The one where I’m off to the RNA’s Conference and I’m in a very different place to last time

I’m off to the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) Conference tomorrow. I attended a couple of virtual ones during the pandemic but the last time I went to one in real life was four years ago when it was held in Leeds and look who I met! 

They say don’t meet your heroes but not in this case as Jill Mansell was just as lovely as her books. I, however, was a gibbering fan-girly wreck and was actually shaking at the photo opp! I couldn’t believe it when I spotted her nearby and was far too nervous to approach her myself, despite a couple of glasses of wine inside me, so I asked the RNA Chair if she could introduce us!

I fell in love with romance books after reading one of Jill’s. I’d never read anything in this genre and a friend loaned me Millie’s Fling on holiday and I loved how fun and romantic it was and how it left me with the warm and fuzzies. I devoured all her books after that and, for the past twelve years or so, have annually purchased her new release on hardback and have a Jill shelf in my office.

I’m really looking forward to the conference this year for several reasons:

  • Being my fourth conference, I know what to expect. It’s actually at the same place as my second one so I’m even familiar with the venue
  • I’ve been an RNA member for a decade and know so many more people now so (hopefully) won’t have that startled rabbit situation. Or hopefully not!
  • I’ve taken a much more relaxed approach to which sessions I’ll attend. In previous years, I’ve chosen something for every time slot which can make for an exhausting experience. This year, I’ve allowed myself some downtime
  • I’ll have a chance to meet several Boldwood authors who I’ve never met in person which will be lovely
  • I’ll get to meet several of the participants from the RNA Learning workshop I ran in March and I’m really excited to hear how their writing has progressed since then
  • I won’t be having any publisher 1:1 appointments (more on this shortly)
  • I feel very differently about my writing

Let me explain those last couple of points…

Four years ago at that 2017 conference, I was in a dark place with my writing. I was a struggling indie selling a handful of books a week and fearing I might have to give up writing as I couldn’t keep investing all the time (alongside a demanding FT day job) with no pay-off. 

A valuable part of the conference programme is the feedback slots available with industry professionals (editors and agents). I managed to secure four of these – all with editors – where I pitched a brand new manuscript called Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye.

My manuscript wasn’t complete which actually resulted in Editor D reprimanding, saying it was very unprofessional of me. Ouch! I understood what she was saying as you would never submit to a publisher when an MS is incomplete but the annual timing of the conference means that this may sometimes be the case and it’s not a requirement of the sessions to have a complete MS. Also, the humiliation to be told off by someone half my age! I felt like I was back at school!

Anyway, despite the telling off, all four editors wanted to see the full MS which gave me a massive dilemma because Editors A and B wanted it to be a light-hearted romcom and Editors C and D wanted a deeper more emotional women’s fiction story. With the MS being unfinished, I faced a decision around what direction to take it in because whichever I chose was going to rule two of them out.

While confusing, this was a very happy dilemma to have, especially for someone feeling so down about their writing. My biggest takeaway was that four editors wanted the full MS. Surely one of them would want to take me on.

They didn’t.

Editor A asked me to submit one of my indie books in the meantime. As she wanted the romcom approach, I sent her a lighter story (what is now Christmas Wishes at the Chocolate Shop) and a more emotional story (what is now All You Need is Love). The rejection was positive but still a rejection: you write well with a lovely style. However, I’m afraid I don’t think any of these are quite right for our list at this time. I would be happy to take a look at a new idea in due course though should you wish to submit to us again.

I decided not to submit to Editor B. She’d been the least enthusiastic, I couldn’t see us working together and she wanted a romcom which, by this point, I knew wasn’t what I wanted to write and, in finishing the story, I’d stuck to my gut feel that I wanted to write more emotional stories.

I was really proud of my finished MS and had high hopes for Editors C and D who’d wanted the emotional story.

From Editor C: …think you have an interesting premise. However, after careful consideration, we don’t feel that Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye is quite right for us. Your writing is great, and there is huge warmth and emotion in your narrative. All of the women’s stories are hugely poignant, but because there were three of them, it felt at times like there wasn’t quite enough space for each story, including the tragic events before the book begins, to be fully explored. The women’s fiction market is so tricky at the moment, and what we tend to be looking for at the moment are in-depth emotional stories with a tight scope, or high-concept stories that can be pitched in a single line. I’m afraid that Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

As rejections go, it was a positive one and I tried to hang onto the lovely comments about my writing which is always hard when it’s ultimately a no. I was encouraged to submit other stories so I sent the original version of All You Need is Love to them too and had another rejection: Again, there is a lovely warmth to your writing and the situations your characters find themselves in are incredibly sympathetic, but I’m afraid that this isn’t one for [us]… As you know, the women’s fiction market is so difficult at the moment, and I don’t think that we could reach a bigger audience for you than you have managed yourself. Again what is missing for me is that specific, focused concept that we could use to hook readers in with a single line. For me there were again quite a lot of characters introduced in the early chapters and I felt this did make it difficult to keep track of them all and to work out whose stories were the main focus of the book.

While I was asked to think of them again for future books, it was clear to me that I didn’t write what they wanted so I couldn’t bring myself to court further rejection and closed that door.

Which just left Editor D. Despite her telling me off, I had a feeling that she was going to be the one. She wasn’t: It was such a pleasure to meet you at the RNA conference in July and I’ve looked forward to reading your submission. I absolutely loved diving back into the world you’ve conjured here and the changes you made to the manuscript have really improved the pace and tension which is great. There was a clear improvement from the MS I read back in July. Sadly though, as the story went on I struggled to empathise with the characters as much as I wanted to. Rather than being invested in their journeys I felt they lacked the necessary depth and layers, I wanted to see more of their emotions and feelings on the page. In such a competitive book market we have to ensure we feel passionate about the book and characters and sadly I just couldn’t find myself getting lost in Alison or Karen’s story as I couldn’t connect with them. In terms of next step I recommend looking at how you can weave more depth into the characters, offering readers different layers to uncover from them all. 

This floored me. The feedback I’d received from readers of other books suggested that getting lost in the characters’ stories was a strength of mine and that I could write emotion well. Obviously this was just one person’s opinion but, in my dark place, this told me that the things I thought were positives weren’t. And it broke me. I wasn’t invited to submit anything else either. Door closed.

By early December 2018, a couple more submissions I’d made of Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye came back as rejections and I felt so lost. The voices of doubt in my mind were having a field day:

  • You can’t write
  • No wonder you’ve barely sold any indie books
  • All those thousands of hours were a right waste of time
  • It’s time to give up and accept it’s never going to happen for you
  • You’re fooling yourself that you have talent

And so it went on. Just when I was feeling at my absolute lowest, Amazon rank-stripped me. An automated email accused me of engaging in dodgy activities to manipulate sales or pages read on my bestselling book (what is now New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms) in the USA. It was absurd. In the timeframe this wrongdoing was alleged to have taken place, I’d sold one eBook in that market and had the equivalent of one eBook read on Kindle Unlimited. If I was going to manipulate sales, surely logic would say I’d have sold more than two books!

Rank-stripping means that the book disappears. It has no ranking so it has no visibility. The only way a reader can find the book is by specifically searching on the title. Ironic, really, that the book at the time was called Searching for Steven and the only way he could be found was by literally searching for him! And not just in the USA where I was accused of naughtiness. This was all markets!

Naturally, I protested and asked for more clarity on what I was meant to have done. Cue an automated response telling me that no more information would be given and accusing me of still engaging in said untoward activity and that if I didn’t stop it, all my books would be removed from the site! What?!

So I protested, which just triggered another auto-response. There were four bot responses in total, each more threatening than the one before.

My Christmas was ruined that year. I was barely selling anything anyway but this pretty much took everything from me and left the fear that I’d be removed from sale completely. I’d been wondering if I needed to give up and it seemed Amazon agreed too and were potentially going to make it happen, whether I wanted it or not.

It took two months for them to reinstate the book. No apology. No explanation. Two weeks later, the exact same thing happened to the same book. Argh!

In January 2019, I saw an advert for a new publisher called Boldwood Books opening for submissions on 1st February and I felt drawn to them. One more try. And if it was a no, it might just be the time to throw in the towel.

Reader, they said yes.

And the book that lacked emotion, lacked depth, had no concept, had too many characters with whom there was no connection became my first release through Boldwood Books in September 2019 under the new title The Secret to Happiness. It has sold more than 70,000 copies across all formats, has been an international Top 10 bestseller and, at the time of writing, has over 3,600 reviews on Amazon alone, 93% of them positive.

For any aspiring authors out there, please do take some learnings from my experiences:

  • Keep believing in yourself and keep going. While I felt like giving up on so many occasions, I knew I never could. If, like me, stories burn inside you, then keep writing them
  • You need a lot of patience. Getting traditionally published is about landing the right MS on the right person’s desk at the right time. That’s a lot of stars to align and it doesn’t happen that often … but it can. Hang on in there. If you’re going down the indie route, you still need patience as there’s a lot you need to learn and do to get your book visible and it will take time
  • Reading is subjective and what one editor passes on, another may love. What is one reader’s scathing 1-star review is another’s favourite book

And on that note, I’ll share with you a 1-star review I’ve just spotted for The Secret to Happiness. An Amazon user in March this year declared that it was “written for children… predictable and long and drawn out. Utterly disappointed” The same reviewer gave a 5-star review to a pair of flat shoelaces! 

And my latest for the same book is oozing with meanness: “Oh dear… Drivel. Embarrassingly bad dialogue. Tedious plot and poorly constructed characters. I had the unfortunate experience of the audiobook which added a further eye-rolling level of dreariness”.Honestly, is there any need to be so nasty? So the book wasn’t for her but this audiobook is actually free on Audible Plus so I can pretty much guarantee she has listened to it because it was free so it’s not like she’s even spent any money on it. A 5-star review from her has gone to some fabric dye. Classic.

But that’s fine because that’s their opinion and a huge number of readers disagree. So do my publishers. And so do I!

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and, even though I was devastated at the rejections from Editors C and D, I’m so grateful that it was a no from them because I couldn’t imagine being in a happier place than Boldwood Books. It’s my home.

I’m off to do my packing for the conference now. Hubby has been to fill the car with fuel and has returned with some emergency biscuits. I need to get them off my desk and into my suitcase as the temptation to break into them is already strong!

I’ll report back next week on how it went.

Big hugs
Jessica xx

16 thoughts on “The one where I’m off to the RNA’s Conference and I’m in a very different place to last time

  1. Thank you for writing this.

    “You can’t write
    No wonder you’ve barely sold any indie books
    All those thousands of hours were a right waste of time
    It’s time to give up and accept it’s never going to happen for you
    You’re fooling yourself that you have talent”

    This is exactly where I am, Jessica, and even having done your fabulous course in March, I still feel I’m at the point where it’s not going to happen for me and I may as well give up. But like you, the stories keep coming into my head and I have a compulsion to write them down.

    I’ll keep in my mind your advice to keep believing! Thank you again for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cass, lovely to hear from you and I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way but glad this post has given you some comfort and reassurance. The funny thing about being a writer is it requires so much resilience yet those who write romances are usually sensitive souls and struggle so much with the rejection that comes with it. It is such a difficult industry to be in where you can’t help looking at the other writers around you and, while celebrating their success and being delighted for them, questioning why it can’t happen for you too. As I said on the course, I was (and still am) part of a writing collective of 10 and 6 of us were writing the same types of books. I was the only one massively struggling and I was thrilled for my friends but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working for me. And then I found Boldwood who completely changed my life. You can do this. I believe in you xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing, it’s so helpful to others beyond aspiring authors, a lot of your anxiety and self doubt you shared a lot of us share too, it’s so lovely and reassuring to read someone confirming it’s normal and to believe in yourself, you’ve really helped me today , just need to keep reminding myself 😊 thank you x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond. It absolutely is normal to feel this way. I don’t know many authors who aren’t riddled with anxiety and self doubt but I can’t help wondering if that helps make a great writer as we can take those feelings and put them into our characters. I’m so glad this post has helped you. I share quite a lot of celebratory posts but I also try to keep it real and honest and post about the challenges I had in my journey to hopefully give others the reassurance that it can and does happen and I’m living proof of going from invisible to bestseller. Keep going, keep believing. You’ve got this x

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely love it when a successful person tells their unsuccessful backstory. It’s so inspirational and reminds everyone that life is an uphill journey for most. It’s easy to get lost in the cheery posts, thinking they’re so lucky, but in real life there is always a process. I got fed up pitching to agents, so went indie. I still can’t believe how well my Pepper Bay series is doing, and I sometimes wonder if a publisher would be interested in me now. I haven’t asked any of them, except one about foreign rights, but they didn’t reply. The whole process of putting your books out there is stressful. You really do have to grow a thick skin, and that’s for rejection and bad reviews. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad you didn’t give up. We all must keep pushing forward so that we can see what’s around the next corner. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Your Pepper Bay series looks amazing and it’s certainly possible a publisher would be interested in your backlist and future books. Definitely worth exploring. You’re so right about needing a thick skin and I don’t really have one and don’t think that many authors do so it’s tough. I do post celebratory posts and it’s as much for me as anything because I didn’t have anything to celebrate for so long that I think it’s important to acknowledge goals when they’re reached. But I also do love to share the truth about the journey and the ups and downs. Keep going and building that readership and, if you feel it’s time for you to look into a publisher, definitely do so. It may happen quickly or it may take ages but keep writing those stories x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Jessica. Thank you for writing this post. I’ve only read one of your series but am going to move on to the next one soon. It’s interesting to hear how successful authors got to the point where they are bestsellers. Thank you for sharing your story. I think we all suffer from imposter syndrome to one degree or another. When you sell a book you’re giving a piece of yourself away. But the joy that a good read, eagerly looked forward to, can bring to people, is priceless. I can’t understand those editors saying the women’s fiction market is tricky at the moment. Hasn’t it always been? Imagine being Jane Austen or the Bronte’s. I don’t think they found it easy. There is competition but a wider choice of how to publish. I’m glad you found Boldwood Books, I am still an Indie. Who knows what the future holds? But one thing I know, there will always be readers wanting good books like yours. Thank you for entertaining us all so beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jax, great to hear from you and thank you so much for your lovely comments about my writing. You’re so right that a book is a little piece of your heart and soul that you’re giving away and it hurts when someone doesn’t want it or doesn’t like it. I agree that the fiction market has always been tricky. I’m inclined to think it’s one of those “we don’t want your book but we’re struggling to say why so we’ll blame it on the market” throwaway sentences that gets used. I love that there are so many options available to authors these days with different types of publishers and the indie route but there are so many more authors out there too so it can be difficult to be seen. Volume is a big thing along with perseverance so do keep going and, as you say, you never know what the future holds. You may decide to try the published route or you may find one or all of your indie books soar. Good luck to you and thank you again for your kind words x

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello 🙂
    I’ll be getting to the Conference tomorrow evening and it’ll be my first one. I’m basically where you were in 2017 having exhausted myself self-publishing 3 books. It’s great to hear that your perseverance paid off! A hopeful story for all of us who feel like we’re hacking away at a granite cliff face using a plastic spoon 🙂 Hopefully see you this weekend x

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Have a wonderful time at the conference, Jessica. I’m sure this post and your encouragement will be helpful to many. I love your books, so I disagree with those reviews, but like you said, we are all entitled to our opinions. I also enjoy Claire’s books so give her that encouragement, so she will keep going.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks very much, Carla. Looking at some of the comments, it definitely has helped which is always my aim of writing this type of post. I like to share the successes – especially when I had five years of struggling – but I like to also share the struggle part to give encouragement to others. Hopefully Claire will see your comment but I’ll flag it to her too and pass it on when I see her. Have a great weekend

      Liked by 1 person

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