I wrote the first draft of Danger Peak in four months, from November 2018 to March 2019 (contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t write the bulk of the book during quarantine), though it’s been revised many, many times since. Once I was finished and read it over, I had no idea what to do next to get it published. This may sound strange coming from a Senior Editor in Manhattan, but working in the world of technical publishing is still a galaxy far, far away from the world of fiction. I didn’t even know what a query letter was. I felt like I had to go back to school to learn all about getting published, so I did what anyone else would do. I Googled. A lot. That’s where I found a sample query letter and the proper way to format your manuscript. (I was way off, in both respects.) I learned other things as well, such as the fact agents and publishers want a word count, not a page count, since the page number will differ depending on the book’s format, which you won’t know until right before publishing. Also, you don’t simply get a word count by using your MS Word “Word Count” tool. There’s actually a formula. Want to know what it is? Google it!
I also read a lot: over half a dozen books on writing and publishing (not to mention countless online articles), including one that’s over 500 pages. At this point, I was doing a lot more reading than writing on my publishing journey, which is not ideal for readers like myself who cringe if a book passes the 350-paged mark.
After I researched various agencies and publishing houses and started submitting my manuscript, the rejection letters started to arrive in my email inbox. Although they of course stung, I also felt like it was a necessary rite of passage. I told myself, “Hey, even Stephen King got rejection letters.” Incidentally, it still amazes me that he received a single rejection letter, let alone enough to hold a spike into his bedroom wall, which eventually fell off because there were too many rejection letters.
Most rejection letters were vague, which makes sense since they were form letters. I noticed the ones that weren’t, though, had a similar theme: they all thought my “writing was interesting” and my “idea was very original,” but it “just wasn’t for” them. I kept thinking, “If you like both my writing and idea, then why isn’t my book for you? Take a chance, people!”
Perhaps my favorite rejection letter was exactly all of three words: “Not for me.” That was it. No explanation. No apology. Just “Not for me.” Thanks, guy! I’ll incorporate that constructive feedback into turning my manuscript into an irresistible masterpiece!
Then at last I got a bite, from Writers House (the agency of the legendary Neil Gaiman!). An agent there loved my pitch, query letter, and two-page story synopsis and requested my full manuscript. I have to say I was floating on Cloud 9 for a week after I submitted my baby. Then a week turned into two weeks. Then a month. Then two. I was back down to earth again. When he finally got back to me, he said it was a very close call, but he could only take on a certain number of new clients each year, and while he liked my story a lot, it just wasn’t enough to push him over the edge.
If I had to guess as to the exact reason why he passed (as well as all the other agents), I would have to say that the ‘80s timeline is a hard sell, especially for a middle-grade/young-adult book. A former agent once told me, “Kids don’t want to read about the past. They want to read about either the present or the future,” hence why there are so many dystopian books set in the future in the young-adult world (the Hunger Games, anyone?).
Also, I have a sinking suspicion that this agent looked me up online (as well as the other agents who passed) and was disillusioned to see that I have absolutely no social media presence whatsoever. In this digital age, it’s all about selling online to your hopefully large and devoted audience, and, cards on the table (and technophobic as I am), I have none. I’m barely on Facebook. I didn’t even have a Twitter account. (I do now, but it’s only to promote the book and not under my name.) Of the dozens of applications I filled out online when seeking an agent, all of them wanted to know what my Twitter handle was (not if I had a Twitter handle, what it was). I’m sure they weren’t thrilled when my response was basically, “Twitter? What’s that??”
At around this time, I started flirting with the idea of self-publishing, though, a bit snobby, I used to turn my nose up at the idea. “Hey,” I told myself, “I’ve written for The Baltimore Sun! Yahoo! used to pay me for my articles! I’m a published writer! I’m on Wikipedia! And even these agents who aren’t taking me on admit they like my writing and book idea!” But my close call with Writers House opened my eyes as to how difficult this process had been. It was starting to take its toll. Even after publishing Danger Peak, I’m not sure I’d like to write and publish another book because the experience was so harrowing. (I do have one more good idea for a book; maybe I’ll write it during my retirement when I don’t have a million other things going on.)
Then four things happened that made me change my mind about self-publishing:
- After researching about how to write and publish a book (remember, over six books and numerous online articles), I learned that only about 1% of manuscript submissions to agents and major publishing houses get selected for publication, and even if you’re lucky enough to get picked, unless your name is Stephen King or John Grisham, the publishing house is not going to spend much time or money on marketing your book, especially for a debut novel from an unknown author. The author is still the primary mover and shaker for selling the book. I thought to myself, “If I’d have to be the main marketer of my book at a big publishing house anyway, I may as well do it myself. I can publish my book set in the ‘80s right now, or I can continue trying to get a traditional publisher until I’m literally in my 80s and no one on earth remembers that decade.” (And who’s to say I’m even going to live that long? I can die tomorrow from a freak accident.) In other words, I can finally just get my book out there to the public, and if it bombs, it bombs, but at least it bombs on my own terms.
- My cousin, whom I greatly admire (is it “whom”? I should know now being an “author”), self-published her book and had a good experience with it. Since I look up to her (she’s older but not that much older), I figured if she can do it, so can I.
- I learned that John Swartzwelder, the most prolific writer of “The Simpsons,” my favorite show of all time, self-publishes his novels, including the brilliant and hilarious The Time Machine Did It. I found an article explaining his publishing exploits, and he told the interviewer that he basically got tired of waiting for an acceptance letter after trying for a few months to get an agent. I thought to myself that this man wrote 61 episodes, more than any other writer, of “The Simpsons” — and during their classic years, no less, not the lame, limping-to-the-barn, nearly unwatchable episodes of the past decade. (We’re talking classics like “Bart the General,” a segment from the very first “Treehouse of Horror,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Bart’s Comet,” “Homer vs. the 18th Amendment,” and “Krusty Gets Kancelled.”) If this man had trouble finding a literary agent, what chance do I have?
- This last reason is the one that tipped the balance for me. In the summer before Sixth Grade, I read a book called The Big Scratch: A Manx McCatty Adventure by Christopher Reed (not Reeve, the Superman of the ‘70s and ‘80s). It was a detective story starring a feline private eye, which I thought was a great idea. I even loved the cover, which looked like the poster to a never-made Disney noir. I was proud for reading the whole book by myself when it wasn’t assigned to me for school, and I wanted to read more. Luckily for me, at the end of the book, the author teased its sequel, The Black Claw. I couldn’t wait to read it, so my Mom and I went from small bookstore to small bookstore (remember those?) across Long Island asking where we could buy The Black Claw. All of the shopkeepers had no idea what we were talking about. Most had never even heard of Christopher Reed. (Again, they thought I was talking about the actor.) After a few months of looking, school started, and I was in the swing of things reading books to get good grades, not necessarily for pleasure, so I abandoned my search. Cut to three decades later: I’m cleaning out my attic and find The Big Scratch in a giant, plastic bin of old books from my childhood. Happily filled with nostalgia, I turn through its pages and once again mourn the broken promise of the never published sequel mentioned at the close of the novel. Then I realize, “Hey, this is the year 2021. I don’t need to go from store to store with my Mom again. I can just fire up the Internet and look online, mainly Amazon.” So I do exactly that, and to my utter surprise and delight, the book does indeed exist, and guess when it was finally released? 2018. Only a few years before the one I was looking it up. And here’s the kicker: It was self-published. This author who I worshipped as a kid and waited with baited breath for the follow-up to his cat detective masterpiece tried to get his book published for three decades and then finally self-published it! I’m not doing that to myself. I’m not waiting decades. My book deserves to come out now.
I decided that if I was going to self-publish, I was going to do it right, so I went with the hybrid publisher/self-publisher Wheatmark. One benefit is that they do almost all the work for you, including cover design, getting your book a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, registering your copyright, full proofreading, and setting up your ebook format, so you have more time to promote your book, like I’m doing on this website right now. Also, according to The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (that was the book I read that was over 500 pages), “If you’re looking for the finest in author services companies…there are some excellent options to choose from. The problem is, they also have to choose you. Companies like Wheatmark…are different from the majority of publishing services providers, which will publish anything (for a price) without regard to its editorial content and quality or an understanding of its intended audience.”
I submitted my manuscript to Wheatmark on a Thursday and was told I would hear back from them on Monday. Monday came and went. So did Tuesday. By the time Friday rolled around, I figured, “Well, I guess they didn’t like it.” Turns out the person reviewing the book ended up reading the entire thing, even though he was only supposed to do a cursory review, because he enjoyed it so much. Hopefully, you will, too.
At over 2,000 words, this is my longest post so far, so I realize the irony of titling it, “My Publishing Journey in Miniature,” but believe it or not, this is a brief summary of what I went through in the past nearly 4 years, not a blow-by-blow account, even if it felt like it.
P.S.: I realize I must sound like a broken record by now, but let me sing it once more since it seems some people still haven’t heard the tune. There have been a few more followers of my blog since my last post, and again, I greatly appreciate that, but you guys haven’t technically opted in to get the free book. To do so, you need to enter your email address at the bottom of the Blog/FREE Book page, and click “Sign Up.” Once you do that, you’ll be automatically sent an email to confirm your email address (and make sure someone didn’t sign you up for this blog as a prank). After you confirm it, you’ll be sent a free PDF of Lists, Life, and Other Unimportant Details, an over 270-paged collection of my best blogs and published articles over the past 25 years. Once again, if I don’t have your email address, I can’t send you the book. Thanks!
P.S.S.: Next week’s blog: How the Series Finale of the New “Muppet Babies” Almost Destroyed Me
3 responses to “My Publishing Journey in Miniature”
I don’t care how long it takes, I can’t wait to read more from you! Good luck and congrats! So excited for Danger Peak to be released!
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