By Laura Crum
Our new blogger, Janet Huntington, who writes the very popular Mugwump Chronicles blog, has suggested that it would be interesting if we wrote about the various paths we took to publication. This is also a question that comes up at virtually every booksigning and talk I’ve ever done. Many readers are interested in finding out how they can get their own writing published, and who can blame them? Before my first mystery novel was published, this was the thing that I wanted to ask any published author I met. How do I get where you are? I want to walk into my local bookstore and see my own name on the spine of one of those books. What do I have to do?
I wish there were an easy answer I could hand you. Do this and that and you have a good chance of getting published. But it isn’t that clear cut. Unfortunately it’s not the more talented writers who get published, necessarily. Though talent is certainly helpful. I would have to say that luck plays as big a part as talent. By this I mean being in the right place at the right time. To quote a line from a Jerry Jeff Walker song, “And luck is mostly attitude and timing.” Maybe, to some degree, we can make our own luck. But some factors are outside our control.
Anyway, I am happy to tell the story of my own route to publication and to give what insights I have on making your own luck. Jami has already done a good job of describing the various avenues to publication that are available today, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what she said. Essentially there is traditional publishing, comprised of the big “New York” publishers, and the smaller presses, which are located all over the country. Then there are the various forms of internet publishing, including “print on demand” and “ebooks”..etc. Then there is self publishing, where you pay someone to publish your book. This last is not considered being “published” by anyone involved in traditional publishing. That doesn’t make it wrong. But for those of us involved in the publishing trade, being “published” means that somebody pays you for your work; you are not paying them to publish your book.
Any one can publish a book via self publishing if they have the money to pay for it. So, enough said about that. As for the various versions of internet publishing, I know these are growing in popularity, and Mary and Jami, who are published this way, have explained a lot about it. I truly know nothing about this area of publishing, but understand that more and more authors are turning in this direction, due to the current developments in traditional publishing.
So, on to traditional publishing, which is the only way in which my books have ever been published. First of all, I have to say that my knowledge here is pretty out of date. The time when I was trying to “break in” with my first novel was the early 1990’s, which was a very different climate in the publishing biz. Female protagonist mystery series were just starting to take off and become wildly popular, led by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. There was great demand for new series of this type. You get where I’m going with this. It was an easy time (relatively) to break in.
As a lifelong fan of Dick Francis, a wanna be author, and a trainer of cutting and team roping horses, I had the bright idea to meld these three passions into a mystery series that featured a female horse vet who operated in a world dominated by western horses, much as Dick Francis’ protagonists operated in a world dominated by the steeple chasing he knew so well. I’ll skip all the convolutions I went through to get to this concept; suffice it to say I’d completed three finished manuscripts over a three year period before I wrote the one about Gail McCarthy, the veterinarian.
In those days there was no such thing as internet publishing and very few small presses that specialized in mysteries. Virtually everyone who got published in the mystery field was published by some New York based house or other. But, in those days there were also a great many more independent New York houses to submit to. They hadn’t all been bought out. Last I heard, today there are half a dozen entities that own all the big publishing houses. But I digress.
In this era no one got published unless he/she acquired a respected literary agent. The New York houses, in general, did not accept submissions from authors. The editors were only interested in submissions from literary agents they trusted. Said agents worked only on commission (things have changed in this area, too, or so I’ve heard). In any case, acquiring a literary agent was possibly the biggest hurdle an aspiring author had to jump. Since the agents worked on commission and didn’t make a dime unless they sold the work, they didn’t take any work that they didn’t truly believe they could sell. This weeded out most of the (excuse my French) crap. Which is why editors only took submissions from literary agents.
So my career as an author really took off when, after plenty of rejections, a literary agent agreed to represent me. How did this happen, you ask, or I imagine that you do. Was I just more talented than all the other aspiring authors submitting manuscripts? I doubt it. I think I had a good and timely concept. I pitched it as a female western spin on Dick Francis. At that time, there was only one other horse oriented female protagonist series out there (as best as I can remember). There were no western horse oriented mystery series at all. The agent liked the concept. I don’t think she was crazy about my writing. She was a former editor (many literary agents are) and it showed. She had me rewrite that ms for an entire year, over and over again, before she would send it out. At one point she told me, “I don’t like the tone, I don’t like the plot, I don’t like the villain and I don’t like the protagonist.”
You can imagine my response. “Uhmmm, what do you like?”
“I like it that its about horses and its set in Santa Cruz.”
Great. Just great. You can see how much rewriting I had to do.
In the end, I managed a version of the book that she found acceptable and she started sending it out. Both she and I conceived of the book as a paperback original and she sent it to all the paperback houses. Imagine our mutual surprise when, a year later, after several rejections, the series was picked up by a woman who was one of the senior (and most respected) editors at St Martin’s Press, one of the big New York hardcover houses. I was thrilled, to say the least. Being published by a big New York house in hardcover is sort of the Holy Grail for most aspiring authors.
My first mystery novel, Cutter, was published by St Martin’s Press in 1994. I could finally walk into my local bookstore and see my name on the spine of one of those books.
Okey dokey. I was now a published author. Things looked very rosy. My books were coming out in hardcover and paperback. I got mostly positive reviews. I was asked to do book signings and book tours. I hung out with other published authors who were much bigger names than I was. Film people made inquiries. I was offered more money with each subsequent contract. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It was certainly my dream come true. Well…
I’ll skip the long discussion about the difference between the dream version of being an author and the reality. In fact, I really need to get back to work on my 11th novel, so I will continue this story on my next post day. But I’ll leave you with this insight. If you were to ask me why I was able to achieve my goal and become a (relatively) successful published author, when so many others fail, I would have to say that I was lucky. And that my luck was indeed, mostly “attitude and timing”. I pitched a workable concept at the right time. I persevered with my writing through many years of rejections. I would not have succeeded had I not done so. But if I were trying to break in with my mystery series in today’s publishing climate, I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. At least of being picked up by a big NY publishing house. Why? See Part Two of this post in a couple of weeks. (And feel free to ask any questions you want in the comments.)
Here’s to all aspiring authors: May you all be as lucky as I was!