(Your Mileage May Vary)
It seems like every author has their “How I Got Published” story and many try to monetize it by adding a “and you can too.” But mine is just a funny story about instant success taking over a decade. I don’t think anyone can really learn from it and I’m not dropping pearls of wisdom, but it’s a little funny, so I hope you get some giggles from it.
The struggle is real, but the struggle is different for everyone. There are points of commonality, though… like, for instance, if you were trying to become a published author before the rise of e-books, it was very difficult. Thousands of authors were vying for a few literary agents. Literary agents, in turn, vying for the attention of the Big 5 (or Big 6, depending on when you started querying). I don’t have stats, but it certainly felt like, for every person who made it, 100 were turned away without more than a cursory “no thanks email.” Of those who got a “no thanks,” another 100 never even got that much of a response. It all felt impossible.
Yes, I was one of those poor writers sending my weekends researching literary agents, how to format a query, and sending off email queries. I might have been fortunate than most because I occasionally got requests for samples of my work and had a few stories completed that I could send along as I hoped to land a home for my first novel.
And that’s when I learned a dirty secret of the publishing world: marketability was king.
You need to be a good writer. Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a good book. But you also need to be marketable. And what I got back, when I got anything at all, was a “hey, this is good, but can you produce a book every 12-18 months?” As someone with a full-time job, the answer was “absolutely not,” and that’s where the conversation ended.
Literary agents are good people and the few I’ve met all wanted to do right by their clients. But this is a business and a literary agent doesn’t get paid unless the writer gets paid. So, at a time when traditional publishing was the only way (unless you were printing them in your garage… I’ve Seen Things!), it makes sense that they wanted a reliable author who could produce regularly. I felt hurt and angry when I realized that sad truth. I felt humiliated that I could be considered a good author but not be considered marketable. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, it makes sense. As the Godfather says, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
So, did I lead a writer’s revolt against the evils of Big Publishing?
I’d love to say I did. But honestly? I shelved my finished works. I kept writing in my precious free time, posting those works to free hosting sites, and kept my day job. (PS – I love that day job!) And where was that free site? Well, let’s just say I went with a site I could guarantee a readership, but most of my stories were … uhm … spicier than they are now. (My apologies to my editor and one of my betas for sometimes getting a literary eyeful with my early works. To my first beta, you found me there, so you knew what you were getting into!)
What? Don’t look at me like that! Many an author wrote for Playboy and even Hef himself noted that without the Bunnies, he would have only had a literary magazine.
While my writing may have languished in free site hell, there was a change coming. I offer my thanks for E L James and Jeff Bezos. They were the two driving factors in how I got published. First, Amazon was working to open the e-book market. Their start as a book distributor was morphing into more, including offering most titles as both paper books and e-book due to the availability of tablets and smartphones. Around this time, Ms. E L James turned her smutty Twilight fanfiction into a trilogy of books so naughty even I blush reading them. And it seemed like every Soccer Mom with a tablet or smartphone was reading it. E-books, unlike a physical book, meant you could read without anyone seeing the cover and therefore knowing that Karen and Jennifer were reading hardcore smut during soccer practice. Sales exploded and publishers realized the potential gold mine they were sitting on.
The market did what markets do, it adapted. There were now a greater number of avenues for e-books. Authors rejected by literary agents or the Big 5 (or 6) found they could self-publish (considered “vanity publishing”) and they didn’t have to spend precious writing hours querying literary agents.
They also rushed books out. The traditional publishing timeline became truncated when you did everything yourself, for good or for ill. Some writers found great success. Some found mediocre success. Some barely broke even. And some found they were, in fact, terrible at one aspect of publishing: writing, proofreading, or marketing.
The industry shifted again, making more room for indy and hybrid publishers who harnessed a split between physical books and e-books. Again, there were more avenues for new writers to get into the publishing world and without literary agents as indie and hybrid publishers scouted for their own niche talent.
And where was I during all of this? Still working and loving my day job. Finishing a master’s degree. Finishing a second master’s degree. Writing white papers for my day job. Writing academic papers, government and technical papers, but not putting much work into my fiction.
I was also hanging out on Twitter and meeting other authors. This is where my story seems to pick up again. I met my editor as he was finalizing his first novel. We chatted over Twitter, discussing our works. At one point, he offered to read my most recent finished novel, written in my free time while working on my master’s. On a whim, I sent it, never thinking it would be anything more than one writer offering constructive critiques of another’s work. I love constructive criticism and seek it out when I can. It makes me a better writer.
I sent the email in July of 2018, three years after I wrote the full novel, and never thought of it again.
I switched Twitter handles. Then I got an email: “Hey, checking in. Haven’t seen you on Twitter.” I explained that I had swapped handles, but no, I was still around and happy to keep chatting about writing.
And here’s where it gets fun and funny. That person I was chatting with? He was the editor of a new indy/hybrid publishing company. He liked my work. He wanted to add me as an author. Y’all he hand wrote me a note inviting me to submit my manuscript!
If this were a movie, you’d hear the record scratch and my narrator would say something like, “Without a literary agent, a querying process… what was she thinking? Did she know what was about to happen?” Then dramatic music would start playing and I would slow-motion walk away from an explosion while looking really cool.
I spent parts of my holiday break in 2019 furiously tearing through my draft, polishing it, and turning it into an acceptable manuscript to be considered by the publisher. (Yes, 1.5 years after initially sending the draft.) I didn’t have a lot of free time. I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I checked in with my girl gang, asking what pen name I should take. (For reasons, I can’t use my legal name when I publish fiction.) I only had a shred of hope this might be for real, but it was a chance I was willing to take.
I submit my completed manuscript on New Year’s Day 2020. I crossed my fingers.
I am unknown. I am a long shot. I’ve been told I’m “not marketable.”
My manuscript was accepted.
And the real work began. I worked to clean it up further. I sought other betas who provided great feedback.
Now the really funny part: my headshot and my contract.
My publisher asked for an author’s headshot, which is a totally reasonable request and part of a standard media kit. Unfortunately, when the request came, I was 4 days into a 14-day preventative quarantine for COVID-19. I was definitely not going to a studio for a professional headshot.
Where was this taken? In my bathtub. Yup, I wish my spouse had gotten a picture of me taking this picture because I had one foot in the tub, one on the lip of the tub, my butt up against the wall, and my arm resting against the other wall. It probably looked goofy AF, but it was great lighting!
Fortunately, I was COVID-19 free and was eventually released from quarantine, just when the state was shutting down. And guess what came in the mail? That’s right, my contract. The contract that was the key to my decade-old dream. The contract THAT NEEDED A NOTARY’S SIGNATURE IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC.
But in my line of work, you find a way to get things done and I was not letting this opportunity pass simply because of a pandemic! I found the one and only notary still open, wore most of a hazmat suit to enter their building, and got it signed.
I may not have the most unconventional “How I Got Published” story, but it sure was wild and completely unexpected. I was rejected, but years of honing my writing in other ways meant that I was ready to run with it when opportunity landed in my lap.
Even if I was running through a pandemic wearing a hazmat suit to get those papers signed.
**2022 Update: Since this was written, both Pantheon and Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena have been published. (You can read the first chapter of Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena for free!) I’ve also had a chapter in “To Boldly Go” published under my legal name with an invitation to participate in the team’s next project. It floors me that one conversation on Twitter opened the door for so much opportunity.
What’s your “How I Got Published” story? Let me know in an email, comment below, or hit me up on Twitter.
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