I spend a large part of my workday writing. My course load each semester is light and doesn’t require more than a few hours a day of actual contact time with my students. The remainder of my time I tap away on the ancient RFID tagged laptop my university has entrusted me with. On a good day I’ll get a solid five or six hours in. Over the weeks and months it’s rewarding, and fascinating, to watch an idea take shape as a novel. Finishing a novel is an accomplishment but after the last sentence is written there’s still a lot of work to be done. The manuscript has to be read through several times to catch errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and plot. Then it has to be looked over several more times by a set of fresh eyes. If you’re a first time author you’ll have to find an agent to represent your work. This process can be far more daunting and discouraging than the actual writing. With my last novel, Saving Bill Murray, and the first, which shall remain nameless, I’d made half-hearted attempts at finding an agent but decided to self-publish through a company my friends and I started. What I should have done is polish the manuscripts and send out personalized query letters to agents that would have an interest instead of using a generic query letter to contact as may agents as possible. I wish I could send a message back in time to myself but I can’t so the next best thing may be to try and save fellow writers from wasting their time, effort and money the way I did.
The concept of self-publishing has taken off in the fast few years but for most authors I think it’s a terrible idea. First by self-publishing you’re tacitly saying your work doesn’t hold enough merit to be published by a publishing house. Literary agents and editors at publishing houses exist for a reason. They’re the gate keepers, they decided if a manuscript is good enough to be put out or not. Sure it’s a subjective process but if you’re getting flat out rejections without requests for your full manuscript that means you probably have some work to do on your manuscript. If you are getting requests for full manuscripts then it’s probably just a matter of time before you’re picked up.
Even if you’re book is the next Great American Novel it most likely isn’t going to be taken seriously if you self-publish because you’re saying “hey everybody look at this great book wrote! No really it’s totally different from your Uncle who self-published his memoir about being in a Motley Crue cover band in the late 80’s and way totally better than your roommate from freshman year of uni’s 23,000 word ‘coming of age ‘novel’. Really this is different. This is literature!” Literary agents and editors at publishing houses are paid to bring worthy books to market, to say “this is something that should be read.” and people listen to that.
Established publishing houses have cover and interior designers, editors, a marketing department, and connections within the media. If you self-publish you’re either going to have to wear all of those hats yourself or spend a lot of money hiring freelancers. In either case the end product isn’t going to be as high quality as it would with a publishing house. If you send a press release to the New York Times telling them about how great your latest self-published novel is, even if it is great, they won’t give two shits and, if anything, will probably be slightly vexed. If an editor from Simon and Schuster, especially one with a track record for putting out best sellers, starts talking about your novel people listen. The gate keepers are there for a reason.
A common response; “Wait, wait what about Shades of Puce, Dragon Keepers Oath, Or Kraken’s Lair?” Well self-publishing works for some authors but they’re usually authors who’ve already established themselves with their writing ie been published before by a publishing house or they have a large platform such as hundreds of thousands of twitter followers, a successful blog or podcast, or are a B-list celebrity. There are the occasional break out success stories but these are the exception not the rule. I speak from experience. Right after university I worked for a subsidiary of one of the big five that did self-publishing. The vast majority of our authors sold less than fifty copies of their book.
Just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it should be published. It’s a trap I fell into and the thing I regret most about my journey as a writer so far. You’re riding high on the buzz of finishing your first novel, dreaming of becoming the next Hemmingway, Kerouac, King or Steele. You know it’s going to sell millions of copies, regardless if it’s self-published or put out by a publishing house. In fact you’re so sure it’ll be a success you decide, after a few rejection letter from agents, that you’ll publish it yourself. My advice: Put the project on ice for six months and come back and revisit it. I’d bet money you either relegate it to a shelf or do a massive rewrite. Or you could take the path I did and have to live with the existence of a novel you’re deeply ashamed of. I cringe when I think there are still copies of that floating around out in the world. I seriously just dry heaved.
The first step in getting your book published is to find an agent willing to represent you. Every author’s experience is different and if you’re interested Writer’s Digest has some great stories in their How I Got My Agent series.
When I started submitting to agents, first with the unmentionable ‘novel’ and then with Saving Bill Murray, I sent my queries out in the wrong way. There were days I did nothing but compile lists of agents and spam them with my generic query letter. I got a few requests for the full manuscript, along with a pile of rejections. I eventually realized instead of sending out hundreds of query letters to agents that might not be a good fit I should do some research and find an agent that would have an interest in my work and that I would be interested in working with. Atop my list was Lucas Hunt at the Phillip Spitzer agency. He requested the full manuscript and then, several weeks later, offered me representation.
I finished Wine Tasting is Bullshit on Friday, and though about it over the weekend. Also, my office just had a discussion about the manuscript, and we would like to represent it to publishers on your behalf. Does that appeal to you?
Your writing is refreshing, passionate, humorous, and simply a pleasure to read. From the first sentence, I was intrigued by your characters and how they view the world with ebullient cynicism and playful astonishment. WTIB is completely unflinching social satire, done with pathos, and a dash of nihilism that is a balm to the soul. Your ability to move from character to character, then to bring them together in what at first appears a complex predicament, comes off as brilliant improvisation, all the while, touching on profound deterministic forces. The manuscript gets to synapse, and opens our eyes to the conditions and common humanity in others, while addressing themes with global impact. How you have managed to piece together this outrageously fun volume is beyond my powers of deduction, however, the effect is clearly remarkable.
It would be a pleasure to begin making submissions for Wine Tasting is Bullshit to major New York publishers immediately. If you should need further evidence of my enthusiasm for your work, I would be happy to supply it to you.
Mr. Hunt sent me a list of editors that he submitted to. I scanned the list and felt a nervous twitch in my eyelid. Oh the big five! Wow! For some reason I thought we be submitting to smaller presses. Submitting to the big guys made me uneasy. I researched the names on the list and my anxiety levels crescendoed. My God what have I done! These people are going to hate Wine Tasting is Bullshit! They’re going to tear it to shreds! Can I take that kind of rejection on this level?
For better or worse I’ve always had a fairly high tolerance for failure and rejection which led to some interesting experiences, such as owning the first foreign restaurant and bar in Yangsan, South Korea, Bar Hemingway(haha yuck it up coworkers, I stand by the name!) to entering a kickboxing tournament with just a few months training under my belt. Failure and rejection make one reanalyze their motives. Hm why am I doing this? Is it something I really want? Am I trying to prove something to myself or someone else? Can I be successful? Do I know when to say when? I realized running a restaurant and bar wasn’t for me, it wasn’t what I wanted out of life and so I closed Bar Hemingway and felt better for the experience. Some would call it a failure but for me it opened other doors. I experienced something and realized it wasn’t for me. It freed me up to try something new.
Writing is different. It’s something I know I’ll never give up on, something I need to do. When I was seriously querying agents I didn’t care how many rejections I received I knew I was a writer and if I kept at it, both querying AND writing, I would make it. There was no question otherwise. My first novel wasn’t picked up by an agent, so I wrote another one which wasn’t picked up by an agent, so I wrote another one, which was picked up by an agency. As mentioned earlier my one regret here was self-publishing. If I would have listened to some of the criticisms I received on my second novel from agents and editors instead of wanting to get it out as quickly as possible, I believe it could have been a better book and would have found an agent.
Something I wasn’t prepared for was how negatively the first rejections letters from editors at major publishing houses affected me. With agents it would roll off my back and I’d simply write up another query and send it out. Ok she didn’t connect with it, she didn’t get it. That’s ok, someone will get it. I’m not sure if it’s that there are a very limited number of big publishing houses so the rejections have more weight and finality to them or if this is the last step in a process that has consumed a lot of time and energy so there’s more finality in that, ie the manuscript has been rejected by the major publishers and is either going to be put out by Gobbler’s Nob Press out of Punxsutawney or no one. The worst rejection came from an editor at a major house who either didn’t get the overall theme of the book or didn’t like what that theme had to say.
Reading those initially rejections was by far the low point of my journey as a writer. I not so seriously considered packing after I read them. Then I gave myself an ‘attitude adjustment’ as my father used to say, and realized it was all part of the process, just like the other things I went through. If the book ends up not getting picked up by a publisher, or by Gobbler’s Nob Press out of Punxsutawney, then I’ll take what criticism I got form the rejection letters and use them to make my next novel that much better. Writing isn’t something I’ll ever give up on and any gains I’ve made, or make, as a writer I owe to that.
Author Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist and English lecturer at the Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea where he lives with his wife and son. He is interested in evolutionary biology, the Cold War, international relations, existentialism, British roadsters, sailing, jujitsu, East Asian history and cultures, and literature. His first novel, Saving Bill Murray is available here, His second novel, Wine Tasting is Bullshit, is forthcoming.