After meandering through a few other topics on this blog it’s time to point back in the direction of advice for people who want to try this writing thing on their own. To wit, let’s start with finding a publisher.
So you’ve got your manuscript in fine form, and perhaps you even found the money to hire an editor to look over your work to find errors and make sure the tale is consistent (more on that in a future “process” post). You think it’s as good of a story as it can be. Where are you going to take this masterpiece? The first thing you need to do is consider your audience. Now this is something I struggled with at the beginning, as many new authors do, thinking that “everyone” is your target audience. As I wrote in my “finding your niche” piece, nothing could be further from the truth. Your target audience is out there, you just have to figure out who they are. Start by taking a hard look at your work, pondering who in the world would be first in line to read it. Since you are the main person who is going to know this, all I can do here is try to help fill in the gaps with my own experience in the hopes that it helps. For Our Senior Year, my first novel, I had hoped to direct it at high school kids and those of my own (ugh “Millennial”) generation. Unfortunately the book contained a good amount of the kind of stuff kids are into in high school, including drinking, drug use, and some casual sex. Between that and the copious use (again, by high school kids) of the F-word I had a difficult time getting high schools to even care about the work. I had better luck with people my age, as they were able to relate to the story. And I had even more success with those I hadn’t (but should have) considered integral to my audience: people who have gone through a similar experience with religion as the main character in the novel. I got the best overall response from these people, as they could attest to how true-to-life the situation could be. While these were themes that drove the novel from the beginning, I never thought that this would be a particular “audience” to drive the novel toward. Now I know to think as specific as possible when looking for a target group, and you should, too. Think of who is going to get the most out of this book. Will it be young children, adults of a certain age, pet owners, or literary fiction lovers? Whatever you decide, then make sure you push toward those groups with your marketing, book cover, and anything else that will gain attention. Once the target audience gets into it, others will follow (at least that’s the plan).
After you’ve figured out the target audience, the next step is to find a publisher to pitch the idea to those who deal exclusively with such a group. I’m going to keep this basic for now and assume I’m writing to people living in my own state of Minnesota. A simple internet search turns up a pretty good list of publishers right here in the frozen north. There are all kinds of niche publishers who preach to a dedicated choir, and you should be able to find one that fits your need. (I should mention here my own publisher, North Star Press, is not on this list - more on them later). What I would call the big fiction players would be Coffee House Press and Graywolf. How do you get their attention? Coffee House has open submissions once a year, which take place next March. Graywolf, having cranked out multiple National Book Award and Pulitzer winners, does require you to have an agent before you can submit. As I have yet to find an agent for my work, I regrettably don’t have much in the way of advice, but I hope to soon! Some publishers will allow you to submit work online or via email, as that’s how most of our business is done these days. Check out their respective websites to find out who they are publishing for, and make sure that aligns with your target audience. Make sure you have a word processing program that can create MS Word documents, and you will be good to go.
After the submission comes the hardest part: waiting to see what they think. In my case, I had to wait around a month before I heard back from North Star. But don’t give up if you don’t hear anything or if they respond in the negative. Just consider your target audience again, and peruse another publisher that might work better for your book. Hopefully in their rejection the publisher will give you some advice in this regard. And remember, we’re just starting with Minnesota here; there are a TON of publishing companies in New York City and elsewhere that will be much more difficult to get into but not impossible. I personally liked using a small local press because they worked with me at every step of the way and were a simple phone call or drive away if I ever needed to speak with them.
I came across North Star Press, through a writing workshop I attended in Chanhassen, a suburb of the Twin Cities. They had some information there about submitting, so I looked up their website and sent the first few chapters of my book. You can do the very same thing: just click “submissions” on their front page. They are also looking for contributors for an essay collection they will publish next year, so if you want to try out those writing chops you are more than welcome. NSP has been wonderful to work with and they have produced some outstanding-looking books for me over the past two years. If anyone reading this has something they think is ready to submit and would like more direct contact with them, send me an email and I might be able to work something out for you.
So that’s the basics of finding a publisher. What I didn’t mention in all of this is the incredibly difficult work of writing the novel and getting it edited, as well as doing the proper marketing work to ensure that the book finds success. We’ll have plenty of time to get into that over the course of the next few blog posts, but I wanted to make sure I hit this topic now in case there are people out there who have work ready to go and want to seek publication. We’ll get into the harder work soon.
Good luck to you burgeoning authors out there, and thanks for reading.
We all make mistakes. Some are huge, some are insignificant, and some you will never live down. I know I have made plenty in the past year alone. A good friend of mine who I’ve come to learn makes great critiques of my work recently pointed out a few mistakes in the first printing of my second novel, including a few odd name changes and a historical footnote that drove me even more crazy for my not researching it properly. This fed into other, more general worries I’ve had about the book and whether or not people like the story. What really got me down about it was the fact that if I had just paid a little bit more attention when I was running through the final edits I would have caught these errors. It taught me a lesson about making sure my final product is as flawless as it can possibly be. The other worries are not so easy to live down. I find myself racked with anxiety: am I doing the best work I can? Is it living up to what I’ve produced so far? Should I even be in this writing game or should I just hang it up in the face of so many other talented, popular writers out there? These issues are important, and it’s very difficult to put them aside, given my personality.
I’m somebody who is already nine-tenths of the way there when it comes to having a pessimistic outlook on my life. I’ve been this way for a long time, and it has caused problems at every stage of the game. I spent a good many years of my twenties unable to maintain a basic relationship with a partner. I was recently let go from a job because of perceived “performance” issues. I sent my first novel to a bunch of different places to be reviewed only to be turned down by every single one of them. A recent inquiry into selling my novel at a bookstore was returned with a simple “not interested.” As a writer, I know I should be expecting this kind of failure on a daily basis, but my stress and guilt about not being good enough is not always easy to deal with some days.
“Mistakes were made,” indeed. I was just a toddler when the Iran/Contra scandal broke out, but I have read that this was the smarmy colloquialism jostled about by our leaders in Washington at the time. It’s a funny phrase in how it acknowledges a problem but doesn’t go all the way in mentioning who is at fault, something politicians have enjoyed in the decades since Reagan avoided (a very deserving) impeachment. It could also be used in our own lives if we are seeking to escape accountability, either from our overbearing internal monologue or from those around us. But I’ve found that owning up to them makes for a much better outcome.
I did make those editing mistakes, and I am sorry if they were distracting or took you out of the scene. Getting over the fact that people may not like this book is a little tougher to deal with, but as I see it I have two options. One, I can consider it an assent to hang up my writing career, knowing that not everyone is going to like my work. Or I can accept that not everyone is going to like my work and keep at it, improving with every novel and piece of journalism I produce.
When it comes right down to it, our mistakes make us who we are. Sometimes I look over the stuff I was writing back in 2008 when I began writing online. It’s hardly stellar work, but I can see the writer I would become in those lines. I would not be where I am today without getting my start there. Therein lies the rub: there is no success without massive, and constant, failure. We are going to fail: at life, at relationships, at producing art. What remains is how we deal with it. I can either let my OCD-ravaged brain latch onto the (many) mistakes I’ve made over the years or I can see them for what they are: necessary corrections on the way to becoming a better writer. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, but in the end it will be worth it.
That’s advice I would give to anyone, since I’m supposed to be using this platform to dish some out. What matters is where we land on the other side of our errors. If you consider each screw up to be emblematic of a lifetime of failures, then you’re going to be right. But if you accept that these things are going to happen despite any success you may find, then you are well on your way to a great career. Owning the failure is something that must be done, however you find it within yourself to do it.
So go ahead and let mistakes be made. Just ensure that you know who made them, and what to do differently next time. At the very least, that’ll put you miles beyond the people running the country.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.