Monday, December 15, 2008

C.W. Gortner, An overnight literary sensation 13 years in the making

The Redwood Writers branch of the California Writers Club

I started this post a week ago, but have not had much chance to finish it due to visits from relatives and - ahem - home improvement projects.

On Sunday, December 7th my writers club was fortunate to have Christopher Gortner as our guest speaker. The title of his talk was: "Thirteen Years in the Making: C.W. Gortner's Personal Journey to Publication."

Before the meeting started I was chatting with Christopher and happened to mention an anecdote about one of the members of my club. As he heard her name, Christopher's eyes grew large.

"You know Persia Woolley?"

"Yes." I looked around the room, saw her and said, "and she's here today."

He told me how much he loves her book How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction and how he refers to it frequently during his writing process and that he has bought replacement copies of it over the years.

I beckoned Persia over and made introductions.

Persia Woolley and Christopher Gortner

Christopher is also a fan of her Guinevere trilogy and expressed regret that he did not have his copies with him to be signed.

Persia's books may be classified as out of print, but they continue to have an impact on readers and writers. Hopefully her trilogy will be reprinted for new audiences to discover and she should update the How-to book to incorporate the internet age and how to sift through information found by online searches.

Now onto the meat of Christopher's talk. He loves historical fiction. He loves reading it and writing it.

He has always wanted to be a novelist writing historical fiction, even when the market for the genre was considered to be "dead."

His first agent was from New York City and his first novel about Anne Boleyn made the publishing rounds. During the waiting period of hearing back from publishers, Christopher busied himself by writing another book. This one was on Juana of Castile also known as "Juana la Loca."

After his novel got some glowing rejection letters and the novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell was published it was suggested there would not be much interest in the market for another Anne Boleyn book at the time.

Disillusioned with New York, Christopher signed with a different agent, one who was from another part of the country.

She sent his book on Juana of Castile around, but did not have any better luck. The publishers liked his style and his voice, but no one was buying.

At one point she told him that the difficulty might be in his name. Because most buyers of historical fiction are women and it was thought that female book buyers preferred books about women written by women.

She suggested he adopt a pen name like Caryn Gortner. Or Catherine Gortner.

He did not want to do it.

For one thing, he would be hiding behind a persona and for another, how are you supposed to publicize your book if you are a man pretending to be a woman? Dress in drag to signings?

His agent was not amused.

He received one offer for his book on Juana, but there were some matters that needed to be agreed to before any contract could be signed.

The biggest sticking point concerned the ending.

They wanted it to be changed, because they wanted a happy ending.

Juana of Castile is an historical figure with a tragic life story and it is not in any form a Happily Ever After Ending.

Yet that is what this publisher wanted to have happen. They wanted this story to be a category romance with those genre expectations which are antithetical to the historical reality of the person depicted in the story.

His agent was pushing for him to accept the deal and make the changes.

Christopher was torn because he really wanted to be published and he had been through the publishing merry-go-round for several years at this point in time. He consulted a trusted friend and she told him that if he did what the publisher wanted that he would live to regret it.

He would be savaged by the critics for changing history and he might get steered into becoming a category romance author. He prefers writing about complicated historical figures with tragic fates. That is not the formula for category romance success.

Christopher declined to change the ending. His agent then dropped him from her list of clients.

He tried again with a third book, this time about Catherine de Medici. He signed with an agent at the Jean V. Nagar Literary Agency and once again he had a book making the rounds.

Christopher said that each book seemed to take about 2 1/2 years of submissions and received about 45-55 rejections. Many of the rejections described how much they loved his work, but mentioned all the difficulties in the marketplace, including the perception that historical fiction was a dying genre and the tremendous challenges in launching an unknown author in the genre.

During this time, his agent left the agency and wanted to take him with her. There were some contract unraveling that needed to be done, but he chose to stay with her rather than try to have his book "adopted" by another agent.

He decided at one point to chase writing trends and he spent countless hours in a book store studying the market. It was because of that experience that he wrote a short "thriller" set in the Tudor Court and with a male protagonist. Christopher said that he would not recommend anyone trying to follow trends because by the time you finish writing your book and if it makes the publishing rounds and gets picked up, you are talking a couple years from when you did your initial research. By that time, that trend may no longer be in vogue.

The situation with his third agent deteriorated and after a final round of submissions for his Tudor thriller, they parted ways.

For years he had been excited when he talked with his literary friends because he had an agent and his work was "making the rounds." He was anticipating good news. The years of repeated rejection had begun taking its toll on his psyche.

He avoided the literary community, because he did not want to admit he had given up.

He stopped writing for eight months and went through a period of depression, until his partner gave him a swift kick in the backside and instructed him to start writing again.

Christopher decided that his writing deserved an audience and if New York publishers could not find their way to publish his works, then he would himself. He started researching various POD publishers such as iUniverse and AuthorHouse when he met someone who was planning on starting a small publishing house. This guy knew of Christopher's writing reputation and offered to publish a book without charging him any fees.

He chose the short Tudor court thriller as his first test case. The Secret Lion was all set to print and he received a call saying that there was trouble with the cover. His name was giving them fits because of its length.

It was "the name thing" again.

Christopher asked them to try his initials of C.W. and see how it looked.

That worked.

And so, due to cover art considerations, he adopted the pen name of C.W. Gortner.

Using the strength of the internet and his own networking of friends and associates, he wound up selling around six thousand copies of The Secret Lion online.

He followed up that success by self publishing The Last Queen and had sold about a thousand copies of that title within a month when he received a phone call from Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Nagar Literary Agency. He had talked with her during the process of leaving the agency to follow his previous agent and she remembered him when she came across his name while looking at The Secret Lion at She asked about his sales record as well as wanting to see his manuscripts. Christopher sent her everything she requested and signed with her, but he did not allow himself to get his hopes up.

He had been through this dance three times before.

Then in a few months, Jennifer called with good news. She had an offer, but other houses were considering the manuscript and she wanted to notify them that an offer was on the table. To everyone's surprise, the book ended up going into auction.

In the end, he had a two book deal for six figures with Ballantine.


Christopher Gortner and Linda McCabe

The Last Queen is a wonderful book. I loved it.

I knew from the book trailer that Juana suffered a tragic fate, but I was unfamiliar with her life story and did not know how it would end.

Christopher has painted a vivid picture of how limits felt by women of the time and the motives of those surrounding her were predicated upon political power.

If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone who loves historical fiction, I heartily recommend C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen.

By the way, he has a great blog as well.

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