The Hard Part

By

A few years ago I decided to stop talking about writing a book and actually wrote one. If you had asked me before writing it what I thought the hardest part of the process would be, I’d have told you the physical, butt-in-chair, writing of it. Turns out I was wrong. For me, that was the easy part. Then I might have said that the endless editing and rewriting was surely the hardest part, but once again I’d have been wrong. The hardest part of this entire process, the part that makes me feel like I’m trying to pound my head through a wall a foot thick is the effort to get it published, the selling of it, not like art, but like a cheap commodity that needs a witty sales pitch, a wide demographic and a catchy jingle.

As many writers do, I wrongly believed in the fairy tale of “if you write it, the publishers will come” but I’ve learned the hard way over the past couple of years that that is about as true as the tale of Whitey Cheekum and the Golden Booger (trust me, you don’t want to know). The trouble is that the sheer amount of bad literature being produced is staggering, and the path to publication passes beneath the watchful eyes of the gatekeepers: the literary agents. An agent has to sift through a wasteland of dreck to uncover those one or two manuscripts that will hopefully, one day, find their way to publication, bookstore shelves, and at long last into the readers’ hands. The problem is convincing someone that you alone, out of the multitude, are that gem.

The volume of manuscripts these agents have to sort their way through requires them to streamline the way they separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the ways this is achieved is through the query letter: a brief one page summation of your book that must be sufficiently clever, literate, and interesting to convince an agent in seconds that your book is worth reading. This is often compared to what you might read on the inside jacket cover of a book. Sounds easy. Trust me, it is anything but.

Even if you manage to craft the perfect query letter, your book is still a long way from sold. If an agent is interested he might request your first five pages, or first chapter or some other sampling of your work. Based on that, more might be requested, representation might be offered, or more likely, you’ll just receive a polite “No Thanks” in a form letter.

That’s what I’ve been dealing with for the past couple of years and it is unbelievably frustrating and depressing. To date I’ve sent out somewhere around forty letters to forty different agents and have been rejected by them all, most with the dreaded form letters. A few have sent encouraging notes and a few have requested to read more but eventually they all turned me down.

The last round of submissions and rewrites left me emotionally and mentally exhausted and I haven’t had the gumption to get in the ring again for several months. Now, I’ve heard time and time again that you have to simply keep plugging away at it, and I intend to. The Rabbit Room was envisioned as a forum to discuss stories and I’m going to use it to do just that. I’m going to get back in the ring and start the process again. I’m going to blog my progress (or lack thereof) here on the Rabbit Room. Hopefully, some of you will find it of interest and maybe even learn a thing or two and hopefully, it will hold me accountable and force me to stick with it.

The first thing I am going to do is dig out my old query letter and see how it’s aged. I’ll post it here once I’ve located it and we’ll take it from there.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


16 Comments

  1. Tom Bubb

    Pete,

    I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating this process has been for you but I’m proud of you for getting back in the ring (and sharing about the experience with us) and you’ll be in my prayers for sure.

    Peace,
    Tom

  2. Allison

    We have a good friend who is going through the exact same thing with agents and publishers and all the rest. Hope it turns out well for both of you!

  3. Bruce Hennigan

    Pete

    Boy, can I relate! I’ve been trying to get fiction published for a couple of decades. Then, in 1999, my pastor and I put together a book on depression and the editor at B&H Publishing bought it without even looking at the query letter! Go figure. So, I chose to self publish my first fiction book. It has been well received and everyone who has read it loves it and wants to see the second book, but the book stores won’t touch it because it is print on demand (POD) and can’t be returned if not purchased. Talk about frustrating. I have a well received book that nobody can get their hands on! So, I’m putting the second book in the series out with a company called BookPros. There sort of a cross between self publishing and conventional publishing. We’ll see how well things go because the book can be ordered by book stores in the conventional way. By the way, I’ve two agents. The first ended up in jail and convicted of fraud. The second refused to represent my fiction books without even reading them! So, even if you get an agent, it’s not a slam dunk you’re going to get published.

    Hang in there!
    Bruce

  4. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Pete, thanks for letting us in on what is a painful and frustrating part of your journey. I was nodding my head vigorously as I read this, finding it analogous to what musicians go through to get past the gatekeepers of radio. You are quickly disabused of any notion that creating something good will get it noticed. Andrew’s music is a case in point that the quality of the thing doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the biggest selling song of the year. In fact, I’m afraid the opposite is often true.

    I looked up the lyrics to a number of the biggest songs on Christian radio this past year and was so disappointed. God deserves better, in my opinion. Not to mention I think it’s a poor witness. Especially with music, there are always unsuspecting eavesdroppers spinning through that radio dial whose only exposure to Christian art is what they hear on the radio.

    We just cast caution to the wind and tried to release an unorthodox song off my record to radio because of how well it has connected with audiences everywhere I play. Even when I did a radio promotional tour last year and played it for music directors, they were moved by it. It has proven to be a song that people care about.

    However, when we remixed and released it, the 5 music directors of the big network stations all passed on the song after only having heard the first half of verse 1. The lyric is: “What would I give to be pure in heart, to be pure in flesh and bone… What would I give to be pure in heart, I’d give everything I own… I’d rid my whole house of it’s demons of lust, and open the window to trust… and out of that window all fear will have flown, I’d give everything I own…”

    It was the lyric “demons of lust” that made them pass. Ironically, this is the very line that causes live audiences to love it. However, the gate keepers are so risk aversive that they are only willing to play what feels to me like the the most antiseptic and bland music the industry produces.

    I find myself wondering how to say something worth saying, how to pursue worthwhile ministry, and even just how to create relevant music in an environment such as we have in Christian radio.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to include my rant here, but I found myself empathizing with the whole tension of having to take the work of your heart and hands and dress it up in a mini-skirt to get someone to notice. The insult that adds to injury is the proliferation of sub-par clap trap that meanwhile clogs the market.

    I used to think writing good songs was the hard part. That’s still incredibly difficult, but a walk in the park compared to the marketing of the song.

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I agree that the most frustrating part is looking at the work that is actually out there getting sold, getting read, or listened to, and realizing that 95 percent of it is plainly awful. Boy, I’ve read a few books in the last couple of months by best-selling Christian writers that are absolutely the worst examples of fiction in any form that I have ever read…and I’ve read some really bad stuff. (No, not you Jonathan.)

    Yet this sort of thing is out there and for a couple of reasons, I think. One is that it is easily consumable, it’s dumb enough that anyone can read it.

    Two, some writers/musicians/artists are gifted with zero talent but an endless wellspring of bad work. Even bad work can sell if you put enough of it out there, and convince people it’s good. When a publisher knows you can squeeze out a new book every six months, they begin to care less and less whether or not know what you’re doing.

    And finally, in the Christian realm, I think many people are so concerned with being polite that they don’t have the heart to come right out and tell [insert bad artist here] that although we love what he’s trying to do, he needs to please stop because he’s insulting all of us. The result is a lack of real critical thought in the community because we’re all too busy being nice.

    Which of course brings up the Rabbit Room. I’m so happy that a place like this exists. Although we might not be warning people away from the bad stuff that’s out there, we are at least trying to steer people toward things that are truly wonderful, and not by the measure of their success, but by the measure of their long-term worth.

  6. John Michalak

    Pete, your post certainly leaves me with some mixed feelings. As someone who is still in the early stages of writing my own creative non-fiction book, I face the mountain you mention of willing my manuscript into being. Now, you remind us that no matter how good the book is, it may never be published at all. I appreciate the dose of reality, but it’s pretty hard to hear at my stage of the process. Perhaps Bruce’s “middle of the road” publishing solution is the best. Isn’t this ultimately about getting your work into the hands of anyone? I.e., you “save” one life, you’ve saved the whole world? I wonder if it really has to be published nationally to be a success.

    That’s the lesson I’ve been learning from the independent music scene. Yes, radio is the way to expand your audience by leaps and bounds, but haven’t folks like Pierce Pettis and David Wilcox (obviously icons) among others, shown that you can prosper as an “underground” artist—that word-of-mouth, no matter how slow, thankless, and tedious, is still the purest form of marketing? That if you have the chance to consistently encounter people with your gift, does it matter that you’re not in the big stadium or the front-of-room display at Barnes-and-Nobel?

    I don’t know. I’m just speaking from the cheap seats, of course, not having progressed in the way so many of you have. But, I think I want my life to be about quality and not quantity, about reaching people one-on-one, rather than gauging my success on how far-reaching my gift is, or how rich I get, but by how much I glorify God one person at a time, and how rich and authentic my community is, i.e., those who share a similar journey. I think God honors that kind of vision and will provide for me when that’s my pursuit.

  7. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I think there are some important differences in the way books and music are bought that affect their abilities to be successful in an independent market.

    The first thing that comes to mind is that a musician can tour. Whether this means a tour bus and an arena show a night for three months or a homely VW and a gig at a local church, a musician has a forum to expose people to his music. Based on that, someone will decide whether or not they want to hear more and buy an album. A writer can’t really do that. Sure, you can set up book signings but unless someone knows your name and knows your style and genre, I seriously doubt you are going to do much to spread your work. Why? Because unlike music, the written word requires a significant investment of time for a person to decide if they like it and want to keep reading.

    Because of the time investment a book requires, people generally buy and read books based on things like reviews, blurbs on the jacket, cover art and most importantly, I think, recommendations from other readers. Naturally music spreads the same way, but with the important difference that you can often listen to about ten seconds of a song a know right away whether or not you want to hear the rest of it. That doesn’t happen with a book.

    So what I’m getting at is that I have a very hard time envisioning a successful path for a writer that tries to go the independent route. The exception would be for people that are speakers and sell books where they speak, and naturally guys like Andrew who can sell their books at their shows. The difference being that the audience already knows they like one aspect of an artist’s work and therefore can likely expect to like another aspect of it.

    The ugly truth (as far as I’ve been able to learn) is that a writer that self-publishes, whether with a print on demand (POD) service like LuLu or a vanity press like Bruce is talking about in a previous comment, is likely to sell a few books to his friends and family and top out at around a hundred sales when all is said and done. On top of that, no publisher, magazine, or any other member of the writer’s market will consider anything self-published as a writing credit. So if you have any wish to continue writing in any kind of professional manner, you are pretty much shooting yourself in the foot by announcing to the community that your work wasn’t good enough for anyone to buy so you had to publish it yourself.

    Is that fair? Well, sadly, most of the time it is. Go buy some self-published stuff and try to read it, you will be appalled. But then again, I’m just as appalled by some of the stuff that comes off of the bestseller rack. It’s a really weird and murky system and that’s why I titled this post the way I did.

  8. Bruce Hennigan

    I agree that most self published stuff is “yuck”. What made the difference in my choosing BookPros is that I was required to work with an editor to polish the book. I went with IUniverse on the first book and that was a big mistake. They put me through an editing process and then didn’t even send the corrected manuscript to the printer! My final book has over 25 glaring mistakes I changed. Obviously, they are all about getting your money and playing on your ego. BookPros is refreshingly different but it is still a self publishing gig.

    That being said, what is wrong with becoming your own publisher? Isn’t that what so many of the artists in the Square Peg Alliance have done? Haven’t they become jaded with the traditional record labels and wanted the freedom to write what they felt God was moving them to write?

    The problem I faced with my fiction books was that traditional Christian publishers didn’t want to take a chance on a book that was too “secular” in its characterizations. Sorry, guys, but I write about real people with real problems in a world that is going to hell in a handbasket really, really fast. I want my books to get out there into someone’s hands who might read if for the secular angle but learn something about the Christian worldview.

    That, to me, is the real problem with conventional Christian publishers. They don’t want to take risks and chances with new formats and edgy stories. Of course, the Left Behind series proved many of them wrong. My editor at Broadman & Holmon for my depression book told me the biggest mistake he made was passing on Left Behind series and a writer by the name of Ted Dekker. Go figure!

    So, if these publishers aren’t willing to take risks, who will? Maybe what we need is a writer’s group like the Square Peg Alliance. Why not publish our own books? All that is needed is good writing and good editing to make sure the story is told well. Most writers realize that no matter how big the publisher, they still have to do the bulk of the marketing and promotion so why give them such a large chunk of your royalties? I don’t know. It’s a system that to me is broken and in need of major risk taking. But, the bottom line always is money, not art.

    By the way, I sold almost one thousand copies of my first book in one year through iUniverse. I hope to sell more of that first book when the second one appears in the book stores! So, it can be done. The system can work but you have to work at it very, very hard to overcome all the problems and short comings of the POD (Print on Demand) label. That POD label is all but a death sentence for your book when it comes to getting it into a book store, so beware!

    Still learning lots and lots
    Bruce Hennigan

  9. Steve B

    So, the past month for me has been filled with starting to think about the issues everyone’s discussing. When I was in college I wrote short stories, and received some acclaim for them, with teachers and professional writers alike telling me “You should try to publish this stuff.” The last 8 years since college have been almost empty of motivation to write – my creativity ran down a few other channels instead, which was fine. Last summer, almost accidentally, I started writing poems, and over the last six months I’ve been surprised to find my interest and motivation increasing, to the point where I now have about 20 poems I’m pleased with, and would like to try to publish.

    My Christmas present to myself this year was the 2008 Poet’s Market, an annual tome of listings for the small presses who publish poetry, known and unknown, general and specific. I’ve been going through the listings, reading each and figuring out which magazines I’d like to research more, get sample copies of, etc. that might be interested in my work. Frankly, it’s overwhelming, not just the options out there, but the consistently small amounts of poems any given magazine accepts for publication, often somewhere between 1% and 8% of their yearly submissions. That’s after you figure out which magazines may be interested, sending your poems under their often intricate and arcane individualized submission guidelines, many of them adamantly against simultaneous submissions, waiting anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months to hear back from them, and then, just maybe, seeing your poem in print another 2-6 months after that. Most magazines have low numbers of subscribers, often with only a regional presence. The proliferation of many new poetry magazines in the past 10-15 years (and subsequent demise of not a few of them) has opened many doors to more beginning poets, but also made competition more difficult, not least because many new magazines have a narrow focus to go along with their narrow readership. This is how one gets one’s writing into the hands of an audience? Really?

    On the other side of the coin, the web has caused an explosion of opportunities for writers of all kinds. Anyone with a website and a few spare gigs of hard drive space can be an online publisher. As we all know, this does not often lead to quality art, though certainly there are exceptions. Still, shifting the responsibility of separating wheat from chaff to the everyday websurfer does nothing to actually make it easier for them to find quality art on the net, and often makes it more difficult, because what does an average person actually know about artistic expression anyway? That may be an elitist statement, and God knows elitism is something I struggle with, but there’s a difference between wanting to surround yourself with quality art – something The Rabbit Room is expressly trying to offer to the average person through its reviews, suggestions, and contemplations – and simply “finding what you like” out there in a world only too happy for you to follow down its primrose path of oversimplification, oversentimentality, and proud mediocrity. We all know that Vanity Fair, of both the Bunyan and Thackeray variety, is alive and well and growing.

    Then we’ve got the self-publishing route, the rim of the coin (if you want to extend the metaphor). The web publishers blame the print publishers for being stuffy gatekeepers; the print publishers blame the web publishers for the lowering of standards and making it harder for art in print to survive. And neither of them like those who self-publish, because they get cut out of the loop entirely. Something truly populist is never popular. So it seems to be a lose-lose-lose situation. Makes you think about “your Father, who sees what’s done in secret, will reward you” in a whole new way.

    Because, really, what’s the point of making art, if not the making of it? Sharing it with others, giving it to God and hoping He may use it to nudge or shove others in His direction, is not only well and good, it is a true way to love God and love our neighbor. But art must be first and foremost an act of worship, a proclamation of God’s grandeur (GMH shoutout intentional) and an act of thankfulness for the gifts He has bestowed, not only on me the artist, but on the artists of all generations, recognized and unknown, of whom I am merely another link in a chain of witnesses throughout our world and history. When I think about that, I’m reminded of both my smallness and my blessedness, and so I throw myself once more into this messy pitch, grateful for the chance to do so. I think I’ve resolved to jump into this world of print publications for 2008, and see what happens out there. I may be casting talc instead of pearls, but also there may be eagles waiting out there instead of swine. Maybe nothing will happen, and maybe that’s okay. Regardless, there’s nothing that will change the honest, creative work I’ve done through the measure of grace and gifts given me, and if I can present my work as an acceptable sacrifice, there is no greater reward. …And I can always self-publish a book of poems someday and give out copies to my small circle of friends and acquaintances. Wink wink.

  10. Chris R

    I have really enjoyed checking out what you guys have to say… quite the educational experience I probably wouldnt/didnt receive in my journalism classes.

  11. Bruce Hennigan

    I have this mantra I go through when I speak at drama or writer’s conferences about the need to write. There are three types of people. First, there is the person who can’t not write. I know this involves a double negative but it conveys the problem so succinctly. I’ve tried to give up writing dozens of times. When I do, my wife begs me to start again because I either descend into terrible depression or I become Godzilla’s cousin.

    Writing for me is a creative outlet that God gave me. Whether or not the writing justifies circulation into the world outside my tiny comfort zone is another question.

    The third person is the person who writes for a living. They write because they get paid for it. The process of writing for them may be just a job. My best friend is a lawyer who writes and reads contracts all day long. He hates the writing process and it is impossible for him to read fiction. It is too much like his job.

    The second person is the person in between. It is the writer who must write and also desires to be published. This is probably the one person who is filled with the most turmoil and angst. You can be the first person and write your journals or your stories or your poetry and never share them with the world. Or, you may choose the self publish route and put together words just for a few friends and family. There is nothing wrong with this. In God’s eyes it is still a worthy endeavor. I put together a short book through lulu.com for Christmas. It was my mother’s hand written account of her life. She passed away three years ago. It was not a literary classic. But, it meant so much to my family. Their lives will never be the same after reading about “Mamaw’s” life growing up during the Depression and World War II. So, you don’t have to give in to the relentless need to be published. Just write. And, write. And, write and let God use your writing in the world that is immediately around you.

    Because, if you are the second person, you must put on three entirely different hats. The writing is the easy part. It’s becoming the editor that is hard. You must tell yourself to cut those beautiful purple prose sentences and cut those scenes that kill your falling action. And, you have to rewrite that one character who seems false and forced upon the reader. Then, once you’ve done the editing, you have to put on a third hat and become a marketer. Because, folks, you can write the most compelling story with the greatest characters and hope to bless the world with the message that God has given you but if no one wants to read it, it’s “tinkling cymbal and sounding brass”. So, the question then boils down to how hard do you want to work?

    Getting published can blind you to the beauty of the art of writing. Publishing is a business. Writing is an extension of who you are. Blending the two successfully is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. And in that blending is where many of us are lost to the world of the readers we are trying to reach. It’s like trying to swim upstream against a flooding current. Some of us will struggle and hopefully be noticed by some publisher standing on the safety of the shore. Some of us will be washed downstream to the ocean of discouragement. Some of us risk drowning and watching our art die.

    I will continue to struggle against the current. If God truly wants my art to get into the hands of one person whose life can be changed for all eternity then the struggle will be worth it.

    Thank you for reading my words and listening to my strange groans and moans. Thank you for providing a brief outlet for my own personal frustrations. Do not give in. Do not give up. My son, Sean, gave me a framed sign for Christmas. It is signed by J. Michael Straczynski, one of the greatest writers in comic books and television. It is a phrase from Babylon 5: “Never Surrender Dreams”.

  12. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Thanks for taking the time to post, Bruce. It’s very encouraging to be reminded that it’s hard for other people too.

    P.S.(I love JMS, so happy he’s doing Thor now 🙂

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