Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sugar & Spice - The Story Behind The Story

It’s just over a year now since the Saffina Desforges Partnership began. And what a year!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so improbable that if we used it as the plot for a novel it would be rejected as unbelievable.

An unknown name (actually two writers collaborating via email from different continents, that met for only the third time just this month) with a novel some of the UK’s top agents branded as “unsellable” and “the last taboo” (not to mention, at 120,000 words, too long).

This was the summer of 2010. Of course we’d heard of Konrath and Hocking and the way things were going across the pond in the States, but in the UK the Kindle-UK site had only just been launched, and seeing as no-one actually owned a Kindle in the UK it all seemed pretty pointless.

Besides, we’d been brought up on the dogma that self-publishing was vanity publishing. So we pitched to agents and followed the rules and guidelines, jumping through ridiculous hoops just to get the opening chapters read. Then jumping through more hoops on those few occasions where we got to the next stage.

And when the rejections started coming back we faced the big question all new novelists have to confront: How can professional agents be wrong? They’re the “experts” in this business, after all.

Sure, you can ignore the “thanks, but no thanks” slips. No writer can learn anything from a form rejection.

But if the top agents say it’s too long, it must be too long. If they there’s too many POVs, there must be too many POVs. If they say the storyline is “unsellable,” then at what stage does a writer face the truth? Maybe we are just deluded wannabes, and in reality can’t string a sentence together for toffee.

But I’d been a creative writing tutor for more years than I care to admit. I’d written for TV, radio and theater, and freelanced as a journalist and travel write. Whatever the requisite number of words is to have under your belt before you can supposedly write a good novel, I had long surpassed that number.

That said, writing a novel is a whole different ball game from writing for theater, or running off a short article about an exotic island in the sun. And I had taken what I believed were the best aspects of theater (dialogue driven) and TV (visual imagery without long descriptive prose; switching between short scenes rather than lengthy chapters; fast paced action interspersed with short breaks of relaxed writing).

On top of this we has Saffi herself, bringing to bear her own unique style. A raw, edgy writer still new enough at the game not to be over-burdened with pointless rules created by the gatekeepers.

The thing is, we knew Sugar & Spice was not the same as the other crime-thrillers out there. But as readers we wanted to read something different from the plodding police procedurals and stereotype serial killer novels that turned up time and time again in the book-stores. So we threw away the rule book and wrote something different.

What we hadn’t realized then was that the gatekeepers don’t want different. They want safe. What could be less safe than a novel exploring the innermost workings of the pedophile mind? It became clear the gatekeepers did not want it. And if the gatekeepers don’t want it, the readers don’t get the option. Therefore it doesn’t sell, proving the gatekeepers were right.

As 2010 drew to a close we watched, more curious than envious, as fellow Brit indie writers tested the Kindle waters. Not least Lexi Revellian, whose feel-good thriller Remix had already sold 10,000 by the time we joined the e-show. Remix was the first e-book I bought, and I was totally impressed by the professionalism that shone through. I’d been led to believe (as had we all) that e-books were just self-published rubbish (the “tsunami of crap” as Konrath so elegantly puts it), so Lexi’s book was a revelation.

Of course it was a totally different story from the dark and sinister insights into the mind of a child-killer that defines Sugar & Spice. The agents’ words about our novel being “the last taboo” and “unsellable” kept coming back to haunt us.

But in November 2010 we finally slipped in into the murky waters of the Kindle ocean, where it pretty much sank without trace. We were determined not to give it any artificial boost by getting friends and relatives to buy it and review it, so we told no-one it was there. And for three months we sold nothing apart from the two copies we bought ourselves to see how it looked.

Meanwhile Saffi and I beavered away at other scripts. But half-heartedly. Were we wasting our time? We were still querying agents while Sugar & Spice was on Kindle, but the rejections were still coming back. We had no idea what to work on next. Should we stick with crime thrillers, given Sugar & Spice was so unwanted? Was it the subject matter that was the problem? Or our writing style? Or our non-existent marketing? We had no idea.

Marketing was one option we could toy with, so we started new blogs and began some promotional efforts. Our promotion story, a fairy-tale on itself, can be found over on Kristen Lamb’s blog.

Somewhere along the line we started actually selling. Not many. Units became tens. Tens became the first hundred. Had a hundred people really bought our unsellable book? Were we about to get a hundred negative reviews saying they’d been robbed? Were the gatekeepers right?

At this same time another British agent came back positive saying they loved the sample. We sent the full script and a month later they came back saying their reader loved the full book. Would we give them exclusive consideration? We explained we had the e-book on Kindle and had actually sold a few, but they were welcome to exclusively consider the book. Why not? We were hardly expecting a big New York agent to come calling instead. We were fiction novelists, not total fantasists.

It took three months from first contact with that agent to them coming back with their decision. On reflection, despite the glowing review from their own reader, they didn’t think it was commercially viable. That's agent-talk for unsellable.

Well thanks, guys. Funny how your own reader thought otherwise. That was three months on exclusive, raising our hopes, stopping us querying other agents, wasted.

Were we disappointed? Well no, actually.

Because in the three months that agent played their agents’ games we had actually been selling. The unsellable story that had just, yet again, been rejected as commercially unviable, was now at #2 in the Kindle UK chart. The second best-selling e-book in the UK!

In the time that professional agent had our book under exclusive consideration, only to say it was unsellable, we had sold fifty thousand e-books. We hadn’t the heart to tell her.

And the next thing we knew we had one of the biggest agents in New York on the phone wanting to represent us.

Bizarrely, three months, on we still haven’t signed with that NY agent or any other. One thing we’ve learned is that there are good agents, bad agents and indifferent agents. And that the worst thing any writer could do would be to sign up with the first agency that comes along, just because they are “an agent.”

The publishing world of 2009-10 is a different planet from the publishing world of 2011, and a writer, if they still need an agent at all, needs one who is living on Planet Publishing 2011-12, not Planet Last Year.

Which brings us to where we are now.

The big “New York agent” (we can’t name names at this stage, but they are BIG!) who came knocking for Sugar & Spice bizarrely decided it was "too long", despite a then proven track record of 50,000 sales. They decided they liked our next book, then unfinished, but told us we should not e-publish. Let them have it exclusively for three months.

Yeah, right. Once bitten…

One of the true joys of being indie is sending rejection letters to agents.

That’s not to say we’re anti-agent – in fact we’re still talking to several. We’re under no illusions that a good agent, who understands the new publishing world, can help reach markets currently beyond us. But we engage with agents now on equal terms, not as starry-eyed wannabes signing on the dotted line.

Our debut novel, the unsellable story by the unknown writing duo that tackled the last taboo in crime fiction, has now sold close to 100,000 copies without an agent or publisher in sight. It’s hit #2 in the Kindle-UK chart on three separate occasions, with over 100 five-star reviews, and has just broken into the top twenty on the Waterstone’s e-chart (Waterstone’s is the UK’s equivalent of B&N).

As fiction writers we necessarily spend half our lives living in fantasy worlds. But when it comes to real life, you just couldn’t make it up.

This past week we launched the first of our new crime thriller series, Rose Red Book 1: Snow White. This time we e-publish first and go direct to the only gatekeepers that matter: our readers.

+ + + + +

Sugar & Spice is available on and

Sugar & Spice US Edition (American English spellings. US locations. Same great story!) is available on and

Rose Red Book 1: Snow White is available from and


Tonya Kappes said...

I absolutely LOVE this story!! I've been hearing it more and more. I too had over 600 rejections in the past three years. Some were form, and others were very detailed. The detailed ones I appreciated so much because I listened and learned. With my current novel, SPLITSVILLE.COM, I got the same response, "I love your voice, the concept is high, but I don't what genre we could put it in." One even went as far as asking me to let her know when it's picked up because she's going to toast! WHAT A JOKE!!! So...I self published three months ago! Not only have I made Amazon's movers and shakers list TWICE, I've made Hot New Releases, garnered foreign rights requests, AND sold over 4,ooo books so far!
I'm reading Red Rose now and loving it! I wish you sooo much luck!

author Scott Nicholson said...

Great story, Tonya, these are fun times!

Swands said...

I'm going to pick this up now! Did you co-write this with Saffi?