If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve been on a mission to get one or another of my books published for a few years now. I’ve received rejection upon rejection from literary agents. Some of them were encouraging. The last agent to reject Women Like Us wrote, “I was highly entertained reading your pitch and sample pages. You have a great comedic voice and I thought your narrator was charming.” I enjoy hearing that. It honestly makes my day, every time. From what I hear, literary agents are unbelievably busy people whose inboxes are jammed with so many query letters they need to hire help just to open each one and hit “send” on the form rejection. So if one of them liked my writing enough to send me a personal note about specific things she enjoyed in my book, I call that a win.
Of course, most of my rejections came as form letters. I’ve got close to two hundred of those. You’d think this would mire me in a deep depression, but like I wrote here, I’ve learned not to let the rejections get to me. I see, “RE: Query: WOMEN LIKE US” in the subject line and my first thought is, “Oh look, I’ve got another form rejection.”
Sure, there’s hope too. Just before I open the email, my thoughts jump to, “Maybe this one will be different. Maybe she wants sample pages. Maybe she wants a full manuscript. It’s still possible!” But I banish all expectations from my mind before I click that email open. I don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed. That way, when I read, “Thank you for querying me with your project. Unfortunately…” I can go, “OK, just what I thought. No big deal.”
So imagine my surprise when one day, I opened one of these emails to read lines like, “A great novel…once I started I could not stop…acquisition discussion phase…set up a conference call.” This email was from a publisher, not an agent, and it was certainly not a rejection. This publisher wanted my book.
I was over the moon happy. I told everyone I knew. Thoughts about what it might be like to be a published author pre-occupied me for days until that conference call finally came along and I got a chance to talk to the publisher who fell in love with my book. This was the best conversation I’ve ever had in my life. I have never spoken to anybody who gushed about my writing more, including my mom. (Sorry mom. Nobody is more surprised than I am. You are still the Queen of Gushing.)
I was a little skeptical, because this was an indie publisher without much of a history. I talked to some friends who are published and asked for their advice before the call, and I wrote down a list of “must know” questions to make sure I was fully informed. Here’s the list, if you’re curious:
1. Can you tell me some sample titles that you’ve published? (So I could later look them up on Amazon.)
2. What is your experience in publishing?
3. What is your editing process?
4. How will I be compensated? Do you expect me to have any financial obligations in publishing or marketing this book?
5. What is your marketing plan for my book? Can you give me some examples?
I also asked her a couple of specific questions about the plot of my book, just to make sure she’d actually read it. I didn’t really doubt that she had, but I’ve heard horror stories about unknown publishers acquiring any books they can get their hands on with no intention of ever actually selling them. I wasn’t obvious with the plot questions, and I framed them so it sounded like I wanted her opinion on certain plot points. It would be rude (and a little desperate-sounding) to come out and say, “Have you really read this book?”
Well let me tell you, she’d really read the book. And she loved it. She told me her favorite parts, which qualities of my characters spoke to her, which parts surprised her and made her laugh out loud, how much she loved the manner in which my characters accomplished their goals. She made me feel like a brilliant writer. At the end of our call, she said, “Whatever you choose, whether you publish with us or not, you’ve got a fan for life. I will read whatever you put out there.”
Wow. I defy you to find one writer who wouldn’t be thrilled to hear those words.
She also answered all of my other questions satisfactorily. I really thought I was on the verge of signing a publishing contract. Then came the contract itself. I decided that, since I wasn’t represented by an agent, I should have an attorney review it. The publisher and her contracts manager were very supportive of this idea. They said, “We don’t want you to sign anything you’re not comfortable with. Getting an attorney to review it is the perfect way to ensure that everything in the contract is in your best interest.”
So I got an attorney referral from my father-in-law (Thanks Ray!) and sent it off. There was nothing inherently wrong with it. They weren’t trying to screw me over or anything. In fact, most of it was boilerplate. But my lawyer did suggest a few changes that, according to him, were to “clarify terms.” Seemed innocent to me. I read over his suggestions, asked him a couple questions to make sure I understood, and sent the amended contract back to the publisher.
Now, all of this took some time. My lawyer had a vacation, the publisher had a conference, there were other books they were working on. So several weeks passed while the contract was going back and forth. During this time, I decided to do something I should’ve done from the beginning. I read some of their other authors.
Some of them seemed very talented. But there were a few whose writing I thought just wasn’t publishable. It was full of awkward sentences, echoes of the same word used way too many times, and verbose passages that could’ve been cut down by half without losing any meaning.
I thought, “If they think this writing is good enough to publish, why are they interested in mine? Do they think my writing is at the same level as these guys?” Then the more devastating realization, “If I publish with these guys, and this is the kind of stuff they’re putting out there, will anyone take me seriously?”
The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. When I ask other published authors to blurb my book, the first thing they’ll do is look up other books put out by the same publisher. If they’re terrible, that author will not want their name associated with them. When my publisher sends my soon-to-be-released manuscript to bloggers and book reviewers who’ve received dozens of poorly written books from these same guys before, they’re likely to never even pick mine up. As far as they know, it’s not worth their time. No matter how much time and effort the publisher puts into marketing my book, if they’ve got a reputation for selling stinkers, the writing community will assume my book should fit into that same category.
Realizing this broke my heart. I didn’t want it to be true. I tried convincing myself it wouldn’t work out that way. My book is good. My writing isn’t clunky and awkward. It’s snappy. Funny. Poignant. I’ve got a great comedic voice, for crying out loud! People will see the difference between my work and theirs, and they’ll love my book. And even if they don’t, even if it doesn’t sell, that’s no big deal. I’ll write more books. I’ll have learned my lesson and I won’t publish with these guys again. My career can move on.
But what if it doesn’t? I’ll never be a first time author more than once. Any agent or publisher who’s interested in one of my future books will first look up the sales figures of my previous books. This is something that could haunt me forever.
Even still, I didn’t want to believe that. I continued to talk to the publisher and negotiate the contract. But a funny thing happened. These people, who had always responded to every email I sent them within a few hours, started getting pretty distant once my lawyer got involved. Even though they’d welcomed his review in the beginning, once they saw his suggestions they started backing off a little. It took them a long time to respond to his last round of suggestions. When they finally got back to me, they said his changes would drastically alter the contract. My lawyer and I were both surprised by this. We thought they were simple, clarifying changes. What was going on here?
Still despite all these red flags, I told them I was willing to continue negotiating with them, and I was confident that we could work out a deal that we were all comfortable with. In other words, “I’ll work with you! Don’t worry!”
After that, their communications with me got even more cagey (and infrequent). I finally had to admit, this publisher is not for me. I’m kind of embarrassed about how long I let it go on, and how much evidence I ignored.
This is not to dis all indie publishers. I love indie publishers. The world would be a much less colorful place without them. And I’m sure there are thousands of writers out there who have had wonderful experiences with them. I’m just saying I’m relieved that I didn’t sign that contract.
I finally sent them my break up email last week. I told them that I enjoyed talking with them about my book, and I was grateful for their enthusiasm for my writing, but in the end, we weren’t a good fit. It’s kind of ironic to be on the sending end of an email like that. It also sucks.
Do you have any stories to share about heart break in publishing? Or success stories from working with an indie publisher? I’d love to hear those too. It would make me feel more optimistic about the world in general to hear some good news. I LOVE hearing from you!