Erin Quinn is one of the hardest working authors in the writing game today. Although her romantic suspense novels are NYT times bestsellers, she not only keeps her day job she also is the director – and the driving force – behind the San Diego State University Writers Conference, one of the best of its kind in the nation. I sat down with her recently to learn more about her career, the business and her efforts to help fellow writers.
RE: For those people who might not be familiar with your work, give me your description of the genre and the work you do.
Quinn: I’m kind of The Sixth Sense meets romance. I write stories that have to do with otherworldly things that nobody can quite prove or disprove. And then I have the romance in it because I think that’s the way a story should be told.
RE: Romance is a huge market. How did you come to it?
Quinn: The romance market has changed from the time I was first published 20 years ago. At that time, women writing fiction had two successful genres open to them: bodice ripper historical romance or the cozy, Agatha Christie type of mystery—very sweet and prim kind of stories. But I grew up reading Stephen King and romance. I would read King’s books and always think, ‘I would love this story if he just had a little smut in it.’ And then I would read a romance and think, ‘if only somebody had died in this book it would have been so good.’ So when I started writing it was my goal to combine those two elements (falling in love while being scared to death). That’s the story I wanted to read, so it’s what I started to write. But there really wasn’t a market for it, especially for a young female debuting in the industry. The concept of the faster paced genre which is now called romantic suspense was just starting to emerge and actually when my first book was published, the genre was called “A Woman in Jeopardy” because they hadn’t actually coined the romantic suspense genre yet. It had dark serial killer elements and romance, but it didn’t have any supernatural elements. I started down that path later.
RE: Editors are always looking for books and writers that go beyond just a single book. How did it play for you after your first one was out and successful?
Quinn: My next book was already downloading in my head when I was finishing the first one. I wanted to write something about a past life. Unfortunately, that was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my career. In this industry if you start with mystery or romantic suspense, the expectation is that your next book should be a mystery or romantic suspense. But I didn’t have enough business sense to know that’s what I was supposed to do. So I followed my tight 75k word mystery with a 110k word, rich historical with a past life in it. When I turned it in, my editor surely thought, ‘what the hell is this? What happened to your mystery voice? That’s the book I wanted.’ My publisher dropped me and I didn’t figure out why for a long time. In those days, we weren’t communicating by email, so I didn’t have a way to ask, even if I’d had the nerve. (I was pretty young). That was a huge learning curve for me and it set my career back years.
RE: Ouch. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson.
Quinn: I suppose that was part of my youth. I expected somebody to say, ‘okay this is what you’re supposed to do now.’ After my publisher rejected my option book and dropped me, all I had was my past-life story that I knew was good. I became obsessed with finishing it and seeing it published. I was a young mother, and I’ve always worked full time, so though I kept at it, it took years. Years of rewriting, reworking it and trying to sell it. I received countless rejections and lost my faith in myself during that venture. For the first time, I thought about quitting.
What I should have done was write something different and come back to that story at a later time. But I didn’t know. After 10 years of this counterproductive work, I finally found an agent who fell in love with the story and then an editor who fell in love with it, too. It was published by Berkeley in 2004 (10 years after my first novel). That started me down the genre of paranormal where I’ve been ever since. I will say, though it was a mistake not to move on from that book, there was validation in that experience. That book was titled ECHOES and to date, it’s my biggest award winner and my most critically acclaimed book.
From there I wrote a ghost story, followed by time travel. These are all things that interest me and I like to read. Now I’m writing this crazy “Beyond” series that’s taking me places I never thought I’d go. I’m working now on the last book that I have contracted for Simon and Schuster in that series right now.
RE: What was the thing that kept you motivated when you had that moment of ‘what the hell am I supposed to do?’
Quinn: I really, really don’t know. There have been low points in my career that I have just thought, ‘why am I doing this? I’ve gone months without a full day off, because I still work full time.’ I just don’t know what drives me, but apparently there is something in there that does because I keep going back. After that big ten year break before selling ECHOES, I sold the next book I wrote but my editor left the industry before it was published and my new editor wasn’t a fan, so she rejected my option book. (Which means I was dropped again). Then my agent got pregnant and left the industry and I was really orphaned—no representation. No publisher. I was dead in the water once more.
I’d learned from experience, though, and I had a better sense of how the industry worked and of what kind of writer I wanted to be. Instead of immediately pursuing a new agent, I pulled back and just wrote the first book of my time travel series, which was a book of my heart. It’s a very literary book that’s layered and textured and rich in language. It was exactly the story I wanted to tell and I wrote it without thinking about selling it. I just wrote it because it was the story I wanted to tell.
Around the same time, I listened to the audio version of THE SECRET and started putting some of those techniques into play. I called Romantic Times Book Reviews and booked myself a cover ad, which was about $5000, all for a book I hadn’t even sold. My original editor at Berkley was gone, the second reassigned editor had also left and I’d been shuffled to a third editor who didn’t know me anymore than I knew her, but I reached out anyway and explained that I was between agents and asked if she’d like to see my new book.
Two weeks later, she made an offer and after receiving only rejections, I had five A-list agents willing to take me on. I’ve published almost a book a year since then. But it’s a grueling path, and I think that’s why I’m so passionate about the writer’s conference. I made so many mistakes along the way and have done things that I wish I could undo. Any time you put something in print, it’s there forever. It can’t be unprinted. So I hope I help new writers figure things out.
RE: How many books have you published?
Quinn: Nine have been published, the tenth will be released late this year or early next. I’ve also written four novellas in between.
RE: All of those are legacy publishing?
Quinn: All my full length novels have been traditionally published, yes. I’ve self-published the novellas, though and I’ve re-released my out of print titles.
RE: One of the things I took away from this year’s conference was a better understanding of this hybrid world that is evolving where writers are taking more control of their projects through self-publishing some of their work. There are a lot of challenges that way but it seems to be more of an option than it ever has before. But you cautioned writers to take great care and to really understand what they’re doing before they chose to go that route. Explain a bit more of your thoughts on self-publishing and the hybrid publishing momentum, and the pros and cons of those options.
Quinn: Well, if you want to be in a bookstore—unless you’re a phenom that has taken the world by storm—you almost always have to be traditionally published, because bookstores will not carry the book unless you’re already a huge bestseller and in the book is in print.
If your dream is to see your book on a bookshelf, self-publishing is probably not going to give that to you unless you are one of those lottery winners that hit it big with their self-published books. It does happen. I’d say it happens almost as frequently as it does with traditional publishing, that you get a big boom and suddenly everybody is buying your books.
When you’re a beginning writer, you think the hardest part of the whole thing is getting the book written. And then you get that book written and you finally have it perfect, and then you think the hardest part is finding an editor or an agent. And then you finally find an editor or agent and you think, okay the hardest part is over. Then you realize the hardest part about being an author is selling your book to the reader. Because now the market is so big and anyone who has the capability of uploading a document can call themselves a writer. The pool is just this deep, swampy, competitive, shark infested ocean. You’re competing with people who are giving their books away, or people who can’t write a coherent sentence or huge blockbusters who have countless fans. You’ve spent a year hammering out your book, polishing, making it perfect, and somebody next to you is able to write 30,000 words every month and it doesn’t matter if there are typos because she’s fast and she’s getting them up and selling them for 99 cents and she’s got thousands of readers so her rank is really high on Amazon and you’re lost in the shuffle. All of these things are going on in the publishing world and it’s a reality none of us can escape.
It used to be that when you said you were an author that was a rare thing and people were like, ‘whoa, I never met one of you before.’ And now, you say you’re an author and you hear, ‘oh yeah I wrote a book and self-published it, too.’
My goal has always been to write the best book I possibly can. To write something that moves my reader so much that after they’ve closed the book, they just sit back and think for awhile, just to clear their minds because they were so into my world that they can’t simply move on to somebody else’s book or their favorite TV show.
RE: You specifically noted that if a writer has the attitude that they will “just self- publish” if they don’t get a contract, they maybe need to rethink what they’re doing.
Quinn: What I think authors who say ‘I’m just going to self-publish’ are missing in their equation is that when you self-publish, you are the publisher. That means all the responsibilities of being a publisher are on your shoulders. That means finding a content editor, a copy editor, making sure the type is set, making sure it’s in the right format, making sure you have a professional cover, making sure you hit the right distribution channels, making sure everything is as clean and perfect as it would be if it were traditionally published. You have to know what print method is used so bookstores can order them and all the details of publishing to get your books into a bookstore.
There are a lot of shortcuts you can take and most writers opt to take those shortcuts because it’s expensive to do all those things that need to be done to professionally publish a book. They rely on their mother to do the proofreading or they skip the copy editor completely because they’ve had three critique partners read it. By skipping those steps they do themselves a disservice. A good editor can shape your whole career. I think that’s one of the things they need to consider. If they’ve consistently heard from publishing professionals that the characters are not developed or the story meanders or the plot is weak—concrete things that could be fixed—but they opt to self-publish anyway because their friend Suzy did it and now makes $100,000 a year . . . Well, I say that’s not the right reason.
In traditional publishing there is a built-in process that helps you write the best book possible. For example, I’m turning in this book to my editor. It will sit on her desk for at least 30 days before she reads it. Then she’ll send me her edits which are content specific, places where the story didn’t work or it was confusing or where my heroine was too stupid to live or my hero was a jerk. She will send those to me and I will evaluate them and figure out where those perceptions are coming from and how to fix them. Once I’ve done my work on it, I’ll send it back to her. Then it will go to a copyeditor who goes through and points out all the places that I overused a word or phrase (or, sadly, when I’ve used a word wrong). When it comes back to me, I’ll have another chance to go through it from cover to cover and really look at the whole book and see if there’s any way I can make it better. Then it goes back to the publisher again and it’s typeset and you have one last chance, critical issues only. Like, ‘oh my gosh on page 10 I say she has blue eyes and on page 70 I say they’re brown.’ That kind of stuff. And then the book is published. So during all that time you’re able to distance yourself from your work and be objective about what it is and not be so close to it that you can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s where I think self-published authors who have not also been traditionally published miss the boat. Most of them don’t allow enough time to sit back and let the story resonate.
Now the flip side of that is the audience we have today includes readers who are becoming used to this style. I don’t want to say that they’re more used to reading a first draft, but today’s reader expects something short, fast and a lot of it. The days of the big sweeping saga have definitely diminished. At one time, an author built a career on one book a year. Very few can do that now.
RE: You’ve been very successful. Even so, the business is so fickle. How do you feel about where you are in your career now? Do you finally feel really established?
Quinn: Hell, no. Okay, wait, that’s not true. I do feel established. I think that there is some name recognition, but I’m not anywhere close to where I dream of being. I’m in it for the long haul, though. I have a career plan and I revisit it and update as the market changes. I’ll get there.
RE: We talked earlier about the distractions that come with writing. Do you have a routine for how you get words done?
Quinn: Like I said, I still work full time and have a pretty high pressure day job. So during the week, I work Monday through Thursday and I don’t do any writing then. Friday, Saturday and Sunday are my writing days. Over the last few years, the deadlines I had were pretty tight. The first book in the series needed a ton of edits and rewrites and that put me behind my already tight schedule. So I’ve been chasing myself for about two years now, trying to get caught up. I’m working on the last book in the series and it’s late and I’m still working on it. But I only have three days a week to work and at some point there’s got be a life. Events that you have to do, The Writer’s Conference, other conferences, book festivals, things like that.
I have a goal tracker on my website that gets me through my first draft (http://erinquinnbooks.com/ –the link is in the first paragraph) but I’m a big rewriter and so my first draft rarely resembles the first. It’s not a method I recommend for anyone, but it works for me and at the end of the day, writers need to respect their process.
In the last two years, I’ve actually changed my process a little, though, and I do probably 90 percent of my first draft by hand now, which is an ugly monster but it is what it is and it’s working for me so I just go with it. My desk these days is a couch that has seven piles of paper on it from these different sections that I’ve written by hand and I’m trying to incorporate into a real life novel. It’s not pretty.
RE: With all the things on your plate, what is the motivation for you to be so involved in the San Diego Writer’s Conference?
Quinn: Before I became the director, I was the crazy lady who scheduled all the appointments for the conference. That element of the conference was actually my brainchild, because I worked at San Diego State in the 80s and 90s and I was trying to get published at the same time. I knew meeting with the editors and agents would help me and I pushed to get the feature added. Turns out, I was right. I am one of many who sold their first book as a result of those meetings.
After I left SDSU and moved to Arizona, they asked me to continue to do the appointments aspect of it, which I happily did. When Diane Dunaway, founding conference director, retired it was the natural step to take over the helm when both Diane and SDSU asked me to do it. This happened around the time that I signed this three-book deal with S & S, and I had no time to do it, but I knew that if I didn’t take it, the conference would either die or I would never be offered it again.
I’m passionate about helping people find their dreams. I think most writers want to help each other reach this dream they have inside them. I totally believe that there’s room for all of us at the top. There’s room for all of us on the best seller list. If every single book you’ve ever picked up was amazing, the only thing that would happen is that you would want to pick up more books. It would benefit all of us. So that’s why I do it. It’s not easy, it’s not something I have time for. I can barely keep up with my life as it is but it is a labor of love. Listening to, meeting writers at the conference every year and hearing how this has helped them get to the next step, it’s so rewarding. I can’t even put it into words how rewarding it is.