A writer experiences rejection from literary agents and comes up with a Plan B for getting his book published.
It was time to send letters out to literary agents, which I did on February 11, 2008. I had compiled a list of 12 agents who felt like a good fit for representing my book. I had drafted a query letter which strongly captured the essence of what I had written. I realized later I had set up my query ineffectively, leading off with the familiar theme (for the publishing industry) of a death in the family, and emphasizing the negative aspect of alcoholism. My intuitive sense looking back is that the negative messages from my Grandmother intruded, and I sabotaged myself unconsciously. But I couldn’t see that at the time. My friend Karen later reminded me that she had strongly recommended I not use the first sentence I had decided on for the query, but I was stuck on it, thought it worked well, and wouldn’t budge.
The first paragraph of the query read:
“An alcoholic father’s death leads a middle aged man to a startling revelation, healing, and the seeds of forgiveness. Freedom’s Just Another Word is a 55,000 word memoir, set in Houston, Texas in 1987. I was broke, unable to go look for a job, down enough to think about ending my life, mystified as to why it was all happening — and then my father died. I was conflicted, torn between deep sadness over his death, and awakening to an ugly anger toward him. I discovered an old emotional wound, long buried but actively festering, a violent incident with my father when I was a teenager. As I struggled to comprehend this awareness, I began to embrace the journey toward forgiveness of my father.”
Within about two weeks I began getting letters back from agents, all declining the book. By the time I got 10 of them, I sensed I wasn’t going to get a request for my manuscript, and was hugely disappointed. I really thought I would get some positive responses. My friend Mary Nell had a connection at W. W. Norton Publishing Company, and she had sent my manuscript along to that person. We never heard anything back – which was another big disappointment. I had high expectations for success. When I got all negative responses, it was devastating.
I didn’t see the pattern at the time. First, with Search For Peace, the autobiography I had written in 1985, which had a publisher very interested — I walked away. Then Nothing Left To Lose, the novel I had written in 1994, which had several literary agents interested — I walked away again. I couldn’t put all the pieces together and see that the Grandma messages about being called crazy and locked up if I became a successful writer lay underneath this repeated pattern. This time I had pushed away publication by the phrasing of my query to the publishing industry.
I felt the hurt and disappointment for a couple of weeks, and then realized I had to keep moving forward. If I stopped now, I would live out the question Joe Vitale had asked me: “How are you going to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” by walking away from publication yet one more time. I felt almost powerless to overcome whatever was getting in my way, but I had to keep trying.
The self publishing industry had undergone a radical change, brought about by digital publishing, since I had last investigated publication. There was still the negative aura surrounding “vanity publishing”– I had read that traditional reviewers like Publishers Weekly wouldn’t even consider reviewing a self-published book. So there were some limitations in that direction, but I wanted to study it anyway. I was realizing that there was a huge difference between what self publishing looked like even 10 years ago and the current model.
In 1994 when I had looked at self publishing, a publisher produced a print run of books, paid for by the author, who was then left with boxes of books to sell from their garage. With Print On Demand, the digital files were stored at a warehousing facility, and only printed when a copy was ordered. So the initial print costs were minimal. As well, the whole Amazon option for ordering books was a pretty attractive alternative if you couldn’t get your manuscript on the shelves in bookstores through traditional publishing.
It sounded reasonable, and had some definite advantages – the author was no longer controlled by the publisher’s print schedule and could put the book on the market more quickly. Traditional publishers weren’t offering as much support for publicity – the author had to generate most of his publicity whether he self published or was picked up by traditional publishers. So I started looking again at one of the Print On Demand publishers which I had found out about the previous summer at the writer’s conference in Austin. I had visited with one of their sales executives and heard a compelling presentation; she outlined the advantages of shorter time to publication, with support in getting reviews and technical issues like setting up a website if needed.
So now I had a Plan B which looked very interesting in many ways. I contacted that same Print on Demand publisher, and was told they could publish four months after I turned in a manuscript. That was too soon for me, because I needed to go back to work to earn some more money. I would also have to begin working intensely on the book immediately, which I knew wasn’t possible while doing contract work in the oil industry. Moreover, I wasn’t sure about publishing in the summer, competing against the Democratic National Convention, which appeared to be heading toward a being big production. Then the fall didn’t look much better, with the election coming in November.
I decided to target January 2009 to self publish my book, which would clear all the election news and allow me plenty of time to finish the manuscript. I would have time to get publicity outlets lined up. It would also allow me almost a year to work in the oil business, and I could earn enough money to finance publicizing the book. It was a solid plan. This all evolved very quickly, and I knew I had a solid working solution. (Was I stalling with the distant publication goal?)
About then Karen volunteered that she was still working on editing my book, which she hadn’t mentioned for a while; she had a sense I would need it sooner than next fall – she wanted to have it available for me by June. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it confirmed the sense that I needed to keep pushing forward toward publication.
I decided to continue investigating self publishing, to see which publishers were out there, and what would be involved in publishing process. I had a busy spring planned. I was going to return to work in the oil industry, earn some money to fund whatever option I ended up choosing, and study the Print On Demand option more fully. I was moving closer to publication.
“Sweet Sorrow” Caro Wallis @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.