Sometimes, especially when I’m up against the wall with something, I have to follow my own advice.
I have been looking for a literary agent. It’s hard work, bound up in ego, rejection, and heartache. I was looking through some old E-mails today and came across this one I wrote to another writer about a year ago. It’s ironic that I find myself in the same position as the writer I addressed last year.
Thanks for asking about the process of publishing my books. I will address, first, how things went for my books. Second, I will tell you want I know about publishing. It may all be more than you asked for, but it is the best I can offer.
Publishing was, for me, about getting around rejections and finding my own way. When I completed the first draft of what would become Seldom Seen and Canoeing the Great Plains I contacted agents I had been working with at the publishing house where I edited books at the time. The process was heartbreaking and filled with rejection.
After I exhausted the agents I worked with and some of their contacts, I then set the book—at the time it was just one book—aside for a couple of years. I was busy with family and work and couldn’t give the matter the time it demanded. I needed to make a list of agents, query each, and make sure that each had the material they wanted. Some wanted just a query, a paragraph or two. Others wanted a chapter outline and a summary. Still others wanted samples ranging from the first 50 pages to the first five chapters. Figuring this all out took time I didn’t have.
Then, I started my Ph.D. studies in Fall 2004 and had an assistantship and a fellowship. This freed me up to work on the manuscript in the summer of 2005. I was determined to get this published and decided to skip going through agents. Instead, I told myself, I would go the university press route. University presses do not demand that you have an agent, and all the commercial presses worth their salt do. That summer I rewrote the manuscript for about the hundredth time. In the meantime, I sent proposals and samples, depending on what each press wanted, to six university presses. I got four rejects right away. Some were nice about it, one was terribly negative. An editor at the University of Oklahoma Press wanted the book and took it all the way through his processes to get a reject from the sales department at the very end of the process.
This whole time I had not heard from the University of Nebraska. I’d given it up for a loss. The day after the University of Oklahoma press rejected the manuscript, I got a E-mail from the University of Nebraska Press. Not only had they liked the idea, they had sent the book out for peer review. The reviewers both liked the manuscript but thought it needed significant revisions. The editor at the University of Nebraska Press wanted me to revise and resubmit the manuscript, and from there it would go through the review process again. Both reviewers saw that the long manuscript could be severed in two (basically at the point where the land trip ended and the river trip began) and then I would have two books.
I rewrote the first half the manuscript and went through the review and editing process again with what would be Seldom Seen. Once I rewrote it (it’s January of 2007 by this time), it spent another long while in the review process and then another revision. That book was finally published as Seldom Seen in November 2009.
Then, the process began with the second half of the original manuscript, the book that would become Canoeing the Great Plains. It needed a significant rewrite, and I spent a good deal of time between family, school, and work rewriting. In a sense, I wrote Canoeing almost from scratch, as the last half the MS wasn’t really a half but more like a quarter of the original manuscript. And though I had an editor, I had to submit what would become Canoeing as I did Seldom Seen. Canoeing would have to undergo the same rigorous processes that Seldom Seen did. In May, 2012, after I rewrote the manuscript, submitted it, and had it go through the peer review process, one of the reviewers made a suggestion that I just could not pass up.
Let me back up a square. The reviewers for Canoeing both believed it was a good book and could be published as it. But one reviewers suggested that I spend time in the manuscript looking back on the trip from the present. That is, the book needed the perspective of years if it was to be a really good book. I decided that the reviewer was on to something. I spent another six months between family, school, and work rewriting Canoeing. When I completed the rewrite, which was the very best effort I could make, it went back out to the reviewer who made the suggestion for perspective of time in the manuscript.
He loved it. By this time, it’s May 2013. The book was scheduled then for release in Spring 2015, which is what we have now.
Now on to how you might proceed.
For my next book, which probably won’t be University of Nebraska Press material, I have to start at square one. When I have something I think is ready to show, I have to query agents one after the other, perhaps 100 times before I actually find an agent who is excited about the material. Once to an agent, then I have to keep in touch with that agent until they sell the book to a publisher. It’s all a crap shoot. There are no guarantees. I may find an agent, but that agent may not find a market for my work. I may have to find another agent, and then another after that.
I don’t say this to discourage you. If you are determined, you will work because your writing matters. You will take rejection as encouragement. After all, rejection means you’re working. Conversely, if you are not getting rejections, you are not working. Therefore, being rejected means you are doing good things for yourself.
Let me tell you a perverse little bit about me. I was convinced I could not be a writer for many years. But I wrote, and sometimes a lot. When I put my work out there and got a rejection, I drew back and didn’t try again until I just couldn’t help myself. This went on for over a decade.
After a long time (I was in my mid-30s by the time I got to this point), I began to submit my work to literary magazines and journals and received a million rejections. The difference this time was that I saw rejection as proof of effort—I wouldn’t get rejection if I didn’t try to get acceptance, right?
I began to keep a file where I stowed my rejection notices. After a while, I began to have greater success getting things published. But I still kept that rejection file and felt it had to grow. I know this sounds strange but the more I got acceptances, the more I send work out, and the bigger the rejection file grew. I almost felt I had to keep it growing because if it ceased to grow, it would show I wasn’t working hard enough.
Unless your novel fits into a university press profile—you will have to seek them out online, review their catalogues, and follow their guidelines to the T—I suggest you find a press that works directly with writers or get an agent. If a press works directly with writers, however, they are likely small or shady. Try to get an agent. Again, most reputable commercial presses will not consider any work but through an agent. I suggest that you read this helpful Web page at Poets & Writers Magazine. It will help you through the process of getting an agent. http://www.pw.org/content/literary_agents
Do not, ever, pay an agent to look at your work. A good agent is in the business of making money from what they sell. They will do the work. They will read your work to see if they know a market for it. They will be looking for talent and material. A good agent will never ask you to pay them to read your work.
Remember not to hang on any one agent but send your work to as many agents as you can until you get one or more on the hook, then decide which one is best for you. If you send your stuff to one agent, and then wait for a reply before you contact the next agent, you will likely be looking for an agent forever. As an example, I sent a query to one agent over four months ago and have not heard peep from him. I never will.
It’s very important in this process to divorce your work from your ego. It took me decades to understand this and is the reason I didn’t publish my first work until I was 47 years old. A rejection is not about you. It is about an editor or agent determining whether your work will groove with what they have to offer to a market. Yes, it is frustrating. It will feel personal. You will, however, begin to see patterns emerge. For instance, if several agents say that the structure of your manuscript is off, it may just be off. But this is no basis for despair. Such patterns present you with another opportunity to strengthen your manuscript.
In other words, “no” doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means more work. This was something I understood. I don’t see myself as having any innate talents or skills. But I am good at work. What I write matters. Because it matters, I will work for it.
I hope this helps and answers some of your questions.
With all my best wishes,