In some ways, I should be the last one to be giving advice to other writers on publishing anything. My qualifications on the subject of writing come mostly from my having taught English for thirty-five years and a creative writing class that I designed and taught for twenty-five years. Each spring my students published a sixty-page anthology of their best writing for which the school twice received recognition for the book’s high quality by The American Association of Teachers of English. Those books are still the results of which I remain most proud from my career in the classroom.
My own first book, ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood, was published in January of 2010 in Baltimore. It is still available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.com and as paperback and NookBook at Barnes & Noble, but most of the profits go to the publisher, as I receive only 7% for the first seven years. My second book, COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN’T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age, is a Kindle book on Amazon and yield’s 70% profit for me, far more generous than the contract with my first publisher, but the limitation is that the work is an eBook, which can exclude readers of traditional hard copies of books. This may be a conundrum for a writer, who wants his or her friends and family, who are uninitiated into the world of eBooks, to read the work. There is also the choice of self-publishing, but that is another story, one that somehow lacks the luster and dignity of having a traditional publisher seek one’s work with monetary compensation (however small) and a willingness to market one’s book.
My third book, COME SEPTEMBER, Journey of a High School Teacher was published in 2012 as a Kindle read and as a paperback. For better or worse, most of the serious publishers are still in New York City, that bastion of companies like Random House. Of course, sending unsolicited manuscripts to those places is simply not done, unless you happen to be John Grisham, Anne Rice, or Stephen King, so it is necessary to procure an agent, who will represent your work and help to create a pitch to interest a publisher in buying the book through some kind of contract. Most of the respected literary agencies receive at least a thousand queries per month from all over the country and overseas. At times it seems that unknown writers now need an agent in order to find an agent, even to begin communication on any level with a publishing house.
I suspect that some of those large literary agencies have staffs of weary readers, highly trained in the art of spotting just the right hook in a query letter in order for further info to be requested from the author. I often wonder how many queries with great potential are placed on the proverbial conveyor belt, racing thousands of letters and even manuscripts toward some great figurative incinerator. The very hugeness of agencies and their efforts to hurry through all those e-mails and snail mails from hopeful authors is a bit staggering, and I also imagine that agents and their underlings grow jaded by the end of each day in dealing with what must be quite a lot of garbage with which they are expected to deal politely, if at all. “Oh, no! Not another of these.” is a message, perhaps not even spoken aloud, that may dominate life in a literary agency, but sheer volume must be the single greatest annoyance and enemy of those poor readers, and ultimately of writers, who want so much to be appreciated.
Realistic determination on the part of the author is a prerequisite. He must believe deeply in his own work and be willing to do his homework in finding comparable work by already “successful” writers. Freshness is certainly important, but agents seem to be most interested in what will sell. It is very important to know the agencies and their criteria and to know what they’re looking for. Read carefully the bio of each agent to find his or her special interest, like thriller, memoir, cookbook, historical fiction, etc.
I’ve read about successful writers, who knew they had something special in their own work but something not necessarily recognized by literary agents. One example is Kathryn Stockett, author of the wildly popular book, THE HELP, which soon also became a popular film. Ms. Stockett counted forty-five rejections in a row after which she didn’t keep careful track any more, but estimates that there were at least sixty rejection letters in a row for her book. Think of all those incinerators containing the ashes of her query letters and sample chapters. This has inspired me in the sense that so far, as of May 8, 2012, I had sent fifty-four query letters and in some cases with sample chapters, when requested and received fourteen rejection letters, all very polite but mostly very impersonal notes sent also to zillions of other hungry writers. Only one of those actually named my book and gave me encouragement to keep going with it. Such is the experience any unknown author without entree can expect in attempting to find an agent, let alone a publisher. Some agents tell you to expect a response in six months, so it is necessary to send simultaneous queries to many agencies, especially if you’re my age (almost sixty-eight) and want to get through the actual publication process of your book some time before your eightieth birthday. In June of 2012 CreateSpace and Kindle of Amazon published Come September, Journey of a High School Teacher. My best advice to writers, who want to be published, is to explore the possibilities of CreateSpace and Kindle through Amazon, now the largest book distributor in the world. Also, authors should copyright their work before submitting it for publication or even for mere perusal. I have copyrights on all of my books, which are sold in Europe now and in places like India.
There are also people who simply must write, not for money or fame, but for the joy of expression for its own sake and perhaps for the satisfaction of sharing their thoughts, and sentiments. Blogs are perfect venues for that kind of writing, and in essence, if you’re writing a blog, you’re “published,” because you’ve a readership, even if only one other person.
My two most recent books, Hodgepodge, a Feast for Mind and Spirit, and Mum’s the Word: Secrets of a Family were both published in 2013 by Kindle and CreateSpace Publishing. These have been more successful financially, because I’m paying neither an agent, nor a publishing house for materials for the paperback versions. The books are placed in libraries and bookstores, but there is no expense to me. I receive royalty checks according to sales. Because I believe in the quality of the books, I don’t mind tooting my own horn about them once in a while.