Publishing: The Long and Winding Road

Winding Road - Stelvio Pass, ItalyMany of you are familiar with the long and often circuitous route to publication. From when you first decide, “I think I’ll write a book!” to the time you have a book in the bookstore, years can elapse. I had a startling reminder of this recently when I saw a book by an author whose name was very familiar to me. I’ll call her Ms. Writer.

Back when I was an in-house editor, we looked at a non-fiction proposal from Ms. Writer and thought it was a bit raw, yet had terrific potential. Our editorial team decided to take a risk on her.

Several months later, Ms. Writer delivered her manuscript. I was the editor, and unfortunately my first impression upon reading it was, “Uh-oh.” I tried to begin editing, but the work that needed to be done to make it publishable was too much for me with my full load of authors, so I ended up assigning the project to a freelance editor. Eventually the editor came back to me with the distressing news: she felt the manuscript was simply not “ready for prime time” and Ms. Writer wasn’t yet a skilled enough writer to accomplish the changes the book would need. Sadly, we had to cancel the book. We were contractually allowed to do this; Ms. Writer had failed to deliver an “acceptable” manuscript. We’d also had two editors attempt to salvage it.

Heartbreak all around; we didn’t like the situation and neither did the author. But Ms. Writer decided it was for the best. She was going to devote herself to improving her writing as well as continuing to build her platform. We wished her well.

Four years later: I’d just started agenting, and I got an email from Ms. Writer, who was shopping for an agent. She’d come a long way in four years, and was now ready for publication. Her platform had grown; her writing had improved by leaps and bounds. She was also speaking with other agents, and eventually she ended up going with my friend, Ms. Agent.

Ten months after that: Ms. Agent sold Ms. Writer’s book to a major publishing company.

Fourteen months later: The book came out.

Nearly seven years had passed between her first submission of a proposal to a publisher, and finally getting a book on the shelves.

Everything in its time, right?

Don’t underestimate the importance of having all the pieces in place. Your writing skill, your platform, and all the undefinable things in your life that spell your personal readiness (or lack thereof).

I want to encourage you… if it’s taking longer that you’d hoped… take stock, be honest in your self-assessment, and keep moving forward.

Do you have a story that involves publishing and timing? Tell us.

  1. I’m ready to publish a devotional book called Unbroken Pieces – The Voice of Peace and Wisdom. I will love find an agent who can help me along the way. What steps can I take?

  2. Thanks for posting this Rachelle. Lots of lessons to learn from this account. Mrs. Writer was willing to accept criticism and act upon it. She persevered. Good advice for all of us.

  3. Thtank you for share!

  4. Catherine Hudson says:

    Never, never, never give up…
    now who said that again? 😉

  5. My friend Bill and I started writing our book of ghost stories, “Haunting Valley,” in…gosh…I can’t even remember exactly when. I’m going to say 1992-ish. We compiled a pretty respectable number of short stories. I even found a publisher: the owner of the bookstore in the town where I live offered to underwrite the publishing of local authors with local stories. We went to him with our draft, and he agreed to take it on.

    Then he started making suggestions.

    And more suggestions.

    And more suggestions.

    And frankly, I got tired of trying to accommodate him. And then I got married. And we had a child.

    But I couldn’t let “Haunting Valley” go. When I learned that my wife and I would be having twins in 2008, I called Bill and said, “If we don’t get this done now, we never will.” We rolled up our sleeves, and made it happen. It came out in October 2008, just in time for Halloween.

    At the book signing, Bill looked at me and said, “Thank you. If you hadn’t prodded me, I would not be a published author today.”

  6. So did Ms. Writer ever make any money after seven years of work? Or was it all just for the warm-fuzzies of seeing her name in print?

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Since I’m not her agent, I have no way of knowing. But she did sign with a traditional advance-and-royalty-paying publisher.

  7. Michelle Ule says:

    Perhaps one day you’ll discuss the disadvantages of being published too soon, Rachelle. Or the horror of getting the first thing you’ve ever written published and not having years of experience in craft, patience or self-editing in hand so the second manuscript becomes difficult to produce on time.

    It takes a mature person and writer to accept the need for constructive criticism and the editing necessary to produce a quality project. It can be difficult to recognize the necessary traits early in the writing life.

    And then, of course, all the pressures that bear down with actually being published can be a challenge if you have a busy “real” life. There’s a reason so many writers only get their big start once their children are grown or at least in school! 🙂

  8. Funny you should mention this. I was at the ACFW Conference in September last year. My first conference, so when I saw you at the Starbucks ordering your favorite flavored latte (sorry I wasn’t stalking close enough to hear the flavor) I didn’t know what to do. You looked over at the table where I was engaged in a great conversation with another writer. I wondered, should I break off the conversation to pitch to THE Rachelle Gardner? Not quite adept at agent stalking yet, and not sure if hitting agents up at a coffee bar was anywhere near following them into the bathroom, I decided against it. I took my flight home that evening. The next day, while catching up on blogs missed that weekend, I saw your post about pitching etiquette. Evidently, Starbucks is okay. However, I now realize my manuscript—particularly the first few chapters—was not ready. Phew! That was close. It’s gone through a number of changes since then, so maybe by next conference I’ll have something publishable to show. Timing is everything!

    • Sebastian says:

      Yes, I’m aware of Manders’ technique. I thuogh hard about doing all those computations on the GPU myself, but there is a big difference between our samples.He only has lines for which to draw shadows, while I have polygons with arbitrary number of edges. For a line, no matter of the light’s position relative to it, the shadow always has the same shape. This is not so for a polygon, and depends both on the shape of the polygon and on the position of the light. One way to do this would be to draw the shadow volumes for each edge of the polygon, in the same way as Manders draws shadows for his lines, but depending on the level of detail of that polygon, this could result in a great number of Draw calls (order of tens), as opposed to a single Draw call for the whole object’s shadow, as it happens now. These add up, and may actually hurt performance more than benefit it.This is one area where DirectX10 geometry shaders would come in handy, as they could be used to generate the shadow’s geometry on the GPU, for any convex shape imaginable. But since XNA is DX9 only, for now I’ll have to stick to doing all this on the CPU.One other idea would be to move these computations on another thread, and use multi-threading, but this is dangerous territory as well.

  9. Daphne Delay says:

    Yes I do 🙂 When I started writing devotionals, I had a self-published book that did well when I traveled but that’s all. I didn’t know anything about agents or publishers, but I kept writing devotionals to subscribers to my website. It slowly grew and I faithfully wrote and posted a new one every Monday. Six years passed and I attended 2 writers conferences. I saw areas my writing need to improve and made the adjustments and kept building my platform (not that I knew that’s what I needed to do at the time). And then almost 8 years after I started, I submitted one of my over 200 devotionals (from 6 years of faithful Mondays) to CBN. They took the first one! I was elated. They have now printed twenty of those devotionals and I could never have imagined the reach they would make.
    I am grateful for the process. It has taught me patience and honestly, revealed areas that needed improvement. I’m glad there was grace with my subscribers back then who saw my potential and it helps me look ahead with great anticipation!

  10. There should never be a rush to publication. More and more editing produces a fine final product. I’ve been shopping for an agent for only about a year and my book has changed greatly for the better during that time. Perhaps by the time I finally sell it, historical fiction will be hot!

  11. This post proved to be most useful to me.

  12. Truthful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing this.

    2 most trusted leadership, motivational and writing-related websites found online in 2012 are: this site (Rachelle Gardner’s and Michael Hyatt’s site). Great to have people who offers genuine, honest content online . Thanks.

  13. Started my first novel in 2009. The second agent I queried requested the full. Then a R&R. I worked on it for 9 months and resubmitted the partial in 2011. She liked it and asked for the full. She sweetly rejected the full, telling me that I did everything right, but due to personal preference she had to pass.

    Started third novel in 2011. Finished novel in two months, edited and polished until it was ready to query in 2012. So far I’ve had a partial request. Still waiting.

    Started third novel in 2012. Working on that one. Hopefully either the second of third will be THE ONE.

    I still love my first one, but I want to continually move forward. The second rejection by the agent who requested the full ended up a good thing. It humbled me in a major way and I’m glad for that. I know God has perfect timing and that my effort and growth will not be wasted. 🙂

  14. JPK says:

    Boy, it sure is encouraging to see that in today’s publishing landscape the longest part of the publishing process is the actual writing part. No more waiting 7 years to get your book out to the masses. No more waiting 1 year. No more waiting 6 months. Thanks Amazon and Smashwords! 😀

  15. June says:

    I’m not trying to be facetious, but honestly, it looks like you need to start pursuing being traditionally published in your youth or you may be old, infirm, or dead before you get a book deal or see the novel on the shelf! Seriously :-/

  16. Started my first novel in December 2000.

    Completed it in January 2003.

    Began shopping it in March 2003.

    First rejection in April 2003.

    Started my second novel in April 2004.

    First rejection of second novel in Sept 2004.

    Other works started through the years.

    Last rejection on first novel in June 2011.

    Gave up on traditional publishing of first novel in July 2011.

    Turned 60 in December 2011; time running out.

    Last rejection (a no-response rejection) on second novel in March 2012.

    Fully gave up on traditional publishing in March 2012.

    e-self-published it in March 2012.

  17. Susan Husk says:

    My timeline begins in 1997, the first of 10 years of research. In 2007, it took me six weeks to throw the story on paper. Another year later, I felt I had polished it enough to publish, so out went the query letters. I was unsuccessful, but there were a few encouraging words. After turning to more classes, presentations, and networking, I found out that I did not know as much as I thought I did. By now it is mid-2010. After another eighteen months of polishing the manuscript, I am ready to try query letters again. In the meantime, I am learning about blogging and creating websites in order to get an internet presence, something much more emphasized now than when I first started this venture. Things change very quickly and it can be hard to keep going while working to pay the bills. Rachelle’s story proves that if it is meant to happen, it takes an investment of time and sacrifice. Believe in your work. Let me encourage other writers that it takes longer than we think, longer than we like. However, the job well done will be worth it in the end. May each of you find success in a small or big way very soon!

  18. Marielena says:

    I do believe in Divine right timing — for everything. However, I am really getting up there in years and like the Psalmists am asking, “How long, oh, Lord, how long …?”

  19. Amanda says:

    I think this post could actually be the forht in your series on making a living at being a writer, or rather part be of the last installment. It is the perfect example on why you need variety and realism. If you’re writing a novel as your one and only opus, then probably you don’t see this post the same way I do. That is to say that if your novel or memoir is the only thing you plan on writing, then, yes, perserverence is the thing you need to take from this.

    I personally look at this as the perfect reason to wrie web text and send stories off to magazines and the like because the novel, the one that I have put so much work into is going to take me a while to publish.

    Anyway, thank you again Rachelle for a very helpful post!

  20. Josh C. says:

    Does anyone else have the Beatles stuck in their head, or is it just me?

  21. Josh says:

    I wonder where that perseverance comes from?

    How does one overcome the thought that “maybe I wasn’t cut out for this writing gig” (which is in fact a false belief, this being proof)?

    Great motivation to just focus on being the best writer you can be.

  22. Emma says:

    I landed an agent this fall and have been receiving occasional rejections, most of which say I don’t have a big enough platform. I’ve been working on my memoir for two and a half years, and emotionally, I’m just about ready to throw in the towel. However, PR opportunities are suddenly coming out of the woodwork, so it seems foolish to stop now. Will this story have a happy ending? Time will tell!

  23. I haven’t begun my agent search yet, mostly because I’ve been spending the last few years working on craft, even when others have told me I’m a good writer, a shoo-in, etc. Most of these, of course, aren’t fellow writers, so I take their compliments with a grain of salt. I know there will be a variety of factors leading to my future success, and I can only control one of them, which is writing well consistently within a reasonable time frame. Thus, I’m going to try my hardest to have that one accomplished before putting my work out there, and then expect it to take several years more before much else happens!

    It’s good to know that if I fail the first time, though, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end for me.

  24. Jennifer Major says:

    I have writing free lance for 4 years. I have written several major (yeah, I know…hahaha) newspaper articles as well. I even had a missionary blog post a piece I had written. When I opened the “click here to read article” thingy on the website… only THEN did I find out that they were publishing it! I was fine with that, believe me. I have gone through my MS at least 150-170 times. I want it perfect before I query. Even a (flamingly agnostic )writer/editor friend of mine likes the first few chapters. Even so, I will not begin the query process until the wow factor is there for everyone. Except my mother. Who thinks I write like a high school senior.Am I dwelling on that? Oh yes I am! I want any prospective agents to send me emails that say “Pick me!!” Isaiah 40:31!

  25. Light Sakpere says:

    The right thing to know at this time. This is the 7th year i’v writing a devotional, not up to 70 pages, lol. I wanted an excellent work. An editor who saw my work, asked me the secondary school i attended, because of wrong grammar and spellings. I was determined, so i went on-line myself to study english, literature, writing and poetry. Today, i can say i’v improved a lot but i’m stil improving, i won’t rush publishing. Tnx for this timely piece.

  26. Dean K Miller says:

    My first magazine article sat on the editors desk for a year. Somehow it didn’t get “filed” in the trash bin.
    After three months of revision emails it got published. I’d given up on it. Lesson learned though!

    Certainly not the longest journey, but still was surprise.

  27. Great story.

    And these stories are the ones that make me believe that self-publishing is not usually the right course. If Ms. Writer had thought, “Well my book was good enough to get a contract–it must be good. They are just too lazy to work on it. I’ll self-publish,” would she have grown? Some of my friends say she would have grown. Her book wouldn’t have sold and she would have discovered that the editors were right. I’m wondering if it’s not smarter to learn that lesson before you go to the time and expense of self-publishing.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Sally, you’re right, but it’s not just the time and expense of self-publishing. If you publish before you’re ready and the book sucks, you may permanently lose potential readers. They pick up the book, they don’t like it, they can tell the author can’t write — and they cross that author’s name off their list. Down the road, perhaps the author has “grown” as you say, and become a good writer, but unfortunately they may have lost many potential readers along the way. Why risk that? Why not wait until you’re ready?

      • Josh C. says:

        Rachelle, that’s probably the main reason I want to go the traditional route. I don’t think I could be satisfied with my work unless there is a professional’s stamp of approval first, someone to say, “This is good enough to sell.”

        I have an acquaintance who spoke with me about his wanting to take up writing and some fears he had about it. I mentioned a few authors who had to deal with mounds of rejection (Kathryn Stockett, James Lee Burke) before “making it big.” I meant this to be encouraging to him and urging him to be patient. Two weeks ago, he told me he was almost finished with his novel, should be done in another couple of weeks. Then he was going to self-publish because he could “make more money” that way and if it doesn’t take off, he’d “just have a publisher pick it up for” him. SMH…patience is a virtue, a cliche that Ms. Writer’s story clearly proves. Writing is not an easy, work-free path to fortune and glory. We have “Reality” TV for that.

        • Iola says:

          There is absolutely no way that a novel is reading to be launched on an unsuspecting public two weeks after he finishes writing it. That barely gives it time to be properly proofread, let alone revised, edited, revised, edited, proofread, files converted, proofread again, cover design…

          Can you suggest your friend read this blog, Joe Konrath’s blog and Self Editing for Fiction Writers (at the very least) before he publishes? As Rachelle says, it’s a long and winding road, not the Interstate.

          • Josh C. says:

            Oh, I have, and subscribe to a writing magazine like Writer’s Digest, read a few books on writing, read some novels in the genre he’s writing, etc. It does no good. He’s anxious to get it out. I’m afraid he’s making a mistake, but hopefully he will learn without too much damage.

      • That’s so true! Well said.

  28. Time-how long can you hang on is the greatest challenge. It is eclipsed only by money. How little can you exist on, for how long as you hang on.
    Or is that, “On how little can you exist, for on how long you must hang?”

  29. Ratan Kaul says:

    So realistic and motivational. There are no short cuts for writing a good, appealing novel

  30. Linda says:

    Ms. Writer succeeded because she had to prove you all wrong. Several months ago I was asked to review a manuscript for someone, and the writing was horrible. But the would-be writer forged ahead eventhough he/she didn’t quite know how to construct a basic sentence. I told my husband just last night that this writer will surpass all of us who’ve been struggling for years because he/she has to prove me wrong.

    Of course, I could be wrong in my assessment. 🙂

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      If it makes you better to couch it that way, then I guess that’s fine. But in reality, Ms. Writer knew we were right. And that’s what gave her the motivation to learn and improve so that she would be in the right place to get her message out to the world. She wasn’t out to “prove” anything. She was out to share her story, and determined to do whatever it took to make that happen.

      • Linda says:

        Rachelle, thank you for that response. No, it really doesn’t make it better to think that the writer friend is out to prove something. I’d much prefer it the other way around. I’m glad to know that Ms. Writer was NOT out to prove anybody wrong because it makes me feel better to think that my writer friend is continuing with this book in order to share his/her story. Again, thank you for clearing that up for me. 🙂

        • Lynn Petroski says:

          At first, I wrote to prove others wrong. Ultimately, we write for ourselves, and hope someone else likes it as much as we do.

          Don’t get me wrong. I still want to wave it in the face of those who said I can’t do it, but it will be a pretty check and a prettier book on a shelf one day.

  31. You know why I love stories like this, Rachelle! Just this weekend my youngest son asked me, “Mommy? Is your book *ever* going to get published?” Jeesh, you know you’re in rough shape when you have to defend your long and winding publishing journey to your seven-year-old!

  32. Anna Banks says:

    I didn’t know it at the time, but when I wrote my first query and sent it off, my MS wasn’t ready. And neither was I.

    Fast forward a year, a novel, and a query later, and I signed with an agent, who sold my MS two weeks later to a major house.

    And this time, I was ready. I knew it too, because I was sooooo stinking thankful I hadn’t signed with anyone for the first book. As badly as I’d wanted it, yearned for it, dreamed about it at night, I wasn’t ready with that first novel. I wasn’t, my writing wasn’t.

    But guess what? I took my new-and-improved writing skills, cleaned up that first MS, and my agent sold it too.

    Retrospect makes things easy to dissect. My advice is: Don’t push too much too soon. You may not be ready.

  33. That must’ve been crushing for the writer, but thankfully she picked up the pieces and held on to her determination. That’s definitely key.

    I remember with one of my agent requests, it said “keep honing your craft” at the bottom of the email. As a newbie writer, it made me want to yell, “but this IS perfect the way it is!”

    Later, after revisions and critiques and edits, I realized that though the bare-bones of the novel were great, there was much polishing that needed to occur before it was ready to go to print.

    It can be totally discouraging at times, knowing you’ve given your best effort to that manuscript. But truthfully, you have more “best efforts” in you. Efforts to revise, edit and generally “bend” your manuscript into something you’re proud of.

    Writing is a relentless learning process, but so worth it. The key is hanging on during each trying step.

    • Lynn Petroski says:

      I am always sure my novel is perfect. And equally as sure that others can pick out where it isn’t. 😉

  34. Donna Pyle says:

    Yet another great reminder to keep working on and honing the craft of writing. Thanks!

  35. Amy Keeley says:

    Very encouraging. I hope this kind of honest feedback manages to survive the changes in publishing. It makes for better writers.

  36. These kinds of stories are great to keep in mind, and great for a little dose of perspective. Thanks!

  37. Rick Barry says:

    Rachelle, your post strikes a wise balance between encouragement and reality. Thanks for this.

  38. Susan Rocan says:

    It took me 10 years to find a publisher willing to accept my manuscript. Actually, there was a publisher that depended on government grants that wanted to publish it but couldn’t get funding for it because their mandate stated the author must be Metis or native, not just the character(s). The publisher that finally accepted me was the one I’d started with in the first place but they were not accepting YA fiction (or ANY fiction) at that time. Since they focussed mostly on history, I knew right from the start my novel was the one for them. I just had to be patient. Once accepted, it took about a year to get from the editing stage to bookstore shelves. While waiting for that acceptance, I kept writing and have many other projects in several genres on the back burner waiting for the right time to send out into the world. So, people, don’t give up!

  39. Zan Marie says:

    This is a timely reminder that skills matter. Thanks, Rachelle.

  40. I’ve told my story before, but the short version is that I wrote four novels that garnered forty rejections over a four year period. So I gave up. Then, through a series of events that can only be described as providential, the right agent saw my work and took me on as a client (thanks, Rachelle), the right editor liked the proposal (thanks, Barbara), and I’ve had four novels published since then with a contract for several more (thank you, Lord).

    Moral: Do the work. Learn the craft. Keep trying. Don’t give up (but even if you do, God hasn’t).

    • Beautifully said!

    • Lori Benton says:

      I second that advice Richard.

      I said those words, “I think I’ll write a novel” in December of 1991. Several novels and dozens of rejections, a year of cancer and four years of chemo fog, and three MORE finished novels later, I got my first contract offer in December of 2011.

  41. Jeanne T says:

    Ms. Writer seemed to have a couple of necessary qualities or this writing journey–a willingness to accept her book wasn’t ready, and the determination to make it ready (via improving writing craft, and doing what it took to make her book better).

    I don’t have writing to publishing story. But those who are closest to me have been surprised at all that’s requred to write a great novel. I’ve begun mine 4-5 times so far. I believe each time it’s getting better as I learn craft and implement it in my writing.

  42. TC Avey says:

    Thanks for sharing. I know I am new in my journey compared to many people. This helps keep me in perspective and not rush things.

  43. David Klein says:

    From the time I decided to write a novel to the time I was published took 24 years! My first two novels were awful. My third found an agent but not a publisher. My fourth was awful. My fifth helped me find an agent and publishing contract. And during all that time I worked, got married, had kids, supported a family. Stash came out in 2010. Clean Break is next this June.

  44. This is so true! I was just answering some interview questions for my local paper and they involved, “how long did it take to write your book” and “how long did it take to get published”
    Years, on both ends. I tried to explain it in my answers…Congrats to that author for sticking with it!

  45. Kara says:

    I don’t (yet) have a story that involves publishing and timing but when friends ask me how long the process takes I have a good reply.

    In the time that I’ve had one of my manuscripts out on proposal I’ve gotten married, bought a house, changed jobs and had a baby (who is now six months old). And yes I do know that it hasn’t been lost down the back of a desk somewhere!

    I just figure that God’s timing is perfect and so, one way or another, whether it ends up progressing or it is just taking an exceptionally long road to rejection, he’s got it all under control 🙂

  46. Lynn Petroski says:

    I’ve thought long and hard about writing my first novel. To me it’s like climbing Mt. Everest – a series of steps needed in a proper order with only the vaguest idea of what the journey will be like. I’m still climbing upward and onward, but when I hit a major milestone – finishing my first draft – I celebrated by writing about my full journey to publication. I passed that milestone last October and now I’m getting help revising it yet again. To me the top of the mountain isn’t getting it published. That’s after the climb back down. The top is just getting it good enough to send out. I can’t tell you if my theory is correct, until I can brag my novel is published, but here’s a link to my full theory –

  47. JulieS says:

    I find one thing that can prolong the time from concept/idea to publishing is researching. You have to make sure you do your research thoroughly as there will be readers out there who will nitpick and/or know more about a subject than you do.

    So if you come up with an idea that needs researching it is wise include it as one of the pieces you need to have in place. In the end it will save you a lot of embarrasment later on down the track.

  48. Wow. Both a discouraging and encouraging story wrapped up in one.

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