Writing is the easy part- The rocky road to publication
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to our publishing company. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs.”
If you are an aspiring author, you might want to familiarize yourself with the above form letter. The chances are pretty good that you will be seeing it again and again.
All over America, thousands of people are pounding away on keyboards writing the book that will make then rich and famous. Although they may toil and sweat for years, many will never finish their masterpieces, but for those who do, another, even greater obstacle looms; getting published. When a new author proudly reveals his work to the world, he is likely to be shocked at just how little the world cares. As time drags on and the rejection slips pile up, that spot on Oprah seems to be fading away.
My book is Master Detective. It is non fiction and was published by Kensington in New York under their Citadel Press imprint. Kensington also publishes under Kensington, Pinnacle, Zebra, and a couple of other imprints, a common practice with bigger publishers.
It was the end of a long uncertain process. I gave a talk at a local Barnes and Noble once about my publishing experience and I think the title pretty much said it all:
Writing is the Easy Part
Here’s the deal. With the advent of computers, writing has become easier than ever, so the number of manuscripts submitted to publishers has increased accordingly. At the same time, the competition from cable TV and various video devices has resulted in people reading less. What does it all mean? It means your manuscript will be competing in an ever more crowded field, so the odds against getting published are lengthening. Many publishers will not even accept unsolicited manuscripts and the ones that do put them in what they call the slush pile. Usually, some hapless lower level staffer will be assigned to plow through this pile as time allows. The screener must get through a staggering amount of manuscripts, so he will look for any reason to reject one. He may not like the title, the premise, the type spacing, or even the spelling, but any manuscript he can reject is one fewer he must read.
So what happens when the screener actually likes what you’ve submitted? You get a publishing contract and start looking for that new Mercedes, right? Not quite. The screener must then sell the manuscript to his or her boss, unusually a junior editor of some sort. The junior editor must then sell the manuscript to a senior editor who must then convince the board or senior directors. Each step of this process can take months and everyone involved has veto power by rejecting the manuscript or simply letting it die of neglect. Of course, different publishers have somewhat different setups and different levels of management, but the process is similar. The wonder is that anything gets published.
Even though you actually have a publishing contract, however, you are still not home free. I actually had three contracts with smaller publishers before the one with Kensington. The first publisher had everything done except the final cover, but then fell behind schedule and stopped returning my phone calls. Since he was located in a city we were about to visit, my wife and I decided to drop by and see what was going on.
The publishing offices and the publisher’s book warehouse were on the same street. As we drove up the street we came to the warehouse and noticed a “for rent” sign in the window. My wife, who has a genius for understatement said “I’m not an expert on the publishing business, but I’m thinking this is not a good sign.” When we finally got to the office, it was occupied, but seemed to be sparsely furnished. “Yeah,” said a secretary, “They took our computers last week in the raid.”
“The raid? But who..”
“It was the Attorney General’s office, but don’t worry.We’ll straighten it out.”
On the way back to the car, I saw a penny on the sidewalk and picked it up.
“I think I’ll save this,” I said.”I have a feeling it’s the only money I’ll ever see from this publisher.”
The rest of the sad tale should be obvious by now. The publisher got indicted before the book came out. It seems he was embezzling royalty money and blowing it in Las Vegas.
Amost a year later, I got another contract from a different publisher. The second publisher promised an advance, then went bankrupt a month later.
A few months later,I found yet another publisher. The third publisher, however, got fed up with dealing with “crazy authors and greedy agents” and decided to get out of the publishing business and write symphonies instead. All three contracts became void. When people describe the publishing business, they seldom use the words “rational”, “predictable,” or “stable.”
So I decided to get an agent, but this was as hard as getting a publisher. There followed a long period of collecting agent rejection notices to go along with my collection of publisher rejection notices. Most were form letters, and a few were xeroxes of form letters, or even xeroxes of xeroxes of form letters. One sent my query letter back with the word NO written on it, apparently in crayon. One said it was all right, but would be better if I wrote more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I thought this was setting the bar a bit high seeing as how he won the Nobel Prize for literature. In one week I got two rejections. One said the work was too unusual, the other that it was too mainstream. It’s hard to know just what adjustments to make based on those comments.
Finally, I got a nice rejection letter from one agent who said he didn’t have room for my book on his current list, but recommended a new agent he had just met. The agent called me at home and was very interested, but it took another two years before she had a positive sale. During that time I rewrote and polished the book proposal several times to react to comments she was getting. I even changed the working title to widen the perceived focus of the book. In the end it was a matter of getting the proposal in front of someone who believed in it and could in turn sell the idea to the higher ups.
An agent is valuable because many publishers will not even look at any unagented works, and an agent has a much better chance than you do of getting the work into the hands of an editor who will run with it.
Although there are plenty of perfectly good publishers elsewhere, New York is still the center of the publishing world. There you’ll find the major publishers, a lot of the biggest agents, and most of the money. A large publisher means there is more money for advances and promotion, but the biggest advances and the biggest promotion efforts go to a very limited number of potential best sellers. That means books by established authors, celebrities, or books on sensational topics. Even so, a major publisher makes it easier for you to get noticed and is also more likely to get shelf space in bookstores. Another advantage is that Kensington was able to get a number of other authors to write blurbs for the book, including Max Allan Collins, author of “The Road to Perdition”.
Based on everything I’ve learned, the most important quality a writer can have is persistence and a high tolerance for rejection. Rejection is part of the game. MASH was rejected 17 times, Gone with the Wind 38 times, and Chicken Soup for the Soul-33 times. Other famous works that were rejected at first include Diary of Anne Frank, Lord of the Flies, Catch 22, and my favorite, Orwell’s Animal Farm, which one publisher rejected because ” Animal stories don’t sell.”
So good luck and keep writing.