My unconventional route to a publishing contract – Lauren Denton

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By Lauren Denton

Most writers are familiar with the usual path to publishing.

Step 1: Novel
Step 2: Agent
Step 3: Publisher

Twists and turns abound, but the general idea is to have that agent by your side before you ever get anywhere near an editor. My path was a little different: I went from Step 1 to Step 3 then back to Step 2. I wish I could say that meant I got to skip the sometimes soul-crushing querying process, but that’s not the way it worked. Here’s what did happen…

I’d been sending query letters for about four months when an author friend offered to send my query and synopsis to an editor she knew at Thomas Nelson. I’d heard that agents don’t love it when a writer talks to editors before she has an agent, so while I was a little wary, I also didn’t expect anything to come of it. To my surprise, the editor asked about my agent search then asked for the full manuscript. I sent it on and tried not to get too excited.

Fast forward five months and I still hadn’t heard anything back from her. Along the way, I’d read that the editor changed publishing houses and I just assumed either she hadn’t liked my manuscript or it got lost in the chaos of the move. Meanwhile, I was still querying agents. I had many rejections — some form, some with helpful feedback — and requests for partial or full manuscripts, but none had taken the bait yet. I’d been querying for about nine months at this time.

I was in my car in the grocery store parking lot when I got the email that sent everything in a different direction. Karli Jackson, an editor from Thomas Nelson, emailed to say that the publishing team was reviewing my manuscript and did I have an agent yet? Turns out the previous editor had actually liked my manuscript and turned it over to Karli before she left the company. I responded with, “No agent yet but I’m working on it!”

About two weeks later, Karli emailed again to say they’d be discussing my manuscript at their acquisitions meeting the next week. Now, I’d done a lot of research on the publishing industry, and I knew “acquisitions meeting” sounded important, but I didn’t know exactly what it entailed. I did some frantic Googling and learned that this meeting would involve big important people sitting around a table discussing the merits of Sara and Mags and their colorful friends. And I still had no agent! I’d heard about publishing contracts with 15+ pages of nitty-gritty details no one but experts can understand, and I knew I didn’t want to go into something like that on my own. Plus, I was taking the long view — if I wanted to be writing books as a career, I needed an agent by my side who believed in me and my books.

As I ramped up my query search and let agents know I had publisher interest, one agent’s name stood outThe Hideaway_hi res to me. Not only had Karen Solem worked with several Thomas Nelson authors, but she seemed to be looking for the exact type of story I had written. I held my breath and sent her my query and first three chapters, explaining that my story would be discussed at this big meeting and that I was still hoping to find the right agent. Long story short, she loved The Hideaway and pretty quickly offered to represent me. However, one of those agents I’d already queried popped back up and said she loved the story as well and wanted to jump on board as my agent. After nine months of nothing much happening, things were moving so fast, I could barely keep up.

A couple weeks later, I had a conference call with several people at Thomas Nelson. We were all feeling each other out, trying to decide if we’d be a good fit together. The call went beautifully and when it was finished, I knew deep down that my book belonged with them. After making a detailed pro/con list —because I’m a terrible decision-maker — I decided to work with Karen as my agent. About a month later, as I was getting my kids dressed for “Meet the Teacher” day at school, Karen called and told me Thomas Nelson had offered a two-book contract.

So what does this topsy-turvy route from hopeful writer to agented and contracted author tell us?

1. There’s no such thing as a “normal” route to an agent and a publisher. I’ve heard all kinds of stories of how an author finds his or her agent, and how that agent gets the manuscript on the right editor’s desk at the right time. Even when a path seems completely ordinary, there are often untold maneuvers and surprises that take place in the shadows.

2. Don’t discount an agent or publisher just because you don’t hear anything for a while. I assumed Thomas Nelson was a no-go since I didn’t hear back for so long, but five months later, they were still interested. I’ve heard accounts of agents or editors circling back to query letters or authors they’d previously had contact with. You never know when your story will work its way into someone’s mind to the point that they have to come back and give it more thought.

3. This was the most important lesson for me: Even seemingly small bits of generosity — in my case, another author offering to connect me to her editor friend — can change the trajectory of a writer’s life. I call this “sending the elevator back down.” Once an author has made it to the other side — has gotten the publishing deal or seen her book on shelves — it becomes her duty and privilege to turn around and help those still trying to climb that mountain. We writers are in this often-lonely profession together, and reaching out to help those on similar paths is just one way we can help share the load as we climb.

Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Lauren Denton now lives with her husband and two young daughters in Homewood, just outside Birmingham. In addition to her fiction, she writes a monthly newspaper column about life, faith, and how funny (and hard) it is to be a parent. On any given day, she’d rather be at the beach with her family and a stack of books.

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