I’m what you might call an accidental author. I never dreamed of writing a book. What I knew about publishing would’ve fit on the smallest post-it note with room to spare. So how did I become a published author of two young adult fiction series? And more importantly what did I learn along the way?
My first attempt at doing something ‘creative’ wasn’t writing; it was painting. When I started writing what became my first novel, I was still painting. My kids helped me turn the corner. They liked my paintings, but they became involved with my writing. Nearly every day they came home from school and asked to read what I had written. They not only motivated me to write, they also provided feedback.
Lesson One: You can’t get published if you don’t finish the book. Find a motivation to write every day. It’s okay to step away from time to time, but it’s critical that you write on a regular basis. I have a little ritual I use to transition from other work to writing. I also track how many words I write. I have a different goal for each project but it’s usually between 500 and 1,000 per day of writing.
Lesson Two: Feedback is gold. Find someone to read your work as you progress. Some authors belong to formal writers’ groups, some solicit help from social media, while others rely on friends or teachers. Relatives are usually not a good idea, but fortunately for me my family is very candid and my kids have no problem telling me what doesn’t work.
Once I finished my novel, which rambled to 120K words, I started looking for an agent. Confident in my certain success I submitted to about a dozen agents (found via the web) who were open to submission and listed YA fantasy as a genre of interest. A few sent me form rejections, most ignored me. One read my attached sample and liked the premise, but advised me to get an editor.
Lesson Three: Use an editor. I was quoted 2 to 3 cents/word or $2-3K for my manuscript, which was more than I wanted to spend. As an alternative consider a full critique and evaluation for about a tenth the price. For $300 my editor marked everything that needed changing, but didn’t make any of the changes. Her recommendations ran from voice and scene issues to suggesting that I cut the story down to 70K words (it was 110K at that time).
After two very intense weeks implementing her recommendations I had a ‘professionally edited’ 80K word story, which I confidently began sending out again. Again the vast majority of agents responded with form letters or silence. Even those requesting a partial or full MS rarely gave me any useful feedback.
Lesson 4: Rejection is part of the process. You are going to face rejection of your work. It’s important to make that distinction. It’s not a personal rejection and it won’t help you to make it one. Not everyone will like your work – even after it’s published. Get used to it, learn from it, and move on. As the rejections piled up I turned to small press publishers who accepted submissions without representation. I received requests for samples, but no offers. One of the publishers who rejected my book sent me the internal feedback from their reviewing editors. They liked the story, its pace, my voice, etc., but thought it was too much for a middle-grade audience. They encouraged me to cut it into two or even three books and resubmit.
Lesson 5: Choose how you act on feedback: This was great feedback from the people I was targeting. I agreed that the story was not middle-grade, but not with the suggested remedy of moving it down to middle-grade. Instead I made some changes that preserved the story and the characters as I envisioned them, but moved the story more solidly into YA. At this point I’d been at it nearly a year and had more than 100 rejections. I decided the next batch of publisher submissions would be my last. If I got no offers I’d call it a day and look at other options.
Lesson 6: Set limits/goals and stick to them: Less than a month later I had two contract offers. Neither had any signing money, which is the norm for small presses, and both were for e-books only with options for print. Both offered line-editing, cover art, formatting for all of the major online retailers (Amazon was less dominant then), a publisher website with author page, and publisher ISBN #s (important because library/school distribution was closed to self-pub #s). Their royalty structures were similar, although one offered slightly higher rates for third party distribution. The limited information available on both (at P&E and Piers Anthony’s blog) was generally positive. The one with lower royalty rates had been in business since 1999, while the other was less than a year old. I went with the lower royalty company primarily because of their longevity. There are just too many horror stories about failed publishers and legal troubles for authors.
As Indie publishing has become more acceptable do I wish I’d gone that route? Sometimes, but then I’d have to find an artist, deal with formats (most Indies go with the Amazon exclusive KDP Select or Amazon and Smashwords which simplifies formatting), pay for line editing, etc. Yes, I’d have more control and the royalties are better, but in hindsight a small press was right for me (while I know people who’re happy with a pay to publish company I wouldn’t have considered that).
Just like dating, it only takes one yes to overcome a slew of rejection. Some of us get to yes faster than others, but you can’t get there if you don’t try.