February 03, 2009 Arts » Cover story

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My life on the mid-list 

Every year — probably every day — thousands of people chase the dream of being a published author.

In 2001, I made a $99 investment in my own literary fantasies. Eight years later, with nine books in print, I'm living the dream ... sort of. Sure, I write books that get published, but I'm stuck on what's known as the "mid-list."

A mid-list author, like me, is considered to be someone worth publishing because their books make money ... just not millions.

As an author of romance novels, my books aren't hardcover, which makes it even harder to get on the bestsellers list. But romance-themed books are some of the top-selling titles out there, especially when the cover price of a new novel in paperback is under $7 and hardcover novels are at least $25.

I've signed with an agent, and I have a contract with the New York publishing house Kensington Books. I've even tried to be prolific like Prince and push out a book a year. So far, it's been working. When reviewers get my books now, it's not a question of who I am anymore. But that still doesn't make me rich or famous.

But, it's better than it was when my first book went on sale via the Internet.

Print-on-demand publishing was just getting started, and I was working as a journalist in Winston-Salem, N.C. After I wrote the last sentence in my book, I recalled an interview I'd done with author Natasha Munson. Munson published a self-help book with the online service Iuniverse.com. I looked up the Web site, and that week they were running a special; I was so excited. I thought: "Hell, I'd blow $100 on something over the next week anyway; why not put it to good use?" Then, I'd either get the writing bug out of my system or I'd be the next Terry McMillan or John Grisham.

Keep in mind, I'd been trying to get published since high school and had foolishly sent my full manuscript to Penguin Books. (And yes, I still have that rejection letter.)

As the arts and entertainment editor at The Winston-Salem Chronicle, I'd been talking to a lot of authors who were self-publishing. It seemed to be the way to go to get your book out there.

What they failed to tell me, and what I didn't know, was that bookstores don't order books they can't return. And guess what's non-returnable? You got it: self-published books.

But I digress.

It took three months for my book, Searching For Paradise, to be published; there were revisions and a job change. I left Winston-Salem and went to High Point. Paradise was a coming-of-age novel based on the life of women just graduating from college. Like most first-time authors, I chose to write about something I had the most knowledge about. I was fresh out of college, and it wasn't at all what I thought it was going to be. I wanted my next book to be something different. And since the majority of my day was spent covering catastrophes as a police reporter with the News & Record, I needed a release.

That's when I decided to write my first romance novel.

In two months, I was done with my first draft. But unlike my first book, I wanted someone to pay me to be published, instead of the other way around.

This time, I did the research and found a publisher who accepted manuscript proposals from new writers without agents. That was me all day. And I was tired of searching for a literary agent -- because most of them were just scammers. Why pay a fee when reputable agents charge you nothing up-front?

I sent one prospective agent a query letter and some sample chapters; he wrote me back requesting the entire manuscript. When I received that letter, I pumped my fist and jumped around my apartment as if Publisher's Clearing House had just knocked on my door. This was a New York agent. Simon and Schuster is in New York. I was on my way ... or so I thought.

Two weeks later, the agent sent another letter that grounded me like a lead balloon: "I received your manuscript; however, your check for the $150 reading fee was not included. Please send the check as soon as possible or the manuscript will be destroyed."

Instead, this "agent" received a self-addressed stamped envelope and a request for my work back.

I would've given up, but my new book Revelations was special to me, and I decided to find my own publisher. I was determined not to go the self-publishing route again. Authors who have success publishing and selling their own books are a special breed. They have to go out and convince booksellers to give them a chance. Back in the day, there were plenty of independent bookstores that would allow a self-published author to come in and have a signing (for a percentage, of course). But many of those stores are gone now. And while online sales are great, I've learned that if readers like your books, they want to meet you. You'd better damned well hope they like you, too, because your sales will suffer if they don't.

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