In 2016, I’d given up on getting a publishing deal.
I’d been writing for most of my life. As a teenager, I’d self-published two poetry books (in the day before digital publishing, when self-publishing meant going to Kwik Kopy to get paper books printed) as fundraisers for charity. I went on to study Creative Writing in graduate school and complete a novel as my thesis. I had poetry, short story, and children’s book manuscripts ready to send out, a track record of literary publication, and old projects sitting in my Dropbox. I was bound and determined to have a career.
So the submissions and query letters went out, and the rejections came rolling in. The next five years brought two close calls: after many no’s, one publisher accepted my children’s book, only to have the line of books they’d accepted it for fold. A new small press was interested in my short stories, but the press ended up not getting off the ground. I tried to freelance and occasionally shopped around old pieces, but my heart was no longer in it. I dreamed often about having a great idea for a novel, but my real-life attempts never made it past chapter 1. The energy had drained from my writing attempts, and I worked in abortive fits and starts. Was my lifelong dream of writing books a false hope? Despite my love of stories and the positive feedback I’d received in my early life about my way with words, I wondered, not for the first time, if I’d been cut out for this at all.
Meanwhile, I focused on studying and then teaching the Enneagram personality system. My co-teacher Kacie and I decided to create a little ebook about personality types at work as a freebie connected to our mailing list. I brought out my editing and design skills to shape bits of our previous writing into a coherent whole, and added Decoding Personality in the Workplace to my email signature. I also continued to edit books on a freelance basis, and one day, one of these publishers asked: “We’re looking for an Enneagram book, and I see you’ve written one. Would you be interested in doing one for us?” And in 2017, Kacie and I got to hold The Modern Enneagram, the published book I’d given up on, in our hands.
There’s more than one path to being published, and the journey can be long and hard. Here are some strategies to weather its ups and downs.
1. Be persistent.
Rejection is a fact of publishing. A quick Google search will yield lists of rejection letters, hilarious in hindsight, for best-selling novels, and Stephen King collected enough of the suckers to hang them on his wall. From my experience on the other side of the acquisitions desk, I can attest that a lot of good writing, for reasons related to fit, space, and chance, just doesn’t make the cut. Those same pieces might find a perfect home elsewhere. Keep submitting, and if the editor takes the time to give constructive feedback, read it carefully. Sometimes they just don’t get your story, but at other times they’ve identified flaws that will improve your writing if corrected.
Also, while many publishers and publications simply don’t respond to submissions they choose not to publish, if the venue doesn’t specify this, don’t be afraid to follow up if you haven’t heard back. Last summer, I sent a fantasy story to an online magazine and heard nothing in response. I assumed they just didn’t like my story, then discovered that another submitter had received a prompt reply. My follow-up email led to the publication of “Count Three Stones,” and a piece I’d loved writing finally found a home.
2. Be open to different doorways in.
If one approach isn’t working, consider another. I just heard a great story from a Scottish literary agent about a writer of paranormal police procedurals. Despite the quality of his work, he was repeatedly turned down by traditional publishers because there was “no market” for his books. This agent encouraged him to self-publish, and the popularity of his unconventional mysteries proved the publishers wrong.
If you’re committed to getting your work out there, be open to trying different avenues for publication (including self-publishing), different genres, and new approaches. Experiment and see where it lands you.
3. Take breaks when needed.
If you feel exhausted and disheartened from the submission-rejection cycle, sometimes the best thing to do is to take a break from the whole game. Step away from your favorite manuscript. Let go of the projects you’re invested in if they’ve been driving you crazy. Later, you can return to them with fresh eyes, able to revise when needed, take a new submission approach, or start something new and exciting. Remember that “not now” doesn’t mean “not ever.” Publication is a non-linear process, so be open for its cycles of ebb and flow, and expect the unexpected!