Before Intisar Khanani self-published her YA fantasy Thorn in 2012, she’d queried literary agents, but was eager to get her book into readers hands. Five years, four BookBub Featured Deals, and 1,400+ reader reviews later, Intisar not only has a literary agent, but also a two-book deal with HarperTeen for Thorn and its companion novel, A Theft of Sunlight.
According to the announcement on Publishers Weekly, literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen at Stonesong spotted Thorn in BookBub’s daily email. “I was intrigued by the book’s cover,” she shared with PW, “and when I started reading the story I was immediately captivated by Intisar’s luminous writing.”
After signing Intisar as a client, Emmanuelle introduced the author’s stories to HarperTeen editor Emilia Rhodes, who fell in love with Intisar’s beautiful world-building and strong-willed protagonist. They quickly negotiated a two-book deal, and Thorn is now slated to be re-published by HarperTeen in winter 2019.
At BookBub, we were thrilled to see one of our partner’s publishing dreams come true! While many of our independent author partners want to remain self-published, we know some aspire to eventually have their books traditionally published. So we asked Intisar, Emmanuelle, and Emilia to give us some insight into how Intisar was able to accomplish this goal. Read our Q&As with each below to learn about Intisar’s experience growing her book’s impressive platform, and read advice from Emmanuelle and Emilia for other self-published authors.
1. When you first launched your novel Thorn in 2012, why did you decide to self-publish?
When I decided to kick off my writing career back in 2012, Thorn was by far my most polished manuscript, having been through about a dozen drafts. At the time, I had a two-year-old and was pregnant with my second child. I wanted to stay home with the kids while they were young, but I also knew that I needed an outlet just for myself. I had been searching fruitlessly for an agent for two years when my husband began sending me articles about self-publishing successes such as Amanda Hocking. These stories convinced me that the indie publishing landscape was not the vanity publishing of yore. My greatest priority was in reaching readers and sharing my stories, and indie publishing offered me that, while granting me the flexibility to write and publish on my own timeline — something not to be sniffed at when you have young children! I am so grateful I took the plunge.
2. You ran your first BookBub Featured Deal for Thorn in September 2014. How had you garnered reviews for this book prior to this promotion?
I focused most of my efforts on reaching out to bloggers, using review-focused blog tours and politely asking bloggers (via the tour organizer, if applicable) to cross-post to retailers. This had a two-fold benefit in both creating buzz and gaining retailer reviews. I also solicited reader reviews at the end of my book; readers are awesome people and like to support the authors of books they’ve enjoyed, so this resulted in a good number of reviews as well.
I’ve since a developed a more robust approach to garnering reviews, which I discuss in this SFWA blog post. In addition to soliciting reader reviews, I recommend setting up a mailing list just for early reviewers (for your new releases), creating a launch team, and using a review service — whether a review-only blog tour or a co-op to place your book on NetGalley.
3. Four Featured Deals later, literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen noticed Thorn in her BookBub Daily Deals email! Can you talk about how Emmanuelle reached out to you, and how you got your book deal?
It was all a bit surreal (and awesome). Emmanuelle sent me a note via my author Facebook page mentioning she’d picked up Thorn via BookBub, and how much she’d enjoyed it. We had a series of conversations over about a month before I signed with her, looking both at my writing career, the books I have out, and those I have planned. We also talked a lot about the current political context, and the need both for diverse voices in the mainstream, and stories that create complexity and develop empathy, which is a lot of what I write.
Some time after I signed with her, Emmanuelle had lunch with a senior editor over at HarperTeen, Emilia Rhodes. They were meeting about other books, but as they were catching up, Emmanuelle mentioned how thrilled she was to have signed me, and that she was looking forward to bringing whatever I ended up deciding on to editors. Emilia went out and purchased Thorn of her own accord after their meeting, read it, and called up Emmanuelle. The rest, as they say, is history.
4. Emmanuelle has said that Thorn’s cover design is what initially caught her attention. What was your process for designing the cover?
I had the good fortune to work with Jenny of Seedlings Design Studio on Thorn’s cover. Jenny has a fantastic, cooperative method for developing book covers using inspiration boards. Jenny and I chatted at first around what I was looking for — a fairy-tale feel that, through design elements, might also evoke a sense of the non-European setting. Jenny created the inspiration boards, including design elements and color palettes, but the title-based cover concepts we were coming up with weren’t quite working for either of us. Then Jenny sent me a sketch she did of a girl in a cloak, with a band of arches and domed buildings below her. That decided it. Jenny created the illustrations herself, we worked through a few more variations of the colors, and the cover was born.
5. Why did you choose to accept a traditional publishing deal for Thorn?
I first drafted Thorn when I was a senior in university, writing it over the course of the school year that spanned 9/11 and its initial aftermath. As I revised the story over the ensuing years, much of what I struggled with in looking at the world crept in. While the story is at its heart about the power of a woman to choose her own path when many of her decisions have already been made for her, it’s also a story that explores issues of justice, mercy, and compassion. Those issues are no less relevant today than they were when I first started writing. Bringing Thorn to the mainstream shares what I hope is both a powerful and an empowering story with a wider audience.
6. How do you plan to use BookBub in the future?
I certainly hope to work with HarperTeen to give Thorn a BookBub feature or two, and of course will be back with my indie titles. I also love the option BookBub provides for readers to follow authors — it’s a fantastic way for readers who don’t want regular newsletters to still find out about sales and new releases from their favorite authors. I regularly share that option both on my newsletter and by social media. And, as I continue to grow my backlist, I’ll also be experimenting with BookBub Ads campaigns.
1. How did you discover Thorn?
One day I was going through my daily BookBub email newsletter and noticed Thorn’s beautiful cover. I started reading and loved the book, then quickly went on to read all of Intisar’s other works. Sunbolt captivated me as well, and from there I quickly made an offer of representation.
2. Has the growth of self-publishing changed how you find authors to represent? If so, how?
Definitely. I’m so proud of my indie-traditional hybrid authors: Intisar Khanani, Alissa Johnson, Jackson MacKenzie, Jamie Pope, and Milly Taiden. All have worked with BookBub as well to reach new readers.
All this said, for fiction, I still rely primarily on queries sent to me by writers who are pitching their works for traditional publishing.
3. When pitching a book that’s originally been self-published to editors, what most helps you convince them to acquire the project?
Writing and story are the most important. Beyond that, publishers like to see good customer reviews, strong ebook sales figures (to indicate an untapped print market), and a marketing platform made up of some or all of the following: strong social media numbers, an engaging website, a newsletter subscription base, blurbs and endorsements from influential authors, and/or media coverage.
4. Do you have any advice for self-published authors who want to find representation?
Be careful what you put out into the world. Make certain it is your best material. If you’re going to self-publish, do your research and do it professionally (high-quality cover, editorially-pristine copy). Invest time into building your audience. Respect your readers, especially your “street team” — the readers who are most loyal and supportive, who always write reviews for your new work. Notice how successful indie authors interact with their readers. Play with pricing, but avoid giving away your content for free or very cheap, except for during temporary promotions. And then, query agents. 🙂
1. Do you often acquire authors who have previously self-published other books?
I don’t often acquire authors who have previously self-published other books, but I’m always open to it!
2. Do you often acquire books that have previously been self-published? If so, how do you discover them?
I don’t specifically seek out books that have been previously self-published, but I have acquired other self-published works beyond Thorn, including the Queen of Hearts series by Colleen Oakes. I look for the strongest stories and I believe those can come from anywhere! In the instances of Thorn and Queen of Hearts, agents I have worked with before recommended them. And as with any book recommendation from people whose taste I know and trust, I added these books to my to-read list!
3. What drew you to Thorn?
I was fully pulled in by the story and world Intisar created, but most of all, I fell in love with the protagonist, Thorn. I loved seeing a girl who was strong in her wit and loyal to herself and the people she cares about. She wields her power with her words, and those words have real meaning. Watching the main romance in the novel play out with great banter didn’t hurt, either!
4. When taking a book that’s originally been self-published to an acquisitions meeting, what most helps you convince the board to make the author and agent an offer?
In an acquisitions meeting, for better or for worse, it all comes down to the read. Did the sales and marketing teams feel the same way I did about an author’s voice or the story they set out to tell? That is what is most convincing at the end of the day. If my whole team loves a book the way I do, we figure out a way to make it work, no matter what the history is.
5. Do you have any advice for self-published authors who want to land a traditional publishing deal?
Keep writing! It might be challenging to find a traditional book deal for self-published work, but writing a new project and querying agents with that new project is a great way to transition to the traditional publishing track.
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