Note: Joe Vitale’s real name is used with his permission.
In 1991 and 1992 I had gone on wheat harvest to research a book about my Dad, as I recounted in Ghosts of the Wheat Harvest; by 1994 I had finished the book I was writing. The book was entitled Nothing Left to Lose, and I had realized during the writing process that I was telling a very powerful story, and one that I really wanted to share with the world. I had done several rewrites and had extensively edited the book, and I realized it would be great to get some fresh perspective on the current state of the publishing industry.
I found a Leisure Learning Class in Houston about getting a book published, taught by a man named Joe Vitale, and signed up for it. It was a very informative course, and Joe had a lot of great ideas and insights about publishing. He even gave us a list of contacts that he had developed within the publishing industry. I learned quite a bit about how to correctly approach the publishers.
I had studied the publishing industry extensively in 1985, as mentioned in Scared To Put It In The Mail. But in the intervening years, the industry had undergone a shift. By this time, if you wanted to submit a manuscript, you no longer sent a query directly to the publisher, as was previously the case. The publishers had started using literary agents to evaluate manuscripts, and by and large would no longer review unsolicited work. So you had to sell the agents on your manuscript, hoping to get one of them to take you on, and then the agent would pitch your work to the publishers.
Which led to the query letter. Now it was more important than ever. While it was still the one-page pitch it had been before, there were just a lot of manuscripts being submitted, and the letter had to be very effective to avoid the slush pile — now in the agent’s office rather than at the publisher’s. Having some background in sales, I had realized, and Joe had confirmed in the course, that you really had a very short attention span to appeal to the initial reader, and keep their interest long enough to request a copy of your manuscript.
So I had what seemed like a brilliant idea. After class one day, I went up to Joe and asked if he was available for consultations. I told him I had a manuscript I wanted to publish, and that I would like some help drafting a query letter for the agents. He was willing to help, and I gladly paid for an hour of his time, to have him meet with me to draft the letter.
We met at a Denny’s out on the North Loop in Houston. I briefly described my book, and then Joe went to work. He first focused on finding the true essence of the story. In my initial query letter, I had made the wheat harvest the central theme. Joe politely suggested we put that into a secondary role, because the true essence of the book was in the story of the man on harvest and the shift he undergoes that allows him to return home. He helped me draft and refine my opening paragraph, because, in his opinion, if that didn’t grab the reader quickly, we’d be that much closer to the slush pile.
So the initial paragraph became:
Nothing Left to Lose, a 68,000 word novel set in 1967, tells the riveting, complex story of Pat Waters, a dynamic salesman whose life has been nearly destroyed by his drinking. He hides from his past within the gritty world of a wheat harvesting crew, but has a powerful spiritual experience that reverses the course of his life.
I was getting pretty excited by this point because I could feel the immediacy of his presentation and how he had focused on the true focal point of the story. We went on to craft a second and third paragraph in a typical query letter format. The second paragraph gave more depth perception on the story, and the third gave my credentials and how I had worked on harvest to ensure authenticity. Then we closed with a call to action: “Please allow me to send you a copy of this manuscript.” By this time I felt we had a very professional presentation, and I was quite pleased.
Then came the awkward moment. Joe asked, “So is the first time you’ve tried to have a book published?”
“No, I had a book back in 1985 that I sent off to publishers.”
“Not this book?”
“No, another one. It was more of my personal story, and it was called Search For Peace.”
“So what happened with that book?”
“I had a couple of publishers interested, and even did a rewrite of the book for one of them.”
“Publishers were interested in the book? How interested?”
“Well, one publisher called and started describing how he wanted to market the book, how he would price it. He read several passages from my manuscript back to me, and said they were very, very good. He was really excited and wanted to move forward.” This was described in Why Is This Fantastic News So Scary?
“And the other publisher?”
“They wanted me to do a rewrite from a more recovery-oriented perspective.”
By this time Joe had a very odd, puzzled look on his face, as he asked “So what happened? Did one of them publish it for you?”
I could feel myself getting embarrassed and said “No, I sort of lost the thread of the book, and didn’t follow up with them.”
Joe’s eyes got a little wider. “So you had two publishers interested in your book, wanting to publish it, and you never followed through?” Then came the inevitable and obvious question. “Why not?”
I shrugged and my answer felt lame even to me. “I’m not sure. I just felt like I had lost touch with the story and sort of ran out of momentum.”
“Did you ever follow up later, after you’d had a chance to rest up and get a fresh perspective?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Then he got to the heart of it. He looked off reflectively for a moment, then looked back at me and asked “So how are you going to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again with this book?”
It was the question that I would have asked anyone else, and I knew it was a very vital question to answer. But I didn’t have anything substantial to say. I mumbled something about how I’d been working through the issues that led me to walk away from that book.
“I don’t think it will happen that same way again.”
He looked at me a bit skeptically — and I was listening to my answer skeptically as well. He had asked the key question: how was I going to make sure I didn’t walk away from publishing a second book?
We concluded the meeting, and I walked away with a very solid query letter to send out to the literary agents. But a larger question had been asked and was out in the light of day where I couldn’t avoid dealing with it. And here I was with no clear answer.