Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.35: Breaking In, With Charlie N. Holmberg

Charlie N. Holmberg, who was recently signed by Amazon’s 47 North imprint, joined us in front of a live audience it Sasquan (the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention) to talk about breaking in to the industry. Brandon and Dan broke in a decade ago, and Howard never actually bothered breaking in.

This episode is brought to you by David Farland’s writing workshops at, whose URL completely escaped Howard during the episode. Here are two coupon codes:

  • August50 gets $50 off any course regularly priced $399
  • August100 gets $100 off any course regularly priced $749

Homework: Go find a friend, and without comparing notes, writing down the names of three books or movies that you love. Randomly pick one of each, and then “your pick meets your friend’s pick” is your prompt.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What has changed in the last 15 years? Length is more flexible. Self-publishing is more viable now. Not as much physical book sales, much more ebook sales. Advice to writers who want to break in? Get an agent. Writing hasn’t changed — finish your book, edit it, get beta readers, and then have confidence in it. Have your pitch ready, and submit to everybody. Keep going!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Breaking In, with Charlie N. Holmberg.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Charlie] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] Oh. Well done, Charlie. I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] And this is Charlie. Charlie… The woman Charlie.
[Charlie] Yes.
[Brandon] Charlie is one of my former students. She took my class twice. I thought it was three times. She insists it’s only twice.
[Charlie] I insist.
[Brandon] Maybe you’re just so memorable that I thought you’ve always been there.
[Brandon] Charlie broke into publishing one year ago. Publishing her first book, The Paper Magician, which I have read and it is excellent.
[Charlie] Thank you.
[Brandon] She published with 47 North, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is actually Amazon’s publishing division. Not self-publishing, but their actual publishing imprint. They stole my publicist from Tor. I’m really still kind of bitter about that.
[Charlie] He already left [inaudible]

[Brandon] He already left. Well, okay. All right. So we’ve got a lot of interesting things to talk about with Charlie. Specifically, I wanted to talk to her about breaking in in today’s market. Because Dan and I broke in a decade ago. Howard’s never had to break-in. Mary’s been publishing about the same amount of time that Dan and I have. So this market is changing so quickly, I wanted to have someone on who just sold. So I want to ask you, Charlie, what was your publishing story? Did you get an agent? Did you go on sub? How did all this happen for you?
[Charlie] Okay. So the way I did it was really the traditional route, and it was all through cold querying. I had never met my agent before. I had queried her once with a book that she rejected, that she’s now representing.
[Charlie] But I just sent out query letters to her. There wasn’t anything fancy in there. She asked for the full. I gave it to her. We talked on the phone and she signed me on. We went on subs to I think four or five publishers. 47 North was one of them.

[Dan] Before you move on too far from the agent, I want to ask how you queried her? Was it… How you chose her?
[Charlie] Oh. So, I just googled her. I knew that she was an agent who had… Who represented fantasy and she was an agent who had been in the industry for a while, because I know a lot of new agents tend to quit. Because they don’t know if that’s what they want to do or not. So she was probably in the top 20 on my list.
[Brandon] You queried a bunch of agents and she was one that got back to you?
[Charlie] Yeah.
[Brandon] Okay. So it really works. It still works.
[Charlie] It does work.
[Brandon] You can still do… I mean, because that’s basically how I broke in, with the one step of having met these people before at conventions. They didn’t know me from Adam, but I had at least met them.
[Howard] Well, Charlie’s manuscript was good enough that the agents didn’t need to have met her.
[Brandon] Yeah, Charlie’s manuscript was better.
[Dan] That’s the big difference.
[Brandon] No… I mean, it still works. That’s very nice to hear.
[Charlie] I only had to write nine books before being published, instead of 13.
[Brandon] Oh, well.

[Dan] Charlie, you’re my favorite guest so far.
[Brandon] The class was all like this. No, seriously, I would say something and most of my students are kind of intimidated. But then Charlie would be like, “Well, that sounds stupid…”
[Brandon] Or, “Oh, that’s really good.” She said good things too, but Charlie never held back and that was very refreshing.
[Charlie] Well, thank you. You say that now. I think in class you were like, “Oh, no.”

[Brandon] Well, she hounded me to read her book after it got published. She’s like, “You haven’t read my book yet? Oh, you’ll read this other person’s book.” She showed up for like seven of my signings, like “When are you going to read my book, Professor?” Then I did, and it was really good.
[Charlie] It only took a year.
[Brandon] It was more like seven months. I’ve had it finished for a while now.
[Charlie] Oh, good.

[Dan] Anyway, I cut you off. You were talking about your agent taking it…
[Brandon] [inaudible — agent shopping?]
[Dan] To editors.
[Charlie] Mine went really fast, actually. We went on sub to about five different publishers. One was 47 North. I think in about three weeks, they offered on it. We had one other publisher offer on it, but they wanted it to be longer. It’s a very short book. It’s about 1/8 of a Sanderson.
[Charlie] They made a really good offer and we took it. I’m really glad we did, because I don’t think I could have debuted with a better publisher.

[Brandon] Okay. So let’s talk about 47 North. It has something of a… I won’t say bad, it’s got an interesting reputation.
[Charlie] Yeah.
[Brandon] Because it is Amazon that’s doing it. What it means is most bookstores who have this kind of Amazon is destroying our business view won’t carry the 47 North books.
[Charlie] Yeah. Yes, that’s true.
[Brandon] So how… Like how has that been? Have you found it in any bookstores?
[Charlie] I have. Fortunately, it’s been popular enough that I have found it in several Barnes & Noble’s. If you want your book to get in Barnes & Noble, have a lot of your friends go in and say, “Hey, I’m looking for this title.” They won’t find it, but they’ll write it down. But, yeah, there’s no bookstores that carry us except for a few independent ones. Like none of the big chains would carry an A-pub book until a lot of people start asking for it, then they will. There’s a Hastings in Wyoming that has it.

[Brandon] Oh, good. Hastings. Famous for not letting me sign there.
[Charlie] Oh, really?
[Brandon] Yes. They wouldn’t even let me sign my books on the shelves. The only time that someone said, “No, you can’t sign those.”
[Charlie] Is at Hastings?
[Brandon] Yeah, I was at a Hastings.
[Charlie] No one thought that…
[Brandon] No, no.
[Howard] It was just one random manager.
[Dan] They let me sign there.
[Brandon] Yes, they let Dan. They knew I was…
[Howard] I get to sign Brandon’s books in Hastings.

[Brandon] So what this all means, Charlie, is that you are… You sell mostly in e-books?
[Charlie] I do. I think about 90% of my sales are e-books.
[Brandon] Which is really striking. Does that change the business for you or things like this? You said you love being at 47 North.
[Charlie] I do.
[Brandon] Talk about that and talk about publishing mostly e-books.
[Charlie] One of the great things about being with A-pub is that Amazon is one of the big hitters in today. So their marketing reach is crazy. Everybody shops on Amazon, so everyone gets to see my book plastered on their front page. But Amazon also has something called Kindle First. So a month before my book came out, anybody who had an Amazon Prime account could get my book for free. I had over 100,000 downloads in one month for my debut novel because it was being offered for free. I got a lot of people who heard my name because of that, and that alone was a crazy amount of marketing for a debut novelist.
[Brandon] Yeah, if you count e-books, I would say that Amazon is selling… I mean, it certainly the biggest retailer. But it’s the biggest retailer by a lot. I’m two thirds-y e-book right now. All of my books published, two thirds of them are e-books, and Amazon is 80% of those. Okay? Then Amazon is a significant chunk of the print editions as well. Maybe as high as 30 or 40% of my print editions. So overall, Amazon is 50% or more of my business, not publishing with Amazon.

[Howard] Charlie, I’ve got a question for you. How did your agent feel about the 49 North contract? Your agents been in the industry for a while. Was the 49 North contract different from other contracts she’d seen? Were there things that needed to be cut?
[Charlie] No, it was actually really standard. The only thing that she argued for was a higher e-book royalty, which at the time I didn’t understand that that was important or not, but I’m glad she did. So they said, “Oh, we’ll either give you a bigger advance or a bigger e-book royalty.” She went for the bigger e-book royalty.
[Charlie] Which has really paid off. Ha, ha, ha.
[Brandon] That was a sleeper.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s pause for our advertisement. We’re actually sponsored this month… Or this week by David Farland’s workshops. Howard, you want to give us the pitch on those?
[Howard] Well, I haven’t actually done Dave’s workshops or Dave’s class, but both Brandon and Dan have studied under Dave. He’s a magnificent writing teacher and he’s got these online courses at… I’ve now forgotten the URL. I know what the deal is. The special is the August50 code gets $50 off any course regularly priced at 400, and the August100 code drops 100 bucks off of an $800 course. And I don’t know the URL to go get the courses.
[Dan] But it will be on…
[Howard] But it will be on the liner notes. It will be in the liner notes.
[Dan] Okay. It’ll be on our website.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, again, we’ve promoed Dave several times on the podcast. Dan and I both took his class. It was fundamental in us getting published. He is an excellent teacher. He really knows his stuff. So we give him our hearty endorsement. A lot of people come to us and say, “Hey, can we get something more in depth from you? Can we get a workshop, or can I take a course with you,” and things like that. We just aren’t at points in our career where we can do that. We have so much touring that we need to do. A lot of times as an author gets older, they get really tired of touring. I’m getting there. They transition into doing staying home and still selling lots of books, but they don’t need to be out on the road as much. That’s why Dave has this room in his schedule for doing this, where a lot of us don’t. Plus he just… He knows more than we do. So Dave’s writing workshops. We’ll read you that URL.

[Brandon] All right, Charlie. Before we started this podcast, I asked you a hard question. I don’t know if you’ve come up with anything yet. If you haven’t, it’s okay. But I asked you what advice did you get when you were break… Trying to break in that isn’t good advice anymore, because the industry has changed so much? I know a lot of us writers, us pros say, “Well, this is what you need to do.” But that’s advice from 15 years ago. Is there anything specific you can think of that doesn’t apply anymore?
[Charlie] Well, 15 years ago, I couldn’t even drive, so…
[Charlie] But, no, I…
[Howard] 15 years from now, I won’t be able to drive.
[Charlie] But I wouldn’t say there’s advice that is not good, but there were a few things I jotted down that are different than they were maybe when I took your class. The first one is length, I think, of a book. It’s a lot more bendable now. A lot of people are doing more series too… Like… Serial!
[Brandon] Serial models.

[Charlie] But my book, Paper Magician, is… My publisher says it’s adult, but it’s not. It’s YA.
[Brandon] They say it’s adult?
[Charlie] They say it’s adult with appeal to teens.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Charlie] It’s a new adult, but most people don’t believe that category exists. But it’s a fantasy novel, it is 56,000 words long. That is short. That’s like YA contemporary. But 47 North was willing to publish that. So there are, especially if you go e-book, if you go digital, it’s a lot easier to sell a shorter book. Also, self-publishing is… It’s more viable now than I would say it was 10 years ago. I think Dean Wesley Smith is a huge proponent of that. It’s a lot easier to get recognized and a lot easier to get marketed now as a self publishing. I still prefer the traditional route myself, but going that route is not as hitting a brick wall as it used to be.
[Brandon] Okay. That length, 56,000 words?
[Charlie] It’s an eighth of a Sanderson.
[Brandon] Yeah, I know. That’s… Yeah. I listen to it on audible, The Paper Magician.
[Charlie] Six hours.
[Brandon] Yes. It’s why I kind of feel so guilty for having [garbled — put it off so long?] Because it is, and it is a great audiobook as well. It is read very well. So if you have a subscription, picking up one of Charlie’s books is a strong recommendation from me. But that is just crazy, that length. Now have they sent you on any book tours?

[Charlie] No. That’s another thing with, at least, Amazon publishing. They don’t do a lot of physical book sales. Like at cons. There’s not a table here for 47 North even though they’re here at this convention. Which, by the way, if you want to meet the 47 North authors, tomorrow, Saturday evening at the Grand Hotel…
[Brandon] Hint, hint.
[Charlie] But…
[Dan] But, see, I don’t know if that’s something that’s specific to 47 North because when I was a debut author, I didn’t really get a tour. Tor was willing to set stuff up with bookstores, provided that I was willing to foot the entire bill for it. My brother, when he came out a couple of years ago from HarperCollins, pretty much the same thing. It’s really hard to get any kind of a tour when you’re starting off. So that’s apparently still the same.
[Charlie] I think even when you’re gung ho, I don’t think they’ll give you a book tour.

[Brandon] Charlie’s selling really well. By my projections, it’s somewhere between 10,000 and 10 billion books.
[Brandon] But no, I mean Charlie is doing really well.
[Dan] Probably a good guess.
[Brandon] So, yeah, a book tour’s just not as big a deal. Did they do any publicity or promotion that you thought was interesting?
[Charlie] That I thought was interesting? Well, one time I looked up a word on and I saw an ad for my book there.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Charlie] That’s all… It is kind of all digital. So why would they send me on a tour when they can just put the picture of my book on your Kindle screensaver?

[Brandon] There is that. There is that. All right. So you just broke in. Advice to writers who are trying to break in right now?
[Charlie] Oh, gosh. Trying to break in right now?
[Brandon] Yeah. They want to break in right now. They like what you’re saying about 47 North, they’d like to go there. What warnings or advice can you give them?
[Charlie] Warnings or advice? Okay. As I said earlier, I really am still very much a proponent of traditional publishing. If you can get an agent, I really would do it. If not that, then be willing to fork out the money for a lawyer, just in case. I’m not saying that 47 North is bad. I’m just saying that when you hit publishing, you want to cover your bases. But really, just… It’s really just… Maybe publishing has changed, but writing really hasn’t. Finish your book, edit your book, have some other people look at your book, and then have confidence in it. Have that pitch ready. Go out and submit to everybody. Don’t get put down by rejection. I got a ton of rejection letters, and I made a quilt out of them. It keeps me warm at night.
[Charlie] But don’t let it get you down, because it can happen. Like I said, like we both wrote a ton of books before we broke in. Just keep going. Don’t give up, but don’t get lazy.
[Brandon] All right. That sounds like really great advice.

[Howard] Can I redeem myself?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Brandon] There we are. is… Yeah.

[Brandon] So, Charlie, I’m going to put you on the spot again.
[Charlie] Okay.
[Brandon] Well, see, you did this to me every week for two years. I want a writing prompt out of you.
[Charlie] Oh, good.
[Brandon] I want a writing prompt that you can suggest that they can take and they can write their book that is going to sell them between 10,000 and 10 billion copies, like yours.
[Charlie] Okay. So, here’s a writing prompt. This is something I was thinking of doing with a friend of mine. So go find a friend, and I want you guys to, without talking to each other, write down the titles of two or three books or movies that you really love. Put them into a hat and shake them up and pick out two. Your book is title meets title. Write that story.
[Brandon] All right. Excellent. Thank you, Charlie. Thank you for being a good sport. Thank you WorldCon audience.
[Yells and screams]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.