Most of what I say below has certainly been said before, but it bears repeating. And repeating. I include my own non-traditional path to traditional publishing in the hopes that I can provide encouragement to those who are languishing in the querying doldrums as well as provide some guidance to those who might not know how to begin or how to continue.
Step 1: Do your research.
Now that you’ve written your book, identify agents and/or publishers who have represented or put out books that are similar. If you don’t think there are any books similar to yours, you haven’t looked hard enough or you are not adequately familiar with your field and genre. Get down to the library/bookstore and change that.
Find the agent or publisher that is truly the right fit for you. If you’re querying agents, look at their lists: who do they represent and what are those author’s values? I know, every agent suggests that you should familiarize yourself with their list. Do it! And note it in your query letter. You might include a sentence like, “I am contacting you because I see that you represented Author X’sBestseller; my novel is similarly concerned with vintage footwear” or whatever.
Before I turned to fiction, I did a lot of academic writing and that’s where I truly learned this lesson. When I was writing an article or manuscript, I would notice where I was getting my sources—was there a publisher or a journal that I kept coming back to? That publisher or journal was on the top of my list when I started looking for a home for the work.
For fiction, this was a bit trickier. Although I did have some agent interest when I started querying, I realized pretty early on that I might do better with an indie press that specialized in edgy young adult. I had my share of rejections before I came across Animal Mineral Press, described on their website as a feminist press interested in “bold stories” about “identity and relationships.”
Animal Mineral requested a full manuscript the day after I sent them a query. They were on board with the novel almost immediately and, while they were not able to offer me an advance (more on this later), they did send along a standard contract. I signed, thrilled to have found people who appreciated my vision and who were committed to bringing my novel to a larger audience.
Bottom line: Find your people.
Step 2: Expect setbacks
They are surely some authors who send out a batch of queries, land an agent, get a book deal, snag some blurbs, and, viola, are successful and wealthy and live happily ever after. I think for most of us, however, there are often some bumps in the road. Given the vicissitudes of the publishing industry, it’s likely that you might have unexpected challenges or setbacks: your editor quits the house, you’re asked to make changes you are not comfortable with, publication is delayed, or, worst case scenario, your beloved small press folds completely.
For me, the biggest bump in the road was the collapse of Animal Mineral Press. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual event: small presses often fold or have to halt production. I was not the first and I will not be the last to get the profoundly disappointing news that my publisher had gone under.
However, I was extremely fortunate in that the two people I’d worked so closely with, Cathy and Tavia, were committed to continuing to work with me to make sure that my book was ultimately published.
They laid out my options. I could take what they had already provided me with, which included intensive writing guidance, a cover design, and lots of pre-launch marketing support, and walk away in order to either self-publish or start querying again on my own. Or I could use Tavia, who has connections within the industry, as my de facto agent. Tavia is not officially an agent, but she should be. She is passionate and tenacious and so, so smart.
I chose the final option. More on that in a minute.
Bottom line: Persevere.
Step 3: Expect to continue revising.
Just because your book is “done,” doesn’t mean that’s it’s done. Don’t resist; embrace it. If you are fortunate enough to receive feedback from a professional in the field, an agent or editor, take it seriously.
For the two years that I was signed with Animal Mineral, Cathy and Tavia worked with me to revise the manuscript. The changes I made in response to their feedback were substantial, often painful, and ultimately incredibly beneficial. My book is so much stronger today than it was when I was querying.
After Animal Mineral folded, Tavia pitched the book to Blackstone Publishing, who expressed an interest right away. One editor was particularly excited about the book, but she also said she had reservations about some of the content. In conversation with Cathy and Tavia, I decided to make several pretty significant revisions that would address this editor’s concerns.
The editor wound up passing on the book anyway. This was a bit of a heartbreak, but in retrospect, I do have to agree with the editor’s assessment: she was right about the changes she saw as necessary. Again, my book is better and more marketable now than it was before. Ultimately, I’m grateful to her for the time she took to provide me with ideas for improvement.
Bottom line: Someone, somewhere, is going to ask you to make revisions. Don’t compromise your vision, but be open to feedback, especially from publishing professionals.
Step 4: Start working on your marketing and platform.
“They” say that it’s never too early to start thinking about your marketing and platform. “They” are right. Okay, it might be too early if you haven’t even started writing the book yet. But building up your communities and making connections is one way to accomplish the steps listed above: you can start to get to know what’s getting published and by whom, as well as potentially find Beta readers or others willing to help you in your revisions. You’ll also get to learn about other writers’ experiences and perhaps get advice that could be helpful as you navigate your own path to publication.
After Blackstone passed, Tavia continued to query, contacting some of her connections in the industry. There was another bite; another pass.
And then suddenly, without warning, Blackstone came back around. The editor who had passed still wasn’t interested, but others at Blackstone had taken note and, one person in particular had brought my book up again to one of their top people.
Blackstone wanted my book. They had a contract ready. I was offered an advance.
Of course, this was thrilling/terrifying. And, thanks to Animal Mineral, I didn’t have to feel overwhelmed by list of must-haves I would soon be presented with:
- a decent author photo
- a website
- a good *long* synopsis and a good *short* synopsis
- a social media presence
- the beginnings of an email list
- a list of possible contacts for blurbs and reviews.
Bottom line: Social can be a time-suck, but it can also be a place to meet wonderful, cool, inspiring, and super-helpful people. On twitter, check out #amwriting and #writingcommunity. For women, the Binders groups on Facebook are amazing.
Step 5: Don’t quit.
Easier said than done, of course. And sometimes there really are compelling reasons to quit. Additionally, you might decide that traditional publishing isn’t the right arena for your work after all, so choosing to go indie isn’t quitting, it’s trying a new direction. Here’s a good article on Medium (another writing resource I recommend) on deciding if you want to pursue traditional or indie publishing.
And the other resources I mentioned—and Twitter in particular—can be really helpful if you are looking for support, sympathy, and encouragement to keep going.
It’s hard to convey how upset and embarrassed I was when Cathy and Tavia told me that Animal Mineral was done. I’d started to share the news that I had a book coming out and, for months afterward, whenever someone would ask me when they could expect to get a copy, I’d have to tell them that I didn’t know, that things had hit a snag and that I wasn’t sure if the book would be coming out at all.
One regret I have is that I wish I’d been more active on Twitter and with the Binders when Animal Mineral folded. I see authors posting about complications, rejections, and challenges all the time and they receive lots of encouragement and often really sound advice. I could have used some of that back then.
Regardless, I now feel that the setbacks I encountered have provided me with important perspectives and has made success even sweeter. Knowing that my book has been read so many times by so many discerning readers, knowing that Cathy and Tavia believed in the project so much that they continued to want to see it through to publication, and thinking of all of the hard work—above and beyond the actual writing—that I had to do to get where I am is actually super satisfying.
Bottom line: Finding a publisher to take a chance on your book is hard work. Is it worth it? I think so. Now, decide if you do.
So that was the path to publication for my novel, Iphigenia Murphy, which is coming out in March 2020. Please comment if you have tips you’d like to add to the list!