In olden days — five or so years ago — the sole path to publishing was defined by the big houses, which were busy swallowing numbers of small companies; the university presses; and a few specialized independents. If any of these still accepted unagented submissions, a custom so rare as to be almost unknown in the business, the protocol was for the writer to send off a synopsis and three chapters. Sometimes, months later, the desired letter from a real New York editor might arrive, bearing the magic words: We Would Like to See the Entire Manuscript.
Oh, bated breath exhaled! Oh, sweet proof that the years of sweat and preparation and ignoring our children’s pleas for attention were finally worth it. The endless years, not to mention all the money we might have spent elsewhere, splurged on perfecting our writing:
- Endless classes and endless assignments, struggling to write on demand everything from poetry to creative nonfiction to short stories.
- Hours poring over our writing, choosing just the right word, polishing our spelling, grammar and punctuation. Learning that only chickens lay, people lie, and that it’s slothful to allow our characters to loose a valuable possession. We knew it was supposed to be lose – honest!
- The Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons devoted to critique groups, hundreds of hours reading and correcting and offering (helpful only, please!) comments on someone else’s work in order to get (helpful only!) feedback on ours.
- The dread that our printer’s type isn’t dark enough to suit a midnight-oil-burning editor’s eyes (does anyone remember dot-matrix?), or that our margins might be too big, or too small, or we overlooked a glaringly obvious typo.
- The writing conferences we couldn’t afford, where we wore clothes bought to impress that will never be worn again, while we hoped for a few moments alone with that one agent, that one editor, who would at last say: Send Me Your Manuscript.
So we sent off our precious baby with SASE — does anyone recognize that acronym anymore? — and then we waited. And waited. Afraid to call New York and check on The Editor’s progress. Afraid not to, while the arrival of the mail truck brought on another bout of sweaty hands and roiling stomach and eventual depression because — once again — there was no word.
More often than not we did eventually get a letter: Sorry, Does Not Meet Our Needs. Sometimes we heard nothing at all, until the next conference, where we learned that the editor who held our fate in her hands had moved on to another publisher, and our precious baby novel was once more an orphan.
Meanwhile, friends and family and other writers urged: You must, you must keep sending your story out. You mustn’t give up, not ever. Haven’t you heard about Tatiana de Rosnay’s twenty rejections before historical best seller Sarah’s Key fortuitously landed on the right editor’s desk? Don’t you know the legends about the book that was sent over the transom to an editor at a house that exclusively publishes nonfiction – but that she loved it so much she drew on all the resources at her disposal to get the trespassing book published, and heavily publicized?
The rejections, of course, are never meant personally. Intellectually, we know that rejection letters, like the best critique groups, are all about The Work. The Work doesn’t meet the editor’s needs. Or the publishing house has too recently published A Very Similar Work, or Our Work is not similar enough to The Works That Have Been Selling Lately.
Those dreaded words, a stab to the heart, repeated again and again: Does Not Meet Our Needs. Good Luck Placing Your Work Elsewhere.
For causing depression, I hate to mention the agents who don’t have any idea where to send Our Work, but offer to represent us for fifteen per cent if we somehow overcome the barriers to anyone even taking a peek at our manuscript – and miraculously get it accepted on our own
Well. . . .
I. Just. Gave. Up.
Time passed, and I went on to other things. The kids grew up and moved on to college and then grad school. I tried to ignore the urge to work on the novels stored on my hard drive. Sometimes a well-intentioned someone would innocently ask, “Have you published anything yet?” It got harder to confess I wasn’t even trying when the self-publishing companies started to dominate the Internet. Publish your book! No editor or agent required, no formal study of plot or character or theme or grammar or punctuation! Anyone can do it!
And, it suddenly seemed, everyone was.
There appeared downloadable e-books. There were a few writers who were very good at taking care of all aspects of writing and selling their own work. Stories began appearing about the success of certain self-published novelists. Some claimed to make thousands of dollars a year selling their books for under a buck. How can it be possible to thrive as a writer selling such cheap e-books? I watched from a distance, a lurker in the dark anonymity of fascinated denial. Certainly I couldn’t be all things to my own book: omniscient writer and editor and publisher and publicist all at the same time. And so once again time passed and I did nothing.
And then my daughter said to try Jargon Media. New publisher. Looking for a project. Check it out.
So I did look at the Jargon Media website. But it seemed editor Victoria Harben wasn’t really looking for genre fiction; she likes literary work. And since Willow Vale is a romantic historical set in WWI-era Wyoming . . . I lost confidence and dithered.
But adult daughters can sometimes be more mature than their mothers. She persisted. I sent a query. Victoria liked the story. She called my characters, Francesca and Kent, “enthralling,” high praise from someone whose personal taste is non-genre.
Imagine, I now have the same sweet deal the Wall Street Journal reports that Stephen King gets for his new foray into historical fiction: about fifty per cent of the profits. Most authors get ten or fifteen. And I have big influence in other aspects of publishing where writers usually have no say, such as the wonderful cover featuring a cameo of my immigrant grandmother.
Sometimes wishes do come true. The Internet has opened up a whole new universe of publishing opportunities for writers. So now I offer to my readers the same advice that was given to me: Keep writing. And never give up.