, your talent screamed at me the moment I picked up your pages! Can’t wait to see your book on a shelf near home!

    YAY, YOU!

  7. What a wonderful story! I met Kristin (pitched to her) at Nationals and instantly loved her as a person, as well as an agent. I’m so thrilled for your sale and can’t wait to fill up my bookshelves with Courtney Milan. =)

  8. Courtney!

    Awesome story! I am so excited for you. I can’t wait to read Proof in Seduction. It’s great seeing someone you know do so well. Yay you!


  9. Courtney, If your book has even an ounce of the humor and emotion in this post, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

    Congratulations! It’s the stuff of dreams. Enjoy it.

  10. Completely awesome!! You will be a star! Your writing speaks for itself!!!

    Boy, did Avon Fanlit even know what it unleashed upon publishing as a whole?


  11. Courtney,

    Your story makes it sound like this could be anyone of us. I love your humility. You’ll top the lists, I just know it.

    Congratulations once again.

    Renee Lynn Scott

  12. Thanks so much, everyone! All the support I have received is just overwhelming–from the published authors who have encouraged me along the way, to those who are unpublished who know that they are well along the way.

    Renee, if my story makes it sound like it could be any of you . . . that’s because it could! My friends all have a tremendous amount of talent, and I know I’ll be seeing good things from all of you.

  13. Courtney,

    What a wonderful story! I loved hearing about your journey, especially since I can’t write a query letter either! You give me hope! 🙂

    Looking forward to reading your book!

  14. Major Congrats Courtney! And puppy is tooooooo cute! It was great getting to have dinner with you in San Fran, even if you made me eat scary, expensive things. Love your sale story!


  15. Finally! I have some decent email access and am able to add my congrats – again. Better late than never, right?

    Anyway, if the key to success is surrounding yourself with good people, no wonder everyone is vying for a piece of Ms. Milan! She is the best kind of people. 🙂

    Love you!

  16. Huge congrats and how fun that I made your list! Thanks for including me but most of all, thanks for letting me read it. 🙂

    Can’t wait to celebrate covers and first reviews and all the fun things to come!

  17. That has got to be one of the best call stories I’ve ever heard. Talk about the gods or fate or whatever you want to call it putting the right people, at the right time, in your path.

    It’s been such a great ride to watch you grow as an aspiring author, Courtney. I can’t wait for all your books to hit the shelves.

    I just know the rest of your writer’s journey is going to be a marvel.


  18. I love the call story! Thanks for sharing your good news and giving the rest of us a nudge to keep plowing the unpublished fields.

  19. I AM THE MOST EXCITED EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You’re awesome! Your call story is awesome! Your future is awesome!

    Congrats, and have fun with it 😀

  20. Oh, I just LOVE this story, Courtney. Can I say that I’m just happy I got to witness part of your journey? The pitch at Spring Fling and waiting on tenterhooks for the auction results. Its been amazing and I can’t wait until we’re celebrating your 20th contract!

  21. What a lovely story and your humble and honest heart is especially touching. You have inspired many other writers with the post. I wish you a long and prosperous writing career.


  22. CM: Wow wow wow! Congratulations! Having read just a small amount of your work back in the day on Fanlit, I knew almost immediately that you were going to be very successful. You’re talented and sweet, and I just plain like you a lot. So there. My life’s great, too. Yesterday, I went to a horror convention and got a hug from the girl who starred in the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movie; she smelled nice. I guess that’s not quite as exciting as your news, heh. Seriously, you rock. I am so very proud of you.

    all the best,


  23. Wow, Courtney! What a terrific story!! I had read about it over on Sherry’s blog and wanted to pop over here too. Thanks for sharing. Best wishes for a long and illustrious career. 🙂


  24. I can totally see your face when your brain did not compute. I can’t imagine it happening any other way to you.

    Happy Happy Joy Joy!!!

  25. CM, I can’t begin to express how thrilled I am for you. And that it happened in true CM-fashion as well. 😉 I think we all knew during Avon Fanlit that you have what it takes to make it in this business (your Round 1 finalist chapter still makes me tear up). Here’s to a long and successful writing career!

  26. Mega-congrats! Sherry is a member of our Austin group and a rockin’ cool chick, not to mention an amazing novelist.

    This story should be in EE’s book club recommendation of HOW I GOT PUBLISHED.

  27. I’m really late with this, but this – “And then, for the first time in this entire chain of improbable events–one that I never could make myself believe, at any stage of the process–I sat down and wept. Because you know what? It was real.” – made me cry. Sitting here at midnight, looking at my query that I’ve now convinced myself isn’t even written in English, wondering how I’ll explain to my kids that I murdered My Hopes and Aspirations because they are double-agents, working to drive me insane …well, thank you. I really needed to read a happy ending.

  28. Thank you for sharing your story! I am heading out to buy your book right now and I can’t wait to start it. Can you share some insight as to how to get in a great critique group?

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