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Guest Post: Author Alison Kemper on Selling Your Novel in a Crowded Market

We're thrilled to have author Alison Kemper with us today to share some tips on selling your YA novel in a crowded market. Alison is the author of the DONNA OF THE DEAD series coming soon from Entangled Publishing. Learn more about Alison and her books on her website and twitter. Thanks for coming by the Highway, Alison!

Oops! You Wrote to a Trend. Good News: You Can Still Find an Agent and Sell Your Novel.

My first book comes out in March.

It’s about zombies. WAIT! Don’t click the back button. Some of you were tempted, right? Because you don’t read zombie books. Or maybe you did, but now you’re sick of them?

Alison Kemper
That’s okay—we’re not going to talk zombies. Or mermaids. Or vampires. Or dystopian. Or any other trends experts tell us are “crowding” the publishing industry. We’re going to talk about YOUR zombie/mermaid/vampire/dystopian novel. We’re going to talk about how it’s different from the others, BETTER than the others. We’re going to talk about how you can still get your foot in the door, and with a little luck and smarts, find and agent and sell your novel—even in a flooded market.

Step 1: Make sure you do, in fact, have something different. What sets your novel apart? Funny vampires? Campy mermaids? Do your hot, teen angels live in outer space? Whatever your gimmick, put it front and center in your query. If your novel is fun, add humor to your pitch. Agents and editors read a gazillion of these things. To convince them your novel stands out, your query has to stand out. Otherwise, they’ll just push that magic button that sends a form rejection. Nah, I’m kidding. They don’t really have magic buttons. (Maybe.)

Can’t find an angle for your query letter or pitch? Don’t know what makes your novel different from others in its category? Don’t expect an agent or editor to figure it out for you. Take a good long look at your pirate novel—is it just another knock-off of Pirates of the Caribbean? Might be time for revisions.

Step 2: Troll the Wish Lists. Agents post them. So do editors. An online wish list is your new best friend. Spend a few hours googling “agent wish list werewolf” or “editor wish list zombie.” Yeah, you’ll wade through a metric ton of crap, but somewhere in that mess, you might find an editor wanting “a friends-to-lovers story set during a zombie apocalypse” and you can scream “THAT’S MY BOOK!” and shoot off a frantic email to your agent and hyperventilate into a paper bag until the editor requests the MS. (Not that this is how it went down for me or anything. *ahem*)

Point is, maybe there’s only one agent or editor in the world still looking for a fun middle grade fairy novel set in a dystopian wasteland. It’s your job to find her and get that book in her hands.

Step 3: MOAR research. Learn who reps what. Don’t mass mail your query to 256 random agents. Trust me, you won’t get anywhere. Talk to friends who are bloggers or booksellers or librarians or readers. They can point you in the direction of novels similar to yours. Check out these novels’ acknowledgements pages (where nice authors thank their nice agents). Ta-dah! You now have the first line of your query to this particular agent: “I read your novel X and wondered if you might be interested in my similar novel Y.” This shows the agent you’ve done your homework and aren’t just querying out of the blue. You’re pitching something she sold before and could possibly sell again. Perhaps you’ll keep that agent’s itchy trigger-finger off the rejection button. At least, for a few more seconds.

Step 4: Ignore that annoying girl in your writing group. You know the one I mean. The one who knows everything about the industry. Really. She needs to leave this stuff to the experts. Case in point: I have an author-friend whose paranormal novels sell well in the U.S., but are wildly popular overseas, where paranormal is not on the wane. In fact, while many of us are being told not to write paranormal, her expert-agent negotiated a contract for new books that must contain paranormal elements. So if everyone in your writing group is telling you to trunk that werewolf novel because paranormal is dead, remember, they don’t know much about what’s going down in Indonesia. Overseas stuff is tricky, but foreign rights agents stay on top of it. Let a professional—not an amateur—decide whether or not your book is marketable.

Step 5: Be willing to start small. While much of the writing world pretends they never read or enjoyed Twilight, readers are still quietly gobbling up vampire romance. Part of my day job is to recommend books to YA readers (yes, I know, it is the best job EVER) and while I’ve got patrons who flat-out refuse to read paranormal, I’m also asked, at least once a week, for “something like Twilight.” These readers have burned through all our Twilights and True Bloods and Laurel K. Hamiltons. Which means, we—the people who order books—like it when publishers offer new vampire series.

Maybe it’s not on the bestseller lists anymore; maybe it won’t even come out in hardcover; heck, maybe it won’t come out in print at all, but will do big business as an e-book. The point is, we buy it and others will too. There’s still thin slice of the market pie for your vampire romance (or other popular subgenre), as long as you understand it won’t be served with a heaping side of Huge Advance Check. If you don’t mind starting small (and let’s face it, as new authors in this economy, a lot of us are gonna start small), you’ll have better opportunities to get your book in readers’ hands.

Step 6: Write what interests YOU. This is the vaguest part of my advice, but it’s also the most important. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your characters. Revisions, third pass edits, page proofs, character interviews. Seriously—choose something you don’t hate. Because if you love your story, that passion will shine through. It shows up in your query letter, your sample pages, and your MS.

If you take the other path and write a novel about the hottest, newest, most sought-after topic, but leave your heart out of the equation, your novel won’t sparkle and no one will read it. Hello, magic rejection button.

I won’t lie to you. When I started querying Donna of the Dead, I got rejections. Agents and editors saw the Z word, had a knee-jerk reaction and hit that magic button before I’d opened my mouth to start the pitch. But some didn’t. There was interest, and that interest led to requests for partials and fulls, and eventually—a three-book deal with Entangled Publishing.

So shush the naysayers, write what you love, do your query-letter homework, and sell your Teen Werewolf in Outer Space novel.

I, for one, can’t wait to read it.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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13 comments:

  1. Great post! I'm writing a zombie book right now and I keep worrying about this, but this gave me some comfort. :)

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  2. Thanks for breaking it down in a realistic (but non-hope-crushing) way, Alison! Can't wait to see Donna of the Dead on the shelves (virtual shelves or otherwise).

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  3. Good advice! This is key: "Don’t know what makes your novel different from others in its category? Don’t expect an agent or editor to figure it out for you."

    From what I've gleaned from having talked with agents at conferences, and from my own agent who is very active on twitter, it's not necessarily that paranormal is dead, it's that agents are seeing THE SAME THING over and over. So the concepts aren't different enough, it's a rehash of things that have already been seen and done to death. Holly Black's vampire book The Coldest Girl in Coldtown went back to darker roots--also she's Holly Black with an established publishing history. A new YA writer needs to have a strong premise with something that has been saturated in the market already.

    But you're right--readers are still reading it, but agents are tougher on material because they have to sell it first. It's cyclical. I suppose that's why some writers are having success with smaller presses and going indie, because if readers really want X they will go find X.

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  4. Great post! I think writing what interests you is so so important. Like, you can do all the research in the world and write something so totally what everyone thinks they want but if there's no passion, and no love, and no joy, then it will just not have the feeling you know? I think authors breathe life to words with love, and love alone, so um yes.

    Also I love The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, as an aside, because as Steph said Holly Black took is to a Holly Black awesome place of fabulousness, you know?

    Also, final thing, I LOVE ZOMBIE BOOKS. Send me all the zombie books! I am so totally not done with reading them! Can't wait for Donna of the Dead! <3

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  5. Great post, Alison!
    I DO read zombie books, and I just put Donna of the Dead on my GR list so I can keep an eye out for it!

    I am familiar with your plight! I have a MG fantasy series debuting in April, and I worry a little because I keep hearing that the "industry" says MG fantasy/sci-fi series is "burned out." I'm also a 5th grade teacher. Guess what my students clamor for? MG fantasy/sci-fi series. Because there are only so many books Rick Riordan can put out a year, you know? The rest of us have to take up the slack!

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  6. Thanks for all the great responses!

    It's funny--I had Coldest Girl in Coldtown in my hands this morning, and I was thinking, "Didn't we hear that the vampire trend was over, like, YEARS ago?" Even if we aren't the fabulous Holly Black or Rick Riordan, it still gives hope to all us new paranormal writers.

    Good luck to all of you with your novels! I'll be looking for your books. :)

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  7. Great article. I FB'd tweeted, and G+'d it.

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  8. Love this post! Shared it all over the place! I had so much trouble finding an agent for my YA paranormal b/c of the 'trends'. It was the same story during submission. Every time I hear the word 'trend' I throw up in my mouth a little bit.

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  9. Super post! Your advice is spot on about not listening to people who say paranormal is dead. Readers want it. Publishers want it. They just want it in with a new spin. I sold my trilogy about angels to Entranced Publishing, even though I'd received a rejection from an agent two days later that said angels were a hard sell at this time. Entranced saw the fresh angle I took with the angels in my book. Now readers are getting a whole new view about these mythical beings.

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  10. I love that you are in a position to suggest reads to teens and are a part of the buying part of the industry, as opposed to just on this author end ;) like me. Great advice, and I agree whole-heartedly. What they really want is a fresh voice and compelling characters, no matter what the genre.

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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: Author Alison Kemper on Selling Your Novel in a Crowded Market Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook