Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Butterflies Will Fly Once More

Like many who have ventured here over the past couple of years, I have had the desire to write and be read. Looking back, I think I have written about eight or nine book manuscripts. I ended up self-publishing a couple of the nonfiction ones . . . the rest . . . into the dust bin or word-sewer of life. I've literally thrown manuscripts, which I've worked on for years, into the furnace or garbage after giving up on finding a publisher. I'm sure the words and chapters still exist somewhere, ghost-like, lurking between some tracks on a hard drive.

Writers are a bit like rock star-wannabes. I have had kids in the later category. Many hope . . . while very, very few make it. I wish it were just an equation of talent. I honestly think that I would feel much better if a publisher or literary agent would read something I've written and then send me this nice letter that they think it is total crap. Even a nasty letter would be okay. Then you would know that you didn't get the golden ring because you didn't deserve it.

But, as in becoming a rock star, talent is only a part. A lot of it comes down to who you know . . . but more importantly . . . who knows you. My siblings, mom and kids don't count. If I had murdered someone famous, then I'm sure many agents would line up to look at my work.

Then there is luck. There have been many writers who were "discovered" by luck. I have one such friend and have heard of many others.

My friend typed out a manuscript, his first. Was in a cab in NYC and he didn't know he was with a copy editor (or someone in publishing). When he mentioned he was working on a autobiography . . . right there, they asked to see it.

They read it, turn it over to an agent. It was professionally edited and published. Then, believe it or not (like a story line in Hallmark movie) it was made into a movie with some big name stars. This friend never even approached one publisher.

But for the rest of us mortals, who haven't killed . . . or slept with anyone famous, it is disheartening. The reason is, after my eight or so manuscripts, not one line, not even a word, has ever been read by anyone in the business! You just can't get you foot past the front door.

I've read two books just on how to compose a query letter (the first step). Those letters were written with great skill (or so I thought). Not messy, like I write here sometimes. Yet, until this day not one bite.

My latest work was indeed a work of passion. It took twenty years of thought and four years of actually writing. It is my manuscript, Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar, which some of you have seen before. I've spent the last year approaching literary agents with no fruit to show for the effort.

The process,is some ways, is a real catch-22.

First I carefully selected eight "secular" agents who had worked with similar titles (if you don't know what this manuscript is about, I will soon explain). All eight of them responded in a timely fashion with a professional written form letter. "Thank you so much for your letter and for considering our agency. However, we regret to tell you that we are not accepting projects of your type at this time."

Then I picked a Christian literary agent. He had previously written for Christianity Today before starting his own agency. He did not respond back for over a month. Then he wrote a personal (rather than an off the shelf) letter, but it was very negative, "I wouldn't touch your project for no amount of money." What the hell does that mean? He knew very little about it.

Then someone here suggested that I contact Jeff Dunn. He was Imonk's agent. At the time, he was working for a literary agent group. I wrote him a formal query letter. That was about five months ago. He never responded. He is the only agent that I've ever approached, who never responded.

Then I found out that he was starting a new publishing company. Hmmm, I thought, that's why he didn't respond. So I wrote a nice query letter there. No response.

Then I saw his personal e-mail listed on Imonk. I wrote his a query letter via e-mail. No response. Follow up e-mail query letter. No response. Then I wrote him, via the same address, a note that I had read Imonk's book. Immediately he responded and asked me to go on Amazon and write a review of it. So, now that I had his attention, I hit "reply" and wrote out my query letter. That last one was about two months ago . . . still no response. I've always (like I've said before) found silence the worst type of communication. Call me ugly names if you want . . . but just call me!

So a few weeks ago, I held my manuscript over the trash bin (and my finger hovering over the delete button) but I hesitated. I hesitated for two reasons . . . okay, maybe three. First, I have worked so hard on it. Writing it, editing it, having it professionally edited and then editing it some more.

Secondly, I think it is too damn important to throw away. It is in the same general genre as Michael Spencer's Mere Christianity, but I honestly think it goes much deeper and answers more fundamental questions about where we went wrong . . . and it is seasoned with some pretty interesting stories. So, I think there are a lot of people out there who are searching for what I've figured out and put down.

In conclusion, I'm to the point that I'm giving up on "getting it published." But, I have not giving up on getting it into the hands of people whom it can help. I guess this means self-publishing again.

The thing I hate about self-publishing is that the (Xlibris and Trafford) companies promise you the sky. Then, the moment your hard-earned cash gets transfered from your account to theirs, it is like you suddenly become the the bastard son they never wanted. It happened with both. I had great difficulty getting my book out there. The one with Xlibris was always listed as "not available" by all the main sellers . . . after they promised that all of them would have it. It took a year to work out those bugs after many unanswered e-mails and letters sent to the company. In the meantime, I was somehow able to sell about 10,000 copies, and actually made it all the way up to 25,000th on the Amazon best seller list. Sad isn't it.

Then a similar thing happened with Trafford. I told them about the problem I had with Xlibris and they looked appalled. Then, as soon as my book was in print, I got a notice that my particular size (and I could have chosen any size) was no longer being accepted by Amazon or B & N.

So, in my first step, I will make the manuscript "open source." I will post a new PDF file here for the entire thing. Just click on the title of this post. I haven't read the conversion to PDF so I hope there were no glitches. I know some of you were here when I posted it in its more raw form a year ago. It has been edited more since then, but not enough to warrant you re-reading it.

But if you haven't, feel free do download it and read it or pass it on.

I will attempt to get it into other formats, for Kindle-type readers, in an actual paper back version and maybe even an audio version.


R. L. Copple said...

Publishing options to consider:

1. Forget getting an agent, at least until after you've sold it to an editor. Depending, you may not need an agent at all. Google and read Wesley Dean Smith's blog about some of the dangers in getting an agent and how to use one appropriately.

2. Self-publishing options are:

a. Some place like Lulu, where there is minimal up front costs.

b. Starting your own publishing enterprise. A little more start up cost, but less than some of the other self-publishing options.

c. Smashwords for ebooks. If formatted right, it can get into all the major distribution routes and provide multi formats for people to buy and read it.

d. If you want to offer it for free for people to read, you might consider something like Scribed, which provides a big community of readers.

I should mention, though, that from what I've heard (don't know this by experience because I've never subbed to an agent) that it isn't unheard of to wait for six months or more. Their website should have their guidelines on how long to wait to hear back from them, when to send another request, or if at all, etc. I would fear the multiple queries may have killed his/her desire to read it if it hadn't made it to the top of the pile yet. They get a lot of submissions, and it takes them a while to even process them, much less decide whether to accept or reject them.

But, yes, don't give up. One of the hardest parts of this business is to keep pushing until that right person gets it and reads it. Not easy, but that's where persistence ends up paying off.

Cynthia said...

Your 10 000 copies sold is a goal of many authors, but few ever reach that amount. I understand that most authors who go through the likes of XLibris or Author House (or whatever they are currently calling themselves) sell about 200 books on average. You've already done well for yourself.

About agents and publishers: likely they won't be interested because your book has already been published once. Add to that, with the number of copies you've sold, they will likely feel that the book has reached its limit.

Of course, the above didn't hold true for William P. Young's The Shack but that experience was unique--the exception.

The other thing agents/ publishers aren't keen on is picking up a book series in the middle of its life. I.e. one has a 3 book series the first of which has been published elsewhere.

At least that is what authors are often told . . . a diligent agent or keen publisher will look at the books' worth before making a decision.

So, what to do?

I'd never recommend a vanity "publisher" to anyone because of the costs and services associated in relation to the return to the author.

If you really want to make the book available you can always go it alone and self-publish. If you use a service like Ingram's Lightning Source, you will spend less than $100 to have your book set up and listed with online sites such as Amazon. (However, to get an account with Lightning Source, you have to fill out an application to show you are a publisher.)

You should also be checking resources like Writers Market to see which publishers will consider your type of manuscript. You will also learn what guidelines they have for submissions (follow these!).

Whether you use a vanity pub., self-publish, or go with a traditional publisher, most of the promotion will be up to you. Even the big pub. houses _usually_ widely promote only their biggest authors.

I agree with your assertion about talent being only one part of becoming published--luck, and/ or who you know plays a large role.

But, don't fret! Agents aren't necessarily the golden ticket we think they are. I've known several authors, with agents, who've never sold a book. On the other hand, don't give up finding a good one; they're out there . . . somewhere. But, I'd try approaching them with a new book before presenting an already-published one.

What ever you do, don't throw out your hard work! keep all those old manuscripts--you never know . . .

jmj said...

R. L. thanks for the advice. I will look up Smith's blog.

Yeah, I do read the agent's websites and try to follow to the "T" what they are looking for and how to submit. Most have been very punctual.

I will seriously consider all your thoughts. Thanks.

jmj said...


I had to work hard for the 10,000 and did some creative things. I persuaded a group to buy 500 as give aways (right off). Then I have friends in the publishing business (not books, journals) and they each did interviews and free promotions. Then I did a paid promotion.

I think there was a misunderstanding. The manuscript I'm talking about is virgin. It was never published. It is brand new. I'm considering self-publishing at this time but haven't yet. I presented it to all the agents as a new work.

Yes, I have several copies of Writer's Market, buying an updated version every 2-3 years as well as a manual of agents.

Thanks for taking the time to share insightful thoughts.

Brian said...

Too bad about Jeff Dunn. Maybe several of us(I'm thinking HUG and others) should hold his feet to the fire. I'm sure I remember a post at iMonk where he was inviting people to contact him if they were interested in publishing something in the Mere Churchianity vein.

Eagle said...

MJ...Why don't you reach out to Jeff Dunn again? Maybe he misplaced it or made a mistake. That happens in life.

MJ said...

Eagle, I might try Jeff again. I always find it perplexing when there is silence. It leaves you confused. Did they get it? Did they find it offensive? Did they delete it because they are busy? Who knows. I re-read my query letter and I can't see any showing of the hand that would make him suddenly not interested. But like I've said, I've tried three times with no response.

NOTAL said...

I hope it works out (at least to get your book read, if not to make you some money). I downloaded it and will give it a read. I read part of it back before you had finished it, but haven't got to read the completed work.

MJ said...

Notal, it is a deeply candid book. You may learn that you aren't really my son. The matching curved little fingers (of your offspring) may be of pure coincidence.

Your mother could only get through about two chapters without cringing and putting it away, saying, "Can't we have any privacy anymore."

R. L. Copple said...

Who you know. Yeah, it is true.

So how do you get to know them, and who should you get to know?

Second question first. Obviously the people to get to know are editors. They are the one's buying the books. Convince them its worth the effort, you have a sale. Convince an agent, and you still don't have a sale, only someone who you hope is on your side and will help sell the book.

So how do you get to know editors?

By submitting things to them. According to the professional writers I've read and talked with, that's the primary, if not the only way. Rare is the chance meeting you mentioned, and having an editor open to taking a look at it in that situation.

Usually they get to know you by reading what you've written and it captures their attention. Even if they reject it, but like your style, the rawness of the story, etc., they may say something like, "I can't use this, but we like your style. Do have other works you could send me?"

While the rejection part is bad, it is also positive because it means you've established some level of relationship with the editor for them to respond with that. Your voice and style impressed them enough to want to see more. For an editor to say that means a lot, because they look at tons of stuff all the time, and hand form rejections out like candy.

That, so I've been told, is how to get to know an editor. Send them work that captures their attention.

That's about the only recommendation I can think to give you beyond what I've already mentioned.

MJ said...

I used to go directly to editors. The response was usually the same. Don't want to see a single word . . . you are a nobody. So then, someone in the business told me (a while ago) "No Mike, never go to the publisher. You MUST only go to an agent. Get an agent first!" So that's the mode I've been in.

I did e-mail Jeff Dunn again yesterday morning. I will let you know if he ever breaks his silence.

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