My Convoluted Path to Publication
When my last child left home for college, the grandfather clock in our empty nest started ticking like a bomb. After attending a fiction workshop at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts here in my home state of Maine one weekend, I realized that if I was going to do anything more than pen poems to mark family milestones, it was now or never. That epiphany led to the creation of the group of ten Maine writers who’ve met in my home ever since, and the millions of words our monthly meetings have helped to inspire. The support and criticism of The Pine Cone Writers’ Den has served to raise the level of skill of every member of our crazy tribe of scribes.
I welcomed the sage advice of my author-friend Maria Padian during the early years of our group. Her counsel to “honor my apprenticeship” granted me the five-year breath I needed to put thoughts of agents and editors out of my mind while I concentrated solely on craft. Those fundamentals of fiction were exactly what my fellow “Pine Nuts” and I focused on during the meat of our monthly workshops, but the dinner conversations that preceded them almost alway revolved around one topic: publication.
I was happy to hear about the editorial exploits of others in the group. They’d been met with varying levels of success, from the flurry of first rejections that are the initiation to any author’s search for publication, to the success of one fellow Pine Nut, Steven Konkoly, who cracked the code of self-publication so successfully that he reached the holy land, quitting his day job to write fiction full time.
The day I began adding to those conversations came four years ago. After finishing my first novel (The Winter Queen) I felt worthy of at least talking about my intention to find a larger audience for my work. I soon learned, however, the value of the story I’d spent two years shaping was primarily in what it had to teach me—not others.
My second novel, however, was a different story. While writing Autumn Imago, I learned to shift my focus from what I wanted to say to what I wanted my readers to hear. When I finished it, I ventured only far enough from my writing group to share the work with a member of the other clan who is duty-bound to love me: my family. I sent a draft to my older brother, then held my breath for a couple of weeks while I waited for his reply. And though I knew he’d offer me his support, I braced myself for something even more valuable I knew I could depend upon him for: the truth. When I got his one-word email, I knew things had changed. It read, simply: More!
So for the next six months, I traded my precious writing time for promotional efforts bent on capturing the interest of an agent. After 26 revisions, I had a one page query letter polished to the point where I thought it might rise to the top of the slush pile. I added a story synopsis, spent hours researching my targets, and began clicking “send.”
Then began the kind of manic inbox-scanning that only an aspiring novelist can appreciate. I followed the rules I’d read about agent etiquette, using the powers I’d polished for my fiction to craft communications that might project the online image of a cool, calm professional weighing the scores of offers he was receiving for his work.
To my delight, it worked. Sort of. Requests for partial and full manuscripts began to pop up in my inbox, mixed with rejections that spoke more often about a mismatch between editorial styles rather than criticisms on the quality of my work. Of the nine agents I actively courted during this time, I ultimately received one offer of representation. After carefully evaluating it, however, I declined, trusting my gut when it told me me our proposed partnership just wasn’t the right fit.
Meanwhile, my beta readers were sending me clear signals that my story was certainly working for them. There were suggestions and criticisms, but the overriding tone of their emails was one of appreciative joy for the fictive ride I’d taken them on. After monitoring 84 queries for months, however, I found it hard to reconcile my 10% success rate in garnering submission requests with the enthusiasm these readers shared for Autumn Imago. Then, I received the agent email that illuminated that discrepancy for me.
I’d been delighted when Lisa Bankoff of ICM Partners responded to my query with a request for a full copy of my manuscript. Almost all of my submissions were targeted to a mix of boutique and large agencies headquartered in New York City. ICM was an international outfit with an impressive list of bestselling authors that fell squarely within the second camp. Weeks later, I found the best rejection I’ve ever received for my work nested within Ms. Bankoff’s email. It noted that she and a colleague read my novel the previous weekend, and had a similar response:
“ …line-for-line, you’ve written a moving and beautifully rendered narrative,” wrote Bankoff. In her next sentence, however, she revealed why she was passing on it, noting that my book was what editors all-too-readily characterize as “quiet” which is publishing shorthand for “unconvinced it will sell in large numbers.’”
Evidently, my work had reached the standard for craftsmanship set by a top-tier agency, but its subject matter and style predicted purchases below the lofty sales threshold its business was modeled upon. I took delight in the former knowledge and got to work finding a way to reach the audience I was sure shared a taste for my work. I was convinced that the life-threatening scenes I’d engineered into my story of familial conflict would keep the work from feeling anything but “quiet” for them.
Still, with no agent to guide me, and no publisher to provide marketing support, I wasn’t ready to upload to Amazon to let my novel die a slow and obscure death online. The company’s “Kindle Scout” (KS) program, however, looked like it just might lie in a middle ground worth exploring between self and traditional publication. Fellow Pine Nut Joe Souza’s success in securing a book contract with the program convinced me I might have a shot at doing the same.
I uploaded my prologue and first chapter to test my luck in KS’s crowd-sourced campaign, hoping to score the magic mix of style the KS editors were seeking and the critical number of votes of readers needed to get my book into the program. While I worked my contacts to garner support during Autumn Imago’s month-long campaign, I began to screen the other KS books that had earned publication in the program. Almost everything I read convinced me that I had written a story of equal or better value. The fact that I generated enough interest to keep my entry in KS’s “Hot and Trending” category for half of the time it was online seemed to confirm that I was headed for success.
One of the risks of being a KindleScout contestant is that every single person you direct to the program’s website to read your work is notified immediately of the results of your campaign. It happened so quickly for me, in fact, that the coworker who dropped by my desk to offer her condolences had leaned about my failure to score a c KS contract before I did.
I spent a few hours feeling sorry for myself, than hit the gym and began to feel a much better emotion: anger. I knew my first novel belonged in a drawer, but I also knew this one didn’t; the damned thing worked! I dug into another round of online searches for the agent or other alternative that might help it find a wider audience.
After nights of trolling for targets online, I finally succumbed to the only option left and self-published to Amazon. I was thrilled with the first fifteen 5-star reviews my novel earned me. Soon, however, I realized that lonely list of readers would not be joined by others without the marketing needed to raise a flare over the sea of self-published works my book swam within.
Put any two authors in a room, and conversation will eventually turn to the shifting sands known as today’s publishing industry. My ping between trying to attract an agent who could put me in touch with an editor at one of the “Big Five” publishers and my final stab at self-publication is a path all too familiar to anyone hoping to write for someone other than himself. One night, however, I found a player offering another way for authors of compelling fiction to connect with readers hungry for their work. When I checked the background of the publisher that was accepting online submissions in my genre, I was amazed to find it was a member of an organization much larger than any small shop.
The Harper Legend home page announces its intention “to discover and publish new authors of visionary and transformational fiction in the digital first format.” It markets itself as “a boutique publishing shop within a big muscle publishing company.” A click or two later, I found the link between their parent imprint (Harper One) and the Big Five family both are part of: HarperCollins.
A few weeks later the email I’d hoped for popped up in my inbox. There blinked a note from a real live Harper Legend editor who was interested in my work. For the next few weeks, she guided me in trimming a bit of the fat from the beginning of my story to get to the action sooner. When I was done, I was delighted to find my narrative moved even quicker, without losing any of the color or depth I’d woven into the work.
My relationship with both my editor and Harper Legend has matured into a true partnership. We’ve shared in the responsibility for not only editing my work to create the strongest story we can tell, but also for the marketing that will announce it to the world. Like many authors, part of me would like to do nothing more than sit back to concentrate solely on writing my book’s sequel rather spend time online (and off) drumming up support for my work. But the longer I spend building my platform, the more I see it as an extension of the contract with the reader every author must make.
The inspiration for my work comes from my desire to destroy what I’ve come to know as “the myth of our duality.” I write to uncover the common joys and struggles that reveal our shared humanity. That mission, I’ve learned, can be accomplished not only by writing my novels, but by working with a publisher who shares that goal. After a long and convoluted search, I’ve finally found the partner who is helping me do just that.