How to Sell Your First Novel by Randy Sue Coburn

How to Sell Your First Novel
By Randy Sue Coburn

My first novel, Remembering Jody, sold a little over ten years ago, and the peculiar path that book took to publication might resonate for others who have hit the wall and don’t know where to turn. Which was exactly how I felt when the agent representing Jody gave up after six rejections.

Damn! Not only had I been abandoned by someone whom I’d embraced as a collaborator in launching a high-flying literary career, my book was no longer a virgin; what other agent would take Jody on, tainted as it was by rejection? Never mind that this is a situation that happens all the time in publishing—I was too naïve to know.

I’d been working on this book for years, and since it was more than a little autobiographical, about growing up Jewish in the South and a long friendship imperiled by mental illness, I took all this rejection personally. Very personally. So of course I got depressed. Very depressed. To the point where I asked my physician to prescribe medication.

Once my seratonin levels revived, I was like an athlete who’s been patched up on the sidelines, jumping back into the game. I asked published author friends if they might recommend editors and let me drop their names. Then I wrote query letters to those editors as well as others I’d identified as a good match for my book, shamelessly flaunting my screenplay credit in the hopes that having a produced movie to my name might diminish the fact that I had no agent. I even went to Book Expo in Chicago to meet editors in person. You’ve got to be at the table, I kept telling myself, if you want to win.

Results weren’t long in coming. An editor at Scribner wrote that mine was the best manuscript that had ever come him to him over the transom. Another at Algonquin gave specific recommendations for revision. Still another asked to see my next draft. But no one committed to either working with me on the manuscript or buying my book. Time for another tough lesson: It’s not enough to go to market with a juicy manuscript—that juice has got to be chilled, in the glass, and ready to serve.

To reach that level, I hired a highly recommended freelance editor who was in synch with my writerly sensibility. Her input was so inspiring that I couldn’t wait to tackle another draft. She was like a mid-wife, pulling out the baby that was already inside me, but that I couldn’t deliver on my own. And a funny thing happened, too. Once I got back to writing, I no longer needed to be on anti-depressants. It was okay to stop hustling and be an introverted author again!

After finishing this draft, I sold the book on my own to Kent Carroll, of Carroll & Graf, whom I had met in my days as a journalist. My only regret with Jody is that since Kent sold C&G and went on to other publishing enterprises, Jody never appeared in paperback, where it might have found more readers. Still, hope springs eternal. And Kent remained such a good friend that he helped me find an excellent agent who represented my second novel, Owl Island, and secured a two-book contract.

It’s my hope that what other writers take from my experience isn’t advice so much as encouragement. When things don’t work out as you’d like or planned, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to hang up your tutu.

Randy Sue Coburn is a former newspaper reporter whose articles and essays have been published in numerous national magazines. She is the author of A Better View of Paradise, Owl Island, Remembering Jody, and her screenplays include Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the critically acclaimed Cannes Film Festival selection that received five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Screenplay. She lives in Seattle. You can visit Randy Sue Coburn’s website at

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