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My First Sale by Madeline Hunter, A Million Tiny Steps Before...

title-inner.jpgMadeline Hunter is famous for her rich detailed works. There’s not a wallpaper historical in her catalog of books. Last year’s publication, Rules of Seduction, was one of my favorites in 2007. Hunter’s latest release, Lessons of Desire, is out now and can be purchased in paperback or in ebook format at Books on Board.

Lessons of DesireI am sure that there are writers who have unusual first sale stories. The slam-dunk wonders certainly do. Or at least I always thought so. Since it took me so long to make my first sale I just assumed it took everyone that long. The common wisdom says it does.

Then I went on a signing tour with a dozen other writers. We found ourselves one day in a library, doing a panel discussion on writing. The first question was about our first sale.

I was sitting in the middle of that long table. To my amazement, every writer ahead of me described how she had sold her first manuscript. Not how she made her first sale, but how that first sale had been of her very first manuscript written. Ever. I was impressed. Dumbfounded. What were the odds all these slam-dunk wonders would be gathered in one place?

The microphone was handed to me. I looked out on the audience. I thought about making up a story. Something like:

I’d never written anything before but one day I had an idea for a story so I just sat down and wrote the book of my heart. Then I figured, what the heck, I’ll send it to a publisher. Lo and behold three weeks later this editor called me and offered me a gazillion dollars and . . . .

After all, it was what the audience wanted to hear. They were mostly aspiring novelists.

Instead I took a deep breath and told the truth. “I wrote a million words before I sold.”

I am one of the writers who waited and waited, who wrote and wrote, who received so many rejections it started becoming funny. My first sale fulfilled every warning, prediction, clichà©, and exhortation that unpublished writers hear. I am a poster child for the following truths:

1) Tenacity is Everything.

I began writing seriously in 1996. By seriously I mean that I wrote regularly, I completed manuscripts and I wanted to get published. I had been writing in other ways for years before that. It took me three years, six completed manuscripts and two long partials, and many rewrites and edits before I got the call. Like I said in that panel, a million words. I never counted my rejections—too depressing—but I collected an impressive stack of them from every publisher in the business.

2) A Sale Depends on the Right Manuscript Getting on the Right Editor’s Desk at the Right Time.

I can vouch for this one too. The manuscript that first sold had been turned down by a good number of other editors. Some thought it was horrible, and were very explicit in explaining how. Others loved it but could not fit it in their list for one reason or another. Eventually it was bought by an editor who loved it so much that she fought to give me a big push and a major launch. Although bought first it was actually published second, and is titled By Possession.

3) Luck Plays a Big Role in Getting Published.

It sort of scares me how much luck was involved in my sale. I was getting rejections and decided to attend a conference—my first one—just to see if it might help. I received two appointments with editors. One of them, the one who eventually bought my book, rarely attended regional conferences and decided to attend this one at the last minute. She wasn’t even on the editor list.

I totally blew the interview, by the way. Trust me, I was an idiot. I could hear myself babbling. So I cut it short. I had 7 precious minutes to pitch my book and after 3 I stopped talking because I assumed I would only make a bad situation worse if I kept going.

She asked to see it anyway. She ended up buying it.

What if I hadn’t gone? What if she hadn’t been there? What if I had pitched a different book (I had 6, after all)? What if. . . .See what I mean? Scary.

4) You Need an Agent Who Loves Your Work.

I sure did. After all, she represented me through years of rejections. I doubt she took me on thinking it would take so long. Every submission was money out of her pocket and an act of trust that one day this would pay off. The truth is, she believed in my work more than I did.

5) Getting the Call is One of the Most Exciting Days of Your Life.

My call came from my agent. You know how there is “jump up and down” excited? This was not that. This was bigger. This was “stunned while the world froze and mind emptied” excited. I was in a state of mild shock for about two weeks. The only thing I remember from that period is drinking a lot of champagne. My husband kept insisting on toasts whenever we told anyone. Gee, maybe I wasn’t in shock after all. Maybe I was just high.

6) After the Call, Everything Changes.

Post shock, reality created some interesting psychological issues for me. For example, rather suddenly every creative thought left my head and I was sure I would never have another one again. The first book that I wrote under contract was the most difficult book of my career. I was still writing because I loved it, but it had also become a job. It took me a while to deal with some that these changes. The thing about a dream is that it is. . .a dream. Having a dream come true can be a daunting experience.

I don’ t usually tell beginning writers my story, unless I find myself on one of those panels. I am afraid it will be too depressing. Although maybe not, because it ended well. I do often tell it to writers who are waiting and working and dreaming like I was not all that long ago.

They already know that they won’t be slam-dunk wonders. I figure it might help them to know that all those truths up there really are true.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Kerry Allen
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 05:07:58

    I don’t find that story depressing at all. It’s realistic, with a happy ending (though it’s not really an ending, I suppose!).

    Slam-dunk wonder stories are boring. What I love to see are the rejection letters associated with books that eventually got published and sold a bazillion copies. That’s some encouraging stuff…

  2. ilona andrews
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 06:14:08

    I think it’s a wonderful story. Writing is hard work and so much of it hinges on perseverance and not giving in and not giving up. There are many struggling (and published) authors out here who find stories like this inspiring, because it’s proof that hard work does pay off.

  3. Jill Myles
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 06:14:11

    This was a great interview and I’m so glad to hear it wasn’t ‘magical’ for everyone and involved the million words thing.

    I’m currently in the ‘have no ideas’ phase myself and I sincerely hope it goes away. Fast.

    Wonderful interview! :)

  4. Ann Wesley Hardin
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 07:35:34

    Oh boy did this resonate! I was a five years, five manuscripts girl. It’s hard to keep going when you’re surrounded by the out-of-the-gate types.

    Having a dream come true can be a daunting experience.

    How true!

    Thanks for persevering, Madeline. Now we have your wonderful books to enjoy!

  5. Larissa Ione - Blog
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 07:52:11

    […] become published, go read Madeline Hunter’s call story at Dear Author. She talks about how she got published, and everything she said is just so true! Well, for me, […]

  6. Ann Bruce
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 08:18:34

    I’m so glad you’re persistent because you’re one of the few historical novelists I still read after making the switch to mainly contemporary and suspense. (Of course, DA got me glomming Loretta Chase and Jo Goodman.)

    Luck Plays a Big Role in Getting Published

    Must get rabbit’s foot (a fake one), four-leaf clover, horseshoe…anything else?

    Of course, my editor says it would help if I can get my full length completed.

    Side note to the Ja(y)nes: Um, I can’t see the previous comments.

  7. Jennifer McKenzie
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 08:22:19

    What a wonderful interview. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. sherry thomas
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 09:04:43

    When By Arrangement came out, Jean Mason, Ms. Hunter’s friend, wrote an essay about her road to publication at, about the rare stepback cover she was getting as a debut author, the special price, and the back-to-back releases, quite a novelty at that time.

    Her success remained vivid in my mind. And I’d always told my husband, I’d like to get the Madeline Hunter treatment when my book comes out. And lo and behold, a million of my own words under the belt and I sold to none other than Madeline’s publisher, got my stepback cover, my sorta back-to-back release (my own fault strict, for writing faster), and the rest is set to unfold in the near future. :-)

  9. Charlene Teglia
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 09:25:11

    From another one who wrote at least a million words before that first novel sale, thanks for making me feel like I’m in good company! And Sherry, what a fantastic follow-up story.

  10. Meriam
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 11:12:09

    Great story and a true hero’s journey. Incidentally, By Posession is on my keepers’ shelf. It’s a fantastic book.

  11. Catherine
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 11:29:28

    I think this is a great story because it’s so much more realistic than someone saying that they sold on the first try. I’m not a writer or an aspiring one. I just love to read. I’ve read a lot of accounts of authors’ struggles to sell. I think that a story like yours would give them hope as opposed to someone saying, “Well I sold on the first try, but keep working. Good effort you!”

  12. Catherine
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 11:31:29

    Wow, I just realized that avatar makes my baby look like a gremlin! I’m going to have to change that. He’s really cute and not at all gremlinish I swear!

  13. Bonnie Dee
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 12:14:58

    I loved what you said about achieving the dream being followed by a psychological adjustment period. I always think about that. What if the miracle happens, some publisher offers a multi-book deal and you just can’t deliver? I’ve never had my muse completely dry up like that, but then no one has really placed deadline demands on me before. Demands for a product could make a writer’s inspiration run screaming for the hills.

  14. raine
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 13:56:21

    Now THIS I can relate to.
    Great story. :-D

  15. Jenyfer Matthews
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 15:51:27

    Thanks for sharing your experience – I certainly identify with it. Funny, but I always did think that the slam-dunk wonders were the exception!

  16. Heather
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 22:36:27

    Being five years into an agent search (let alone worry about getting published), this post resonated a lot with me. Thanks so much for sharing! I wish I had seen more stories like this when I was just starting out, because my expectations and goal setting might have been more realistic.

    btw, Madeline (and I have to ask, although I understand if you decline to answer), how long did it take you to land an agent?

    p.s. thank you Miss Jane and Miss Jayne for having these posts. Well, I love all of your posts.

  17. Madeline Hunter
    Oct 01, 2007 @ 02:22:37

    My apologies for the late reply. I was away at a conference. Heather, I found an agent very quickly. That made the years of rejection even harder to swallow, I think. There, but not quite there–that was the feeling. Although I will say that while it was quick, it was not immediate. I joke that the first batch of proposals that I sent to agents were rejected so fast that the rejection letters were in my mailbox when I got back from the post office after mailing them off. Truly, I did not realize mail could get to New York and a response get back so fast! And who says our postal service isn’t efficient.

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