Columns > Published on January 12th, 2012

The Path To Publication Part 1: Delusions of Grandeur

Photo courtesy of author

You know those people who show up to audition for American Idol that are utterly convinced they are great singers, but sound like a raccoon getting stomped on with golf shoes? 

The thing that's sad isn't their lack of talent. It's that they're so oblivious to their lack of talent. 

That's a very real fear I have: That I'm not really that good of a writer, and eventually someone's going to call me on it.

I'm not fishing for compliments. I mean that sincerely. And it's why I was hesitant to write this column. It came up in a discussion with the LitReactor overlords, and it sounded like a good idea, in theory. I'm making the moves to get my first novel published, and I know the industry, so I thought that if I wrote about my experience, there's an outside chance it could be informative. 

But at the same time I thought: What if my book is lousy and I don't even know it and everyone laughs at me? 

This is an industry built on disappointment. Unless you are famous or a presidential candidate or have a blog about cats, the road to a published book is paved with rejection letters and false-starts. Part of the game is putting on a brave face and plugging away. It doesn't matter how lucky I am, I'm still going to spend a lot of this column writing about failure. 

Then I thought: Fuck it. I'm going to do it anyway. 

So here I am. This is a monthly column about me and my book. I'm going to try and get it published and I'm going to tell you about it. It'll be about researching agents and writing query letters. It'll be about learning to smile at the rejections. It'll be part guidebook and part cathartic bitch-session. I hope it'll be fun, too. 

ABOUT THE BOOK

The title is Apophenia. Apophenia is the condition of seeing patterns in random or meaningless data. (Right? How clever am I?) It's a little noir and a little literary but at the end of the day, screw labels. I wrote it while listening to a lot of punk music (theme song: Search and Destroy by Iggy Pop). It started as a short story in a class at The Cult with Craig Clevenger (although nothing from the short story survived to the final draft). The protagonist's name is Ashley McKenna. It's been through seven or eight drafts, and nearly completely re-written twice. It's 90,000 words and I've been working on it for three years.

A LITTLE HISTORY

Apophenia isn't actually my first book. The first I wrote when I got out of college and, looking back on it now, it was pretty bad. It was loud and stupid and angry and full of every kind of mistake a writer could make. And I'm thankful that I wrote it, because I worked a lot of nonsense out of my system. By the time I sat down with the second book, I was prepared to get over myself and write. 

This time last year (so after two years of work) I entered Apophenia into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, from which I was eliminated in the first round. I submitted it to 10 or so agents and mostly I got back rejections, or nothing. One agent did ask to read the whole thing (I remember the moment: 2 a.m., gas station in Brooklyn, subzero, pumping gas and checking my e-mails on my phone), but never got back to me and rebuffed my follow-ups.

At that point I realized there was a problem. I could have kept querying, but a little distance and introspection made me realize that the novel was still a little underdone in the middle, so I popped it back in the oven. And by that I mean, I tore the shit out of it and nearly completely rewrote it. The structure was off and the connecting threads weren't strong enough and I fell into that trap Amy Hempel warned me about: Wanting to publish more than wanting to write well. 

So here I am again. The book is not done, because nothing is ever done. But it's done enough that it's time to move on to the next step.

MY CHOSEN PATH

If you want to get published today, there are three options, as I see them: self-publish, publish with a small house that accepts unsolicited submissions, or get an agent.

I put a lot of thought into this, and I've decided to try for an agent, for the following reasons:

  • Better chance for a bigger publishing house
  • Editorial support
  • Career guidance

That last one is a biggie. I'm sitting on four book ideas right now in various stages of development. One is a sequel to Apophenia. One is a spin-off. Two are, I guess, traditionally literary-ish. Eventually I want to dabble in sci-fi. I've got a YA fantasy comic book concept I want to do. I want to write comic books in general, and would kill to get a crack at Spider-man or Batman. And I would love to write a Doctor Who novelization (because I know I'll never get to write an episode of the show, so I'll take what I can get).  

Now, say Apophenia gets picked up by a publishing house that specializes in crime fiction. They're probably not going to publish a literary novel, or a sci-fi novel. They definitely won't publish a YA fantasy graphic novel. If I don't have an agent I have to start at square one on every single project. I'd rather not do that. I want to spend my time writing, not handling the business end of things.  

I know self-publishing is supposed to be the land of honey and gumdrops and unicorns, because it means more control and more profit. But by my estimation, you've got to spend 80 percent of your time promoting yourself to be successful if you self-publish. Which leaves you about 20 percent of your time for writing. And I want to write. That's my priority. 

It's not like I will only publish with a six-figure deal from a major house (although I do know exactly which imprint I'd like to be at, and I'd sign with them for nothing if I could). I'd be happy with a smaller or indie press.

Besides querying agents, there is at least one small press where I think I would be a good fit, and I'm going to try for them as well. But even if I sign with the small press, I'm still going to keep trying for an agent. I want the guidance, and that's the only way I'm going to get it.

I know a lot of people will say: "Blergh, an agent just wants to take your money blah blah blah." Well, you know what? The grout in my upstairs bathroom was falling out and I thought I could fix it. I can't, and now I have to track down my plumber to come do it. As much as we like to think that some jobs we can do ourselves, that's not always the case.  

Ultimately though, just because this is the path I'm choosing doesn't mean it's for everyone. The first thing you need to do when you finish your book is to do a lot of research and soul-searching and decide what you want. Don't pick one path over another because it's easy. Pick the one you want. 

IN CLOSING

So, here's the deal: I want this to be interactive. So in this and future columns, feel free to ask questions or call me an idiot or ask for lascivious photos (I'll go full Kardashian if that's what it takes to get published). I'll do my best to answer everything completely and honestly but I won't name names, as in, I'm not telling you who I'm querying, or who I'm approaching, or who I'm interacting with. That would be bad form. 

So, there's that. See you next month, when I'll be talking about doing the necessary prep work to send out a bunch of queries!

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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