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May 09, 2006

She Who Can Make or Break Your Writing Career

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since this blog ran over a month ago, I have learned that, in fact, Sessalee Hensley has supported THE CINDERELLA PACT. In fact, THE CINDERELLA PACT will be on the Barnes & Noble Beach Reads table from June 19 until July 17 at a nice discount. So, thank you Sessalee! )

By Sarah

Yesterday, I had to talk to my agent. I really love my agent and I really hate talking to her. Maybe someday she will call me to announce that I'm #12 on the New York Times bestseller list, that my success is better than one ever imagined, but not now. Mostly she calls to discuss my future and what I need to do to break out.

This is because Sessalee Hensley didn't love my forthcoming hardcover, THE CINDERELLA PACT.

Actually, I don't know if Sessalee Hensley loved THE CINDERELLA PACT or not. I don't know if she even read it. (Doubtful.) For all I know, she took one look at the cover with the glittering Christian Louboutin shoe, flipped through the opening chapter about a woman who is fat pretending to be a thin, hip British advice columnist who writes a column about how easy it is to lose weight and sighed, tres, tres bored. Then she tossed the book aside and moved on to what was next in the pile. Like a Julian Barnes or something.

If Sessalee had loved it, I would have heard. Dutton would have called crowing.

If you don't know who Sessalee is, by the way, and you're a writer of fiction, listen up. Sessalee is the mega buyer for Barnes and Noble. Sessalee orders for ALL the Barnes and Noble fiction collections. All of them. Being inconceivably human, she also is equipped with a thumb that either goes up or down and, along with it, your career.

Unlike my agent, I don't find it surprising she didn't love my baby. I mean Sessalee loved LOVELY BONES which had a printing of 952,000 in its first month, largely thanks to her. THE CINDERELLA PACT is not a book about rape, murder or anything bad. It's all good. It's about being loved for who you are, about dieting and succeeding or dieting and failing and meeting a hot guy along the way. It's about friendships. It's warm and fun. Kirkus called it a "delightful frolic." You get the picture.

Before I got into publishing, I didn't know a lot of things. I didn't know that paperback sales were driven by print runs. I didn't know how to read a Borders label to find out how many books had been ordered for that store.I didn't know that you needed a first printing of over 50,000 in hardcover to make the NYT. I didn't know about Sessalee.

Ignorance is bliss.

Of course, the whole Sessalee thing makes even the most honorable writers into whores. You have a sick desire to send roses to Sessalee, cure her cat's cancer, repaint her apartment. But Sessalee, it is rumored, cannot be bought. She will, however, increase her orders if you have a confirmed appearance on TODAY or you are on Oprah. Last I checked on my schedule, there is neither a Today nor an Oprah. It is, in all fairness, a very busy schedule.

This is where the small independent stores get screwed, too, because you want to tell everyone on your mailing list GO OUT AND BUY THE CINDERELLA PACT AT BARNES AND NOBLE THE FIRST WEEK!!! You want to tell them this because Sessalee sniffed at Judy Blume's SUMMER SISTERS (which my daughter loved) on the pretense that Judy Blume readers don't grow up to read books; they grow up to read magazines. (Actual quote is from the Wall Street Journal.) And then all the Judy Blume fans ran right out and bought tons of SUMMER SISTERS from Barnes and Noble and Sessalee - who apparently can change her mind - took a hint.

I have fantasies of overweight women and formerly overweight women (gee, that should be about half the population) rushing out to B&N's everywhere to buy THE CINDERELLA PACT the first week it's on sale. I want to be a fly on the wall when Sessalee throws up her hands and says, "Who knew The Cinderella Pact would be such a hit?" and puts in an order for 20,000 more copies.

Yet, what would Mary Alice at Mystery Lover's in Pittsburgh have to say about that? She who has been so supportive of me. Or the good friends at Murder by the Book in Houston? Or the Moravian Book Shop? These are my true boosters, no? These are the people who know their readers, their customers and what they want. They're the ones who say, "Have you tried Sarah Strohmeyer's latest? You should."

Not Sessalee.

So what to do? Well, the first thing to do is forget about it. I can't help it that Sessalee didn't love the book, plenty of others did, like Meg Cabot and Kirkus. I suppose I could sit down and analyze what books Sessalee loved and didn't and then write like the ones she loved. But I've got kids to raise and a garden to weed and a Bubbles book to revise.

Instead, I think what I'll do is learn from my mistakes. If there's any mistake I've made in this business, it has been to - at times, not always - concentrate too much on what sells versus what I love to write. Because in the end, the latter is all that matters. And though the industry will always, always push you to write yesterday's hit, don't let them. Stick to your guns. It could be tomorrow's phenomenal bestseller.

Thanks, Sessalee, for that much.



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Yikes. (and wow)

Maybe you should have put something in the first few pages about how Jesus' wife had weight problems, which is why she didn't eat much at that Last Supper thing and therefore looked sort of like a man in a painting done 1,500 years later.

I got a lousy online review yesterday from an amateur who thought my protagonist was too "cranky" during the action of the book. Certain kinds of criticism is easier to ignore than others.

Sessalee's going to change her mind. She's too jaded from buying all those books that look alike to see what's really new to the market.

Thanks, Sarah.
This is how I see it:
The Cinderella Pact (Dutton, $24.95) by Sarah Strohmeyer is a real treat for readers of all sizes and just in time for summer. Three friends make a pact to diet and turn themselves into the glamorous women who live inside each of them. This plan leads to love, pride and new attitudes for the three and the folks around them. Led by Nola Devlin, Sass! magazine editor by day and British advice diva by night, there are many spot-on moments in the process and the deft storytelling skills of this queen of the funny to savor. Bubbles would be proud.

I wish I could do something about Sessalee........wait, I can.......if all of you reading buy this book from me, together we can put Sarah on the NYTimes list!!
Just write to [email protected] and tell me you want to make Sarah a bestseller and I will ship the book to you the end of June.
Thanks again, Sarah.
Mary Alice and Mystery Lovers

See what I mean, people? See what I mean when I say that Mary Alice will support you like no one else?
Macroeconomics 101 Lesson #1 - why monopolies suck - because one person makes a decision for 2,000 stores.
Lesson #2 - why small is beautiful, because stores like Mary Alice's promote and nurture individual voices, writing styles and creativity.
Thank you, Mary Alice...again!

I've always been a firm believer in writing what you love. If you can't do that, what's the point?

Thanks for reminding a newbie author that everyone worries about sales and that it's really out of our hands. Wouldn't it be great if we could shower independent bookstores like Mystery Lovers Bookshop with so many orders that the giants had to pack it in? I guess I can dream . . .

I'm a firm believer in writing what I love as long as it's what people love to read. My agent--like yours, Sarah--wouldn't submit my work if it weren't commercial, and my publisher wouldn't buy my work if the chains weren't excited about it, too. I'm a versatile writer, and I can make my work fit the market. But after a lot of years of toiling in the midlist--and especially in the treadmill of category romance--I see that kind of thinking alone is dangerous. (See all the current articles about the death of chick lit and the glut of books that all appear to be the same.) I'm always trying to look ahead, to figure out how to make the writing I love to do appeal to the changing tastes of readers. For me, that means keeping up with pop culture, watching how popular ideas wax and wane. We're the ones in the driver's seat.--Writers have the power to set trends instead of follow them. Sometimes that's hard to do with all the noise we're hearing from those around us---even agents and editors and booksellers who are supposed to be on our teams. In the end, it's about the books we generate alone.

Says the woman on deadline....

Oh, what do you expect from a woman who spells her name like a dyslexic adolescent? (Yes, I know. This from a woman named after a motorcycle.) Hey! I read the whole book, blue cover to blue cover and it IS a great read. Sarah, you've got the right attitude.


Just another case of a supposed know-it-all who is quite obviously WRONG! To me, she is judging the book by it's cover, and not actually reading, which is a real shame.

As for buying? I usually buy a couple at B&N, and then also from our independent store.

Have you guys met Debby? She is the BOMB. She is one of the most devoted readers ever. A real princess in her own right.
Also, you wouldn't believe these brownies she makes. OH MY GOD!

Sarah - this is exactly what scares the heck out of me with the growth of the book barns. If we don't watch it, we're all going to be stuck trying to read only what some corporate suit wants us to read.

Everybody - especially writers and readers who love books even if Oprah doesn't pick them - need to support Independent Book Stores. Period. If there's not one in your town, go online and find one - start with www.mysterylovers.com. All of these stores are really struggling to survive and they deserve our support.

It's use them or lose them, people!

Now, as for this person who didn't like your baby: maybe she doesn't like shoes. Maybe she's a fat-o-phobe. They're out there, believe me. That's her problem. If people buy books somewhere else, it doesn't have to be yours.

My market-oriented twist on the 'write what you love' thing is to write what you want to read. The theory is that no one's tastes are as unique as they think they are, so if you come up with something you think you would enjoy, there's bound to be a bunch of other people out there who would like it too.

This ends your daily test of the optimistic naivitee system; we now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

Daisy, I think you hit the nail on the head, at least as far as what I believe. If you write what you love--hence, creating a book you'd like to read--you're bound to find a market for it somewhere. Though it might not be immediate. BLUE BLOOD sat on the shelf for a handful of years before there was a market for it; but, when it appeared, I was ready. So another tip: never throw anything away. Markets and trends are forever-changing, and no one on the planet ever knows what's next.

When your nearest independent in an hour away and gas prices keep rising, it's hard to get excited about supporting them.

Of course, I love it everytime I am in their shop.

Of course, I don't tend to support Barnes or Borders that much. I buy from Amazon if not from the independent. (Just as bad I know.)


Mark - I'm sure they'll be happy to ship directly to you - even if they don't happen to carry the book, they can order whatever you desire, and many have free shipping with a minimum purchase price.

I can make brownies.

Well, fwiw, I'm now officially making Mary Alice's store my mystery bookstore, and I'm ordering Sarah's now.

I just have to say a huge thanks to all of you for posting so much information about the writing business here. It's like having a crash Masters course. You've already saved me so much grief and pain just from explaining things. I cannot tell you how much you're appreciated.

Not like Debby's brownies you can't. Oooh, baby.

I know from prior reading here that you are all readers. I am a reader and I love readers. I also happen to be a bookseller and it is our family business.

When one person decides what you will read, that is censorship pure and simple, albeit under cover of market demand. Today more than half the book sales are in Walmart, Costco and Sam's. And the next group are the chains with bricks and those and Amazon online stores.
The indy market share is 16%.

If you want to read what you want to read go to Mysterylovers, Powells, Book Passage or other indy online stores and get special discounts, free shipping and other benefits in addition to the joy of keeping your right to read exercised and healthy. For used books, try abebooks.com for the widest slection and price range.

Thanks to all for the encouraging words and support. Got to get back to writing all my reviews for June and July so that the 16,000 hits per day we get on our website will mean more sales for all.

Mary Alice

Thanks, Toni!
mary alice

Yes, Toni, thanks. And I think I speak for all the Book Tarts when I say we're still learning, too. It's a never ending lesson in an ever-changing business.

Hope you enjoy it!

Fat-O-Phobe? Funny you should say that - I think indies are the fat kids to the svelte big box stores! Maybe Sessalee needs to lighten up!!

A husband was in BIG trouble when he forgot his wedding anniversary "Tomorrow," his wife angrily told him, "there had
better be something in our driveway that goes from zero to 200 in two
seconds flat!"

The next morning, the wife looked outside and saw a small package in the driveway. She brought it inside, opened it and
found a brand new bathroom scale. Funeral services for her husband have been set for Saturday at 2:00 PM.

Thanks Sarah and other tarts for your blog!

I keep reading "Sessalee" and seeing "Sesame"

On the brownies - how about if Sarah brings some of Josh's and Nancy brings some of Debby's, and we have a taste test in Daytona? That's assuming, of course, that both kinds can be safely carried on board U.S. aircraft.

If not, just call me directly and I'll be right over.

What, I need to make some brownies and ship them off? Hmmm, for Sarah and Nancy, I could do that....especially since I just did the spring cleaning so can have fun on Saturday doing a bunch of baking!

Of course, if Sarah would come on tour nearby, I could then hand-deliver. :)

Debby ~ feeling a baking bonanza coming on!

Looks like all of you need to lighten up. If Sessalee had suggested you change your cover and that would have attracted other readers who DO judge a book by it's cover--would you then be screaming that she was a hero? You would have opened yourself up to another market and oh my God--more people buying your baby.
AND--She does her job doing what she loves--and you do yours doing what you love. By your own admittance, she can't be bought-she has values and is professional. You can't fault her for that.
As for buying from small stores--what, do they put every book out for you to peruse? Or do they use some type of censorship? The big store chains will order you anything you want as will the smaller stores. Sounds like some small stores are trying to take advantage of Sessalee bashing and saying 'come to me--I am your friend'.
As for her name--get over it--be an adult--her Dad's name was Sess.
Lastly--brownies are her favorite

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Maybe you should be more concerned about your writing and less concerned about what some corporate slut thinks. Barnes and noble is far from the only bookstore. Besides, real writers don't write to sell, they write to write.

Thanks for reminding a newbie author that everyone worries about sales and that it's really out of our hands. Wouldn't it be great if we could shower independent bookstores like Mystery Lovers Bookshop with so many orders that the giants had to pack it in?

I just came by your article and it get my attention. i thought I'd leave my first comment just to appreciate the hard work you done.

Oh, what do you expect from a woman who spells her name like a dyslexic adolescent? (Yes, I know. This from a woman named after a motorcycle.) Hey! I read the whole book, blue cover to blue cover and it IS a great read. Sarah, you've got the right attitude.

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