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Debut authors, Steph and Nicole were about to give up… but then attracted the eye of an editor

April 1, 2021

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Yes! Another story of an author who submitted to many, many agents (50-60 in total!) and yet finally came out on top with a publishing contract FIRST! It’s a pleasure to introduce the co-author of the “nail-biting thriller” The Family Tree, Steph Mullin, a debut author who now has a two book deal with Harper Collins. Steph’s story is once again a realistic reminder of just how long and gruelling the submissions process can be. At one stage Steph and her co-author Nicole Madbry thought about packing up and giving up. After all, they were submitting during a pandemic. But fate or luck or just their brilliant writing wouldn’t have it when at the last minute, an editor spotted them and devoured their book over a weekend.

These stories are the best! And Steph and Nicole’s road to publication is super interesting as they co-wrote the book and got noticed through Twitter on a PitMad pitching contest. There are so many ways and avenues around getting picked up by an agent/publisher and this is just another amazing example of how to do that. Steph has generously provided loads of in depth tips into how to prepare your cover letter/synopsis and how her and Nicole both treated this process very seriously before submitting.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kid. I remember in elementary school, writing in a small journal that I wanted to be a writer and thinking very adamantly that I would publish a book before I graduated high school (which clearly was a bit overly ambitious!) When I got to University, I took some creative writing classes and wrote for our Literary Magazine, but I focused my degree on a more visual creative field (graphic design & photography) and went into that route professionally. (My day job is currently a Creative Director for a Digital Marketing Solutions Company). When I graduated from university and moved to NYC for work, my writing got a bit put on the backburner, but I still always wanted to find my way back to it one day. Then, probably around 5 years ago, a good friend and mentor of mine sat down one day and wrote a book. And it motivated me that I could do it too, so I started writing fiction more seriously in my spare time. (And now, that friend and mentor is today my co-author! I’ve since moved from NYC to North Carolina, so we joke that we are in a long-distance relationship, but it’s been so wonderful being partners and we continue to find creative ways to make it work! We spend a lot of time on Zoom.)

What led to your offer of representation with an agent (or contract with a publisher, if you went that way around first?)

My co-author and I wrote our debut book, The Family Tree, fairly quickly and really went all-in on editing and preparing it for querying. We put our own solo projects on a shelf, feeling in our bones that our topic was a trend waiting to burst out in the thriller genre and eager to get to it before someone else told a similar story. It was like a lightning strike, and we were so excited to get a good number of full manuscript requests immediately when we started sending out our query letter. And then, the pandemic hit the United States, and everything came to a screeching halt. Agents started telling us that while it was wonderful and had potential, they didn’t think they could sell a dark subject matter at a time when the world was going through something so dark. We were disheartened and kept trying to find ways to pivot, new people to query, things we could do to try to still get it out there despite the poor and uncontrollable timing of it all. It was really frustrating, and we felt like we were just running into a wall over and over. We almost put the manuscript in a drawer to revisit after things improved, but then Twitter was set to host a PitMad pitch contest, so we figured, why not! Let’s throw our pitch up on Twitter as one last attempt before we sadly put it away. And low and behold, an Editor at Avon Books | HarperCollinsUK liked our tweet to request a full manuscript be sent to her, devoured it over a weekend, and it led to a 2 book offer for The Family Tree plus a second unrelated thriller to come approximately 6 months after. It was surreal, exciting, and felt kismet from the start. While it was  an interesting path to sign with a UK publisher while US based, the editor was like our soulmate from the get-go. She loved true crime just like us and was an immediate extension of our brains- we were thrilled to sign with them!

How long did you have to wait to hear back and was it a partial or full request?

The like on our tweet was instant, and we sent over our materials quickly  (which included a full manuscript) – She read it over a  weekend then discussed it with her team, so we heard back she was interested relatively quickly! In order to give it its best shot at their internal pitch meeting to try to secure us a deal, she worked through a few rounds of edits with us first, as well as helped us develop our book 2 pitch for her to include to show them what our brand identity would look like over our career  (although getting the 2-book offer was such a pleasant surprise rather than just the one that was written!). It took a few months from start to finish from our first email with her, until a contract was negotiated and signed. But we were in close and frequent communication with her throughout that time period. Since we did not have an agent, we also hired a UK Contract Lawyer to assist us on understanding the contract language which was a huge comfort to us being new to both the industry and the UK market. The book was also picked up to distribute in the US through their HC360 team, and has already been picked up by HarperCollins Holland as well.

How many submissions did you make prior to gaining representation/publishing contract?

Probably between 50-60, some of which were from the Twitter contest requests. We actually did receive a few offers of representation from agents after we got our publishing offer directly from Avon, however in the end, we decided since we were happy with the deal and not interested in taking our book wider to try to find additional bargaining power and felt so confident in trusting our Editor, we felt our money was best spent in a good contract lawyer and then earmark some of our advance to go back into marketing down the line, rather than commit to a commission to an agent when we had already secured a deal ourselves. We’re not opposed to having an agent down the line should the right opportunity arise, but we’ve been very happy with going direct to Avon so far in our journey!

Any tips on cover letters/synopsis/pitches?

  1. 1. Read the submission instructions and then check them at least two more times. Not following instructions, when everyone’s submission instructions are so different, is a quick way to get rejected.
  2. We found it helpful to have an organized excel doc where we tracked every agent and editor we wanted to submit to. We color categorized them from “dream agent” down to not as notable but still accepting our genre. We used this to help prioritize the order of who we submitted to, not immediately sending to every dream agent, and submitted in groups of 5-10 to give some breathing room for potential feedback. We did this in groups so that if we got constructive criticism, we could update our materials before sending to another batch so that we didn’t waste our one shot submitting to agencies when we could have corrected an issue. I think this was very helpful to approach it in batches. We also kept track of each agent’s submission requirements, what interests they noted on MSWL or Twitter (as to why we may be a good fit, so we could personalize each query), and then would note when we submitted, what was requested, when materials were sent, etc. Organization was key!
  3. Never give up and always look for ways to pivot! It would have been really easy to blame our rejections on the pandemic and give up, but we kept looking for a new way in and then were able to find one! I can’t believe looking back how close we were to putting our manuscript away, and I’m so glad we kept trying.
  4. Utilize sources like Manuscript Wishlist, looking up favorite authors representations for inspiration, twitter requests for topics, and Query Tracker, to find all the agents accepting queries in your genre. There are so many out there and if someone asks for exactly what you’re trying to pitch, that’s key to include in your query!
  5. Personalize every query letter to the agent and why you chose to submit to them. Also, follow proper industry format and inclusions for your query/synopsis/etc. Everything is so specific and it would be so easy to exclude yourself from potential consideration just because you didn’t include everything they expect you to include. In your query, have a good idea of comps (and it’s ok to mix media, we mentioned a show and a book rather than two books!), and have a plot hook ready to lure them in fast. I would also recommend, on the topic of submission materials, to up front prepare everything: your Query, 1 Page Synopsis, and 3-5 Page Synopsis. You get asked for such a mix of materials, so it’s helpful to just have them ready to plug and play no matter what the agent or editor asks for.

Your first reaction when they offered you a contract?

It was quite an emotional rollercoaster. I was having such anxiety from the pandemic, yet here was my dream literally coming true in the midst of that backdrop. It was very surreal and exciting, and some days, I still have to remind myself that it’s real! It was one of the most pivotal moments of my professional life.

What’s next for you?

More writing! We are currently editing our second book bought by Avon|HarperCollinsUK, as we simultaneously start getting into the marketing and publicity side of the industry for The Family Tree (which is very fun and exciting!). It’s truly starting to feel like a second/new career and while we are very busy, both still working day jobs, we are loving every moment of it. Having dual launches this year for The Family Tree in the UK (June) & the US (October), plus producing book #2, will keep us very busy. We are also of course already brainstorming ideas for book #3, which we will pitch first to our current team, and if they pass, then it will be on us to go wider on submission again. We are guessing we’ll have more of an idea of that process as this year continues. We look forward to connecting with our reader base this year as our story gets out into more hands and hope to keep writing lots of dark and twisty thrillers for years to come.

I’m so looking forward to reading The Family Tree and how exciting to think there’s another one on the way for Steph and Nicole! Thanks so much for being on here, Steph and sharing your journey. You can learn more about Steph and Nicole here or on their Author Website: https://www.mullinandmabry.com/ and Pre-Order The Family Tree here: http://smarturl.it/TheFamilyTree

I think we all know what the moral of this story is: Don’t give up.

Thanks for stopping by,

Holly

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