Selling a book at preempt or auction can be a thrilling experience. But authors should also be prepared to buckle up for a high-stakes emotional rollercoaster
Back in 2020, amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, a new idea for a crime series sparked in my mind. It was about Dr. Vanessa Marwood, a gothabilly forensic entomologist who uses her knowledge of insects to solve gruesome crimes.
At the beginning of this year, three years after that idea first sparked (there's a whole other blog post to come about why it took three years to come to fruition!), my agent sent a three chapter sample of that novel to a list we'd carefully curated of editors and imprints with a strong, recent track record in publishing crime fiction. The reason we only sent a sample? I hadn't yet written the full novel because while all my instincts were telling me this idea was a winner, I didn't want to risk spending time writing a novel which wouldn't even get me a book deal. With the publishing world going a bit wonky after the pandemic (and the economy!) I had to be strategic about what I worked on next. Whatever project I chose next had to secure me a deal. This is a sad reality of publishing lately. As much as we all talk about just writing the book of your heart, the market conditions make that a struggle right now. So, off that sample went with all my hopes and dreams wrapped up in it as I really wanted to finish writing that book.
The editors and imprints we chose spanned digital-first to big name print-focused imprints. I've always been a fan of the digital-first model, but now the more traditional imprints seem to be getting a handle of the digital side, I was happy to approach more of a variety of publishers.
(A quick note about the imprint who'd published my last four books–Lake Union of Amazon Publishing. They were also made aware of the new series we'd be pitching out. But Lake Union's focus is 'contemporary and historical fiction', so crime isn't something they publish. Plus I wanted a fresh new experience).
So off the idea went to an array editors.
My past experience told me that the submission process could take months. My first novel was on sub for nearly a year, collecting rejection after rejection, before I finally got an offer. I'd also heard from other authors that submissions are taking longer than ever. So I settled in for a long wait.
But this time, it was different.
Within a day, Embla Books, the digital-first commercial fiction imprint of Bonnier Books, responded. Cara Chimirri, the editorial director there, told my agent she had 'absolutely devoured this material last night and love this unique take on crime series. My mind is buzzing (pardon the pun!) with the possibilities for this series.’ I still have a printout of the email she sent hanging in my office! There were fast rejections that week, too. There always are. They still smarted, even though I like to call myself thick-skinned. But I coped by looking at that print-out of Cara's response. If just one editor loved this idea with such a passion, then that was more than enough for me. There are too many bloody talented authors right now not getting any interest from editors.
But then more editors began showing interest in the series. I couldn't believe it! Video calls were arranged with interested editors and I had some really great conversations.
The next week, I received offers including a preempt from Embla—a "take it or leave it" kind of deal designed to take the book away from the competition.
(I want to pause here and say if you're an author who's on sub, or has been on sub, and been ignored or not got a deal at all, I'm trying really hard not to come across as Gloaty McGloatface. I've had a bucketload of heartache during my publishing journey, lots of lows along with the highs. So I hope you can take this post as inspiration, plus I do share thoughts below on why I think the sub clicked which might help you understand why some books struggle on sub, even if they're amazing.)
So back to what happened when I got the preempt offer from Embla Books. Obviously, I was elated. I'd been really impressed by the presentation and the video chat I'd had with Cara and Emilie Marneur, Director of Audience & Business Development at Bonnier Books. It was clear they really got what I was trying to do with the Dr. Vanessa Marwood series. Plus they were achieving some remarkable chart positions for their crime authors, one of the reasons we'd approached them in the first place. Not to mention how savvy they clearly are on the digital side of things–Emilie and their Publishing Director, Jane Snelgrove, used to work at Amazon Publishing, where they'd really made their mark, something I remembered from my time there. So all-in-all, I was ecstatic and on the verge of saying YES YES YES!
But with more offers on the table, the weight of making the right decision pressed down on me like never before.
I wrestled with the pros and cons. Accepting meant losing the chance to talk to other interested editors who were only getting around to reading my submission. Rejecting the preempt could mean taking a financial hit if I eventually circled back to Embla. I actually found it super stressful. Again, I don't want to sound ungrateful. I know how bloody lucky I am. But the pressure of wanting to give this series the best possible chance was tough. And I couldn't know for sure who could offer that best chance until I talked to all interested editors.
So in the end, I turned down Embla's preempt.
Yes, this meant the initial offer would be taken off the table. Essentially, I was paying for more time. Time to ensure that I was making the right decision. It allowed me to have more conversations with other editors, and give others a chance to read and respond.
And yet... throughout the time, I found myself continually drawn back to Embla's vision for my series.
So in the end, I signed with Embla. Though it was at a slightly lower offer due to the rejected preempt, this time I was 100% sure. Ultimately, the peace of mind that came with making an informed decision was priceless.
Next July, the first book in the Dr. Vanessa Marwood series will be released with Embla. And while I hope it resonates with readers as much as it did with publishers, the journey taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes, even a seemingly perfect offer requires a pause, a deep breath, and a long, hard think. Because when it comes to finding the right home for your book, no amount of money can replace the assurance of a well-thought-out decision.
So onto why I think it resonated. I think trying to unpick why this sub resonated with editors is an important learning curve. As I said, I've experienced being on sub for nearly a year with a mountain of rejections. I know, too, that some truly talented authors are getting nowhere with subs at the moment. So I hope delving into the whys might help. To start, here's what the interested editors seemed to like about the actual idea and sample itself (and not-so-interested editors, too. Submissions are still rejected if they're enjoyed for a multitude of reasons):
Strong, cinematic writing style
Original take on a crime idea
Strong and empathetic main character
Thoroughly researched (super important in a genre like crime)
Drilling even deeper, it was telling the submission got read so quickly too. This could be for a variety of reasons (other than the obvious fact once an offer was made, editors are notified so will put it to top of list if they can):
Having a liked agent whose name is recognised in an inbox
Author having a recognisable name: More editors than usual might know my name through this Savvy Writers blog and the group I run on Facebook. I've met lots of editors over the years at various events, and chatted to some for interviews and so on. Plus I have several published books under my belt (though nothing beats an exciting new name, so sometimes this works against us old-timers)
Sales track record: As I said, my fortunes in publishing have been up and down. But if editors checked and focused on figures for my bestselling books, it proves I can sell a decent number of books if an idea resonates with readers.
It was just a sample: This means it could be quickly read and if they wanted to offer, it would have to be based on that sample. So offers and rejections would naturally come in quicker. There was a downside to this. Some editors stated though they enjoyed the sample, they could only offer based on a full, so keep that in mind.
A standout hook: I think (hope) this might be the main reason this submission really stood out in the email my agent sent. I doubt editors had read anything like it in their inbox lately:
A forensic entomologist must use her unique knowledge of insects to solve a series of disturbing murders inspired by insect mating rituals.
This is something I always say. Having a really strong and original hook seems to be what makes editors sit up and take notice in the first instance. I know this is frustrating for authors of 'quieter books'. Also, it's not always going to be the case. Some editors are sick of hooks. But in a competitive commercial market, that hook is important for the majority of editors. Originality too. If your elevator pitch features a theme they're seeing over and over in submissions, it doesn't mean an outright rejection, but your submission won't be moved to the top of the list (and yes, editors don't all read in the order they get a submission. If something jumps out at them, they will put it to the top of the list). So if you have something like a 'missing child' or 'memory loss' focus to your hook, then you might struggle to snag their initial interest. Look, there's a reason why common themes like this have done so well. Readers lap them up. But it will also lead to editors seeing too much of it in their inbox (same for book reviewers, too, as I've found in Q&As I've done). While those tropes and universal fantasies are so important as part of any plot, if it's the main focus of your hook, it might go against your submission unless it's approached in an ultra original way. Anyway, I think that's it all covered. I hope this helps. Remember, I've had a career of rejection and heartache, so I don't want you to think it's all roses and rainbows. But if what I've learnt in my submissions process this year can help in any way, then that's what I'm here for.