Taking Back the Past

Taking Back the Past – BTL

For All TimeFinally, another Taking Back the Past post! We’re now up to Between the Lines, my third book for Arabesque and the third entry in Harlequin’s recently released 3-in-1 re-issue, Sweet Passion. Between the Lines marks two significant events in my writing history: acquiring an agent and doing research.

As I told you in an earlier post, I negotiated (or, didn’t negotiate) my first tw0-book contract with Arabesque. I don’t quite remember how exactly when I acquired an agent, but I do remember that the agent negotiated the contract for my second two-book contract. I learned a couple of things from this experience. First, having an agent doesn’t necesssarily mean that you’ll get more money. I remember the disappointment I felt when my agent came back with an offer from the publisher that was not very different from the offer for the first contract. I assumed that I had paid my dues with that first contract, and now as a published author, I would be compensated accordingly. Not so.

Conventional wisdom puts the average advance for a new author at $5000. Quite a few make less and many make more. This was true in 1994 when I sold my first book and it’s still true today. I won’t tell you where I was, but by the tone of this post, I’m sure you can guess.

I know some of you are crying about now because you had dreams of getting rich, quitting your day job and buying a new house from the advance for selling your first book. All I can say is, “Wake up!” Now, a lot of writers do a lot better than I did. I started out writing romance, genre fiction, where big, fat advances are not very common. As I recommended in an earlier post, you really need to sell well with the first book because that book determines the floor (and in many ways, the ceiling) for subsequent advances. For example, if you start out with a $5000 advance, it’s highly unlikely that your next advance is going to be $50,ooo. Not impossible, but highly unlikely.

But there is the reality of publishing. $5000 may be selling well for you and your book. You only know that you’ve gotten the best deal that you can get if you shop your book around. Good agents know the price that a book should bring and they fight for that price. Typically, an advance is based on the expected first year sales of the book. So, if publishers expect a book to make $5000 in the first year, then you get a $5000 advance. Some publishers, like Harlequin, tend to pay a standard advance rate but their first year earnings typically exceed that amount. At least, that’s been my experience.

So how do you figure out how much you’ll make on a book? If your book is a mass market paperback (those books you see in the racks at the grocery story), it probably sells for $6.99. Your contract will specify a royalty rate of 6 or 8 percent; I’m not sure which is standard these days. That means that for each book that sells, you get 56 cents (8%) or 42 cents (6%). At the 8 percent rate, you’ll have to sell around 10,000 books to make $5000.

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Taking Back the Past – FAT

For All TimeFinally, I’m back with the Taking Back the Past series. This week’s topic is For All Time, my second book, which is also the second story included in the upcoming Harlequin 3-in-1 re-issue, Sweet Passion. With this book, I learned some tough, but valuable, publishing lessons.

For All Time was the second book of the two-book contract that I had with Arabesque Books. I got the idea from my cousin who had recently lost her job. For All Time tells the story of a young middle-class couple whose marriage is challenged when the husband loses his job at the same time that the wife gets a promotion on hers. I had a lot of fun writing this story and I was excited about it being even better than my first book, Bands of Gold. Hey, I had a writing career to build and I was serious about building it.

Then reality publishing happened. The general process from manuscript to book takes a few stages. First, the author completes the mansuscript and sends it to the editor for approval. The editor reads the manscript and issues the author a revision letter with questions, comments and recommendations. I was fortunate in that my editorial letters always resulted in a better, tighter, stronger story. So while I can’t say that I liked getting them, I can say that I appreciated them.

So the author receives the letter, reviews it and, after considering how to address all the listed items, makes a call to editor to clarify any concerns and to let the editor know how she plans to handle the items outlined in the letter. Note that the writer is not obliged to do everything the editor requested, but she is obliged to consider each item. During this phone call, the editor and author go back and forth a bit and finally agree, in broad terms, on how the manuscript will change or not change.

The author then makes the changes, and any other changes she thinks will make the story stronger. Many authors, me included, appreciate this final opportunity to make changes in the manuscript and use it as a opportunity to improve the story. Once the changes are completed, the author sends the revised manuscript back to the editor. If all goes well, the author gets a phone call from the editor a few weeks later saying that the manuscript is accepted and any associated advance money is being sent to the author. At this point, the author celebrates.

A few months later, the author receives galleys in mail. Galleys are book pages printed on standard copy/printer paper. The author’s job is to read the galleys to make sure that no errors were introduced into the manuscript during the typesetting process. Typically, the author gets a few days to do this. If everything in the publication process is working well, the author may have a few typos to correct and a few missing words to insert. If things are not working well, the author may realize that book that is being published is quite different from the book she submitted. The latter is what happened to me with For All Time.

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Taking Back the Past – BoG

Sweet PassionOkay, we’re back on the historical journey of my writing life from my beginnings as a general market romance novelist to my current career as a Christian fiction novelist. Thanks for taking a step back in time with me. Today, we’re going waaay back to when I sold my first book. In last week’s post, I told you about my early fifth grade writing experience and that fateful trip to a Romantic Times convention in Savannah (GA) much later where I decided to embark on writing again. This post picks up with my return home after that conference.

Well, writing a book wasn’t as easy as it seemed when I was listening to those three women at the conference. I realized I didn’t know how to get started. The smartest thing I did at that point was join Georgia Romance Writers, the Atlanta Chapter of Romance Writers of America. I don’t remember now how I learned about the organization but it must have been at the convention. Anyway, I attended my first meeting, where there was only one other black person, Carla Fredd, also a beginning writer attending her first meeting. I believe it was destiny; you’ll have to ask Carla what she thinks.

Sometime later Carla and I, along with two other GRW members, Bridget Anderson and Ami V., formed a critique group. I think we met once a week, but again I’m relying on memory here. I distinctly remember that because I working full-time, I wrote on the weekends. I didn’t allow myself to leave the house on Saturday morning until I’d written three chapters, which for me was three chapters. I remember being motivated do those three chapters so that I wouldn’t have to attend the upcoming critique group meeting empty-handed.

When I think about our early critique meetings, I have to laugh. We were excellent examples of the blind leading the blind. We had no clue what we were doing. We figured out point-of-view together; we struggled together with active and passive voice. Mostly, we supported and encouraged each other. That was the upside to being in a critique group. The downside was that sometimes our comments went too far. We’d begin to change, or want to change, each other’s stories. I think I was first one in the group to make a sale because I was the first to figure out that comments from others were merely points to consider, not requests that had to be heeded.

It took me about a year to write that first book, which I titled Dreams. I started querying agents and publishers after I had a good first three chapters and a synopsis, figuring that any interest would be a great motivator to finish the book. I compiled a large collection of rejection letters during this period, most of them form letters that weren’t even copied squarely on the page. It’s funny now, but it certainly pained me back then. I’d drag myself to the mailbox, holding my breath, wondering if I could bear another rejection. But I could and I did. Finally, a few people asked to see my manuscript. And more rejections piled up. More wondering if I could bear the rejection. More learning that I could.

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Taking Back the Past – SP

Telling the TaleThe last post in the Taking Back the Past series ended with my decision to write Christian fiction. Rather than picking up where that post left off, I’m going to digress a bit and go back to the start of my writing career. I think this is fitting given that Harlequin is re-issuing my first three books in a 3-1 volume in April. I promise to continue that story after I take you through those first three books.

Anyway, I think you’ll find it interesting to read my reflection on my start as recorded in the nonfiction book that I wrote in 1998-9, Telling the Tale: The African-American Fiction Writer’s Guide (Berkeley, 2000). One similarity that you’ll notice in the piece I wrote back in 1998-9 and the piece I wrote last week is the noton of “life-changing” events. Last week, I wrote, “. . .that call changed the course of my life. Literally.” In Telling the Tale, I wrote: “That decision changed my life.”

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Taking Back the Past – SCD

Second Chance DadI had planned to continue this conversation earlier in the week, but life and my day job took precedence. Now that I have a moment, I’d like to continue the story that I began for you in my earlier Taking Back the Past – AFW post. In that post, I told you what was going on around the time my first Silhouette title, A Family Wedding, was first published in 1997. In this post, I want to tell you about the time around the publication of my second Silhouette title, Second Chance Dad.

I have to tell you that I was flying pretty high at this point. Remember that I had given myself three years to make a living wage from my writting. At this point, I had finished the first book of my third two-book contract with Arabesque and, with Second Chance Dad, I was writing what my editor and I planned would be the first in my three-book series on the Bell brothers. Second Chance Dad was a Christmas book, meaning that it was released around December 1997. By the way, I had four books published that year — two for Silhouette and two for Arabesque. I’m telling you I was on a roll.

Okay, back to the Bell brothers. So, Second Chance Dad was a Christmas book that introduced the three Bell brothers. Get it–Bell brothers, Christmas bells? When the book was first published there was a family tree in the front done up as Christmas bells. This is the indication that there were going to be more books about the Bell brothers. At least, there was supposed to be more, but a funny thing happened when I sat down to write the next book: I couldn’t write it. Literally, nothing came. No outline, no anything.

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Taking Back the Past – AFW

A Family WeddingAs promised, this is the first post in my Take Back the Past series. Since quite a few of the secular romances that I wrote before I started writing Christian fiction are now being re-issued, I’ve decided to give you some insight into my life at the time I was writing the books. I pray that you find some encouragement from sharing this backward journey with me. Even though I don’t write secular romances anymore, those older books represent a part of my history that I don’t want to forget.

A Family Wedding was first published in 1997 as part of Harlequin’s Silhouette Special Edition line, which means that I probably wrote it in 1996. I say probably because with most publishers there’s a year lag between the time that you submit the manuscript and the time that the book is published; with Harlequin/Silhouette, sometimes the interval is shorter. I probably went to contract on the story in 1995, since the interval from contract to manuscript delivery is typically about a year as well.

Anyway, I remember this being a very happy time for me. I had signed a contract to write my fifth and sixth novels with Arabesque and now I had a second contract with the major romance publishing house. I had accomplished a major feat. At the time, there were not many authors writing African-American romance for Harlequin so I considered myself a pioneer. Okay, I’m laughing at myself now but that’s how I was thinking.

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Taking Back the Past

Sweet Passion I posted a while back about being concerned about my upcoming re-issues from Harlequin. A lot of my concern stemmed from confusing readers who have certain expectations for my work now that I write Christian fiction. Thanks to the support of some of you and to what I refer to as my “Anne Rice” moment, I decided to let it go and let God take care of it.

He did exactly that. I just saw the cover for my latest re-issue and I laughed out loud. You know why? Because there’s no way anybody could confuse that cover with a Christian fiction novel. And when I think about it, even the title, Sweet Passion, suggests that the story is not Christian fiction. And it’s not. Let’s be clear: my earlier romances include sexual content (though I’ve been told it’s pretty mild) that I do not put in my books today.

So now I rest easy. Actually, I started resting easy a while back after reading something that Anne Rice said about not being ashamed of her earlier books. I think she referred to them as “a record of her past.” I love that! When I look at my Christian fiction titles, they all deal with people who have done things in their past that they haven’t really dealt with, things they feel they need to hide or be ashamed of. How fitting is it then that my past is now staring me in the face?

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Silhouette Re-issues Older Romances

A Family WeddingI recently learned that Silhouette Books is re-issuing two books that I wrote for them in 1997, Second Chance Dad and A Family Wedding. The books are being re-issued as part of the pre-launch of Silhouette’s new African American romance line. Second Chance Dad hits the bookstores in December 2005 and A Family Wedding makes an appearance in February 2006. Second Chance Dad

While it’s usually profitable for an author to see her books re-issued, I have mixed emotions about my upcoming re-issues. You see, I wrote these books before I started writing Christian fiction and they contain explicit sex scenes that I would not put in a book today. The explicit scenes are only symptoms of the problem that I have with those books; my problem is that the characters in those books have no faith life. It’s as though they live in a world in which God does not exist. You never see them balance their life decisions with the tenets of their faith.

Many of you have read my older titles, so I’d like to hear what you think about them in terms of the faith lives of the characters. How do you think adding (or, developing) a faith life element for the main characters would have changed the stories? Would they have been better, worse, or just different? Let me know what you think.