It’s Heartbreaking When You Have to Say No

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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!

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15 comments

  1. I am sorry to hear that this publisher turned out not to be the right fit. But I thought it was great to see how much insight you had to seek out the help and advice of others and how thoughtful you were in your decision to say no. I hope the next publisher who is interested is not only enthusiastic but also the right fit.

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  2. Wow. What a journey. And that heartbreak–I’m surprised you weren’t actually cleaning up blood. It’s so flattering to hear from a person who loved your book, and must be devastating to realize that they may have loved you but don’t have the resources to give you what you deserve. I really hope you do get what you’re looking for. You did the right thing–many authors are just so excited to get to the publishing part that they let their judgment get washed down the drain and take chances they normally wouldn’t. You asked the right questions and saw their true colors. I wish you the best!

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    1. I appreciate your encouraging words, Julie! I was almost one of those authors, so excited to get the offer and ready to ignore my better judgement. I’m glad I didn’t do it. Each day that passes is more of a relief, which makes the heartbreak a little easier to bear. All the best to you as well!

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  3. I think you did the right thing. You have to go with your gut and instincts and you did. Just keep working hard and you’ll find that perfect fit!

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    1. Thanks Melissa! I sure hope you’re right! My plan now is to finish my current WIP, try to find a publisher for that one, and then maybe I can sell them Women Like Us too. I appreciate your encouragement!

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  4. Wise decision. First of all, I would say that 99.9% of all agents are bloodsuckers. It doesn’t matter if your book is a good read or not, they would do anything to win a dime — especially “new” agents. So being skeptic by nature is first of all a good trait if a writer has that.

    Small agents are just as desperate as the new writer to get their stuff out there. Of course, it may be a succesful cooperation, but then, it may not.

    Unfortunately, you as the writer, will always be left in uncertainty if your book could really be a success or not; if your writing is actually good enough to compete on the market and make you a bestselling writer.

    You need to find a “trustworthy” agent (trustworthy not meaning über-successful) who will represent you as best as he can (The movie “Miss Potter” starring Ewan McGregor just comes to my mind). Eventually, you only know if your book is a good read if people will actually buy it. Hearing opinions by friends, family, and the agent himself is always a bit flawy, I think, and influenced by personal interests.

    Speaking of other experiences with agents… I have dealt with actors’ and other creatives’ agents so far. As long as they don’t see any budget in your project, they won’t even forward your request to the artist. In a way, it can be very unprofessional and they don’t know what this behavior may provoke or who they are dealing with. In this case, it is a very idiotic “threshold guardian” to overcome. Not comparable to literary agents though, I guess.

    However, always be skeptic about those “bloodsuckers”. Level your options. Promote your own book as best as you can, especially when it’s published by a less famous publisher.

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      1. I think, “John-Boy Walton” is a perfect example of how not to be a writer. As much as I like his character, he was pretty naive and trusted almost anyone that would promise fame and fortune on the book market.
        The first time he was offered to be published, he wasn’t even thinking enough. Eventually, they sent him a box of beautifully printed copies of his first novel, but he was supposed to pay more than $100 for it and sell them himself.

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  5. This is the first time I’ve read your blog but man was I rooting for you! The world of writing and trying to get published is a hard one. Sounds like you are so close though, so don’t give up!

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  6. If you believe in your stuff, self-publish it. Left you a few tweets on the subject, but writers like Amanda Hocking, J Konrath, Hugh Howey, Mike Hicks and others have built careers by getting their quality work in front of readers and letting them decide. It will cost you virtually nothing to self publish and get your work in front of an audience. Many authors are going the hybrid route, like Hugh Howey, having good success with self publishing and drawing attention from the legacy publishing houses as as result and signing contracts with them–sort of use the whole world of readers as a big slush pile.

    Me, or hundreds of other Indies out there would be happy to help you with advice on formatting, uploading, cover artists, editors, etc. I learned the biz and did all but the editing myself, but you can mix and match and get the parts done for fair, cheap and simple one-time fees–or do it yourself or with friends and family.

    Let me say this: each day your story sits on a hard drive is a day a reader does not have the opportunity to read, enjoy, and spread the news about your work. You have nothing to lose by giving it a try.

    email me if you want to open a dialog, or need advice or help.

    Regards
    Steve

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  7. Thanks for telling your story. Everybody needs to know that the complexity of the publishing process doesn’t end with an acceptance. You always need to make the choices you think are best for you. 🙂

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