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. 


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.


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.


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. 


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!

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meghan1121's picture
meghan1121 from Chicago, IL January 12, 2012 - 1:03pm

Best of luck to you, Rob. I think this is a great idea for a column, and I'm looking forward to following along with your experience.

Beth Dolgner's picture
Beth Dolgner January 12, 2012 - 1:06pm

Best wishes, Rob! Everyone's journey to being published is different, so I look forward to following along with you.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 12, 2012 - 1:13pm

Excellent idea, and thank you for going out on a limb to share the benefit of your experience. Looking forward to having your doubts dismissed and your hard work pay off.

Tommy Lombardozzi's picture
Tommy Lombardozzi January 12, 2012 - 1:16pm

Good read, Rob.

It is exciting to see someone who is on a creative path with a solid end result in mind. Especially when that person is a fiend. I wish you well, man. I look forward to reading your stuff! (Even now, if you ever wanna send me anything, I'm always up for a good read!)


Get in there!!!


Tommy Lombardozzi's picture
Tommy Lombardozzi January 12, 2012 - 1:16pm

PS. Hey, if the book's no good, you can always write a book about writing a book.

Brien Piech's picture
Brien Piech January 12, 2012 - 1:17pm

Expand on what was "loud, stupid and angry" about your first attempted novel. I tend to like all those qualities.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 12, 2012 - 1:21pm

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I'm still feeling a little trepidation (this feel a bit personal, I mean, I don't even know a lot of you and you already know the name of my protagonist? Geez...) But seriously, I'm very appreciative, and glad there's interest in the column. 

And Brien--I wrote a rant, I didn't write a story. That was my problem. There are some writers who are mature enough to use fiction to promote social commentary. I was too young to do it. Still, it was a good experience and one I wouldn't trade away. 

Wayne Miller's picture
Wayne Miller January 12, 2012 - 1:25pm

Great idea for a column. Hopefully it will be a short run. I'm looking forward to the journey.

Greg's picture
Greg from Venezuela. I'm an American Third Culture Kid, or was. is reading H.I.V.E by Mark Walden January 12, 2012 - 1:34pm

Rob- Read your blog. Rarely respond to them. I'm hooked up with one of the most famous agents in NYC, and it ain't all peaches and cream once you have one. Still, it's the way to go, so I think you are absolutely right to work to hook up with one. It's the whole process that's the issue. The angst and difficulty you suffer to get an agent is followed after you have one by the same once you (finally) get a publisher. After that it's the marketing. It's arduous. The best point you made was that, without an agent, you'd be spending less than half your time writing. But I can tell you that, once you get an agent and sell a book to a well-known publisher as I have, you'll be spending about the same time writing - less than half. It's the edits. The re-writes...


Ryan Hartman's picture
Ryan Hartman from Philadelphia is reading The Neverending Story by Michael Ende January 12, 2012 - 1:43pm

I remember reading a story some kid had written when I was in high school.  A friend of a friend, I don't quite remember how I knew him.  I don't know how I got his short story in my hands; all I remember was that it was utterly terrible.  One of the worst, cliché-ridden things I had ever read.  I was able to identify it as crap right then and there, on the spot, as a high school student - so it was probably even worse than I remember.

But the thing about it was that this kid thought it was a masterpiece.  He thought he was the next Bill Shakespeare and this work would live on forever.  The pages looked up at me, literally squirming in my hands with agnsty, overused prose so blatantly horrible that I thought it was a joke and all the while this guy who wrote it is loudly assuring everyone (and himself) that it was awesome and he would get it published.  I believe he deemed it “totally awesome” if I’m remembering correctly.

To this day that whole meeting terrified me.  I’m afraid to establish any sort of confidence in what little writing I do because I’m sure I’ll be like this kid from high school.  If I write something and I think it’s good, I’m just like this doofus.  I can’t see the forrest for all the trees.   The idea that a person couldn’t identify something as terrible just because they had created it frightened me.  It still does.  The idea that perceptions can be clouded by such a degree and one could be entirely oblivious to it is a weird phenomenon.  Plus how would you even know it was happening?  Crazy people don’t know they are crazy do they?  And if you know you are crazy, and acknowledge the delusions, are you still crazy?

It’s about this time that I think maybe I’m just being too hard on myself.  Or maybe I really do suck.  I don’t know.  I hate writing.  And then I think “Well hey those crappy Twilight books made a billion dollars and I’m pretty sure they were written in crayon.  Maybe if I suck I can at least get rich or something?”  It’s around this point that I get depressed and go to sleep.


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books January 12, 2012 - 1:44pm

Great intro piece. This is going to be an interesting journey.

Cameron Christensen's picture
Cameron Christensen January 12, 2012 - 1:45pm

I love this. I will be following your journey and wish the best of luck to you. 

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 12, 2012 - 1:48pm

gleighlyons - No system is perfect and I'm under no assumption that there won't be some non-writing work involved, marketing included. But, thank you for pointing that out. It's a point I probably should have made--even with an agent and a publishing house, there's still plenty of non-writing work to do. 

Ryan - It's easy to feel like that. Sometimes it's easier to say 'fuck it' and dive in. I'm still worried about falling on my face, but when you're not worried and you're not hyper-critical of your own work, then you have a real problem. 

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez January 12, 2012 - 2:07pm



Best of luck.  



I think we were in the same Clevenger class.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 12, 2012 - 2:38pm

Excellent idea, and thank you for going out on a limb to share the benefit of your experience. -- postpomo


Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 12, 2012 - 2:49pm

Very brave, Rob. Whatever I can do to help, let me know. I have a running list of agents and presses that I've sent my second novel (a neo-noir, transgressive thriller entitled Disintegration) to if you're interested. We can keep that private if you want. PM me or drop me an email, you have that, yeah?

Jason Richards's picture
Jason Richards from PA is reading Family Fang January 12, 2012 - 3:14pm

Wow. Interesting idea. Curious to see how it pans out for you.

I'm actually in the same situation right now. Finished my first book at the end of October, sent out some queries, got some rejections, and now my manuscript is being read by two agents.

It'll be fun to hear how the experience goes for someone else.

Best of luck!

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 12, 2012 - 3:23pm

Jason - Thanks. And congratulations on getting those reads. Best of luck on them. 

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter January 12, 2012 - 3:26pm

This a great Idea for column, or on going blog or whatever. I plan on following. Personally, and it's just me, but I think pursuing an agent on a first novel is a waste of time. I'm on my fouth, and my list of agents for submissions, can be counted on one hand, and only those that ask for a sample with the querie. Even King had said, he'd earned over a million buck (mostly for his publisher) before he got an agent. Elmore Leonard said, get published, anyhere, anyhow, and often, and eventually an agent will come to you. But hey, stangers things have happened. Getting a recomendation from an already represented author can help at get your stuff read, so make some published freinds.

Agents are looking for cred first, and good writing second. I don't care what they claim.

I'd put the editorial support 1st and foremost.

Fictions a tough sell right now, literary fiction's even tougher.

There are alot great small press' that love to get good stories from first time novelist.

Publishing credits and making connections, will get you closer to an agent, and the big six than just cold queries.

That's just my opinion, but it is a self educated one.

Good Luck though Rob, anything can happen. I wish you the best in all your writing endeavors, (get used to hearing that) and I'll follow along.

I do know-queries suck...suck, suck, suck.


Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 12, 2012 - 3:34pm

Kevin - While I think you're right on a couple of points, I respectfully disagree on it being a waste of time. Even a lot of the smaller houses are requiring agented submissions these days. I did say I'm approaching one small house, and I'm not ruling out approaching others. My theory on all things is to start at the absolute top and work my way down. I won't be shedding any tears if I land with a small house and still don't have an agent. But, that career guidance is really key for me. 

I'm open to be proven wrong or taking a different path. This is just where I'm starting. 


HilaryHarwell's picture
HilaryHarwell January 12, 2012 - 6:54pm

Looking forward to following your journey. I'm going through the same thing right now with my first novel. So far it's being read by an agent that I was referred to by a mutual acquaintance. The cold queries that I've made have turned up nothing but a bunch of 'best of lucks'! Hope all the luck we're accumulating pays off!

CStodd's picture
CStodd from NY is reading Annie Prouxl's Fine Just the Way It Is January 12, 2012 - 7:36pm

Rob, thank you for your courage in starting this journey. I'm sure its going to illuminate a world that we all are skeptical and anxious about. Just know that we all have your back. 

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff January 12, 2012 - 7:50pm

Good Luck Rob. I look forward to reading about your journey and hope to learn something from it.

Nic Coppernoll's picture
Nic Coppernoll from Jackson, MI is reading Freak the Mighty January 12, 2012 - 8:56pm

I look forward to seeing this process. After 3 1/2 years, I'm about to finish my last round of edits before I search for an agent, which scares the shitters out of me. I hate rejection, which is likely why I've dragged the writing out! It's cool to have someone in a similar boat, man.

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter January 12, 2012 - 9:40pm

It's all good Rob, We all have to get over the wall our own way. I still waste my time submitting to a few agents to start with, Very few, And a few a the top ones. It's interesting that my next novel Heartland Gothic, coming out in e, Jan 26, (this is not a plug lol) by Trestle Press, I first submitted to The Wylie Agency, and Agari Agency, who wasn't even open to unsolicited manuscripts, but they have my favorite writers and I polished it up, spit shined the query, and sent it anyway, the whole thing. My thinking was, what's the worst that could happen. Steal it, call me names? Whatever.

Ya know? They both read it, They rejected it, "base on the needs of their current authors." But they read it and I respect that. But they rejected it in a kind, proffesional, contructive, and personal manner, More so than  other agents that were open for submissions, (no reply at all, form rejection) and I'd never even heard them or any of their clients. So I thought that was pretty cool. So with those, you'll probably get what ya play for. And a lot those guys are dropping like flies, turning into "publishing consultants", book doctors, etc, 

I wasn't saying, don't bother, but unless you got some great connections, I wouldn't spend too much time with it,

I just try to get as much work and word out there as I can, polish my writing, get better, and every next time I have a little more to entice that agent, or editor.

Man, hope ya land that 4 book 100grand advance with Scribner or whoever, I really do, and it could happen, anything could happen, And then you can recomend me, ha

Good luck buddy.

I'll keep checkin in for the good news.



mgallen's picture
mgallen January 12, 2012 - 10:09pm

I'm working on my second book and there's nothing more discouraging than quering, agents, solicitations, bascally anything to do with the actual publishing industry.  I've been writing hard for twenty years.  I worked at books stores, giving my a great, wonderful idea about the kind of slop that gets published.  Deplorable.  In my twenty years of writing, the main gaps in my craft were spurred by realizations that no matter how hard I sweated over a manuscript it would get stonewalled at the editor's desk by someone who would deem it "doesn't meet my needs".

Like Mr. Hart, I wrote a manscript with multiple re-writes, wrote it in the third person, first person, then in the first person with two different characters.  I sent it to collegues who admitted they tore through it and gushed about how much they liked it.  At the place I worked it circulated around and they told me yet again how much they liked it.  Two friends' roommates read it and liked it.  People I didn'tknow.

I was just gobsmacked that somepeople read it ALL THE WAY through without coaxing, people I didn't know.  I have a professor friend at Georgia State who kept urging me to hit up some publishers.  I was just too stoked about  having finished the thing to have publishing people snub it.

All that happened five years ago...Know how many publishers I've sent it to?  One.  Two months ago.  I'm expecting an uphill battle just to get an editor to handle it and put it on a clean place on his/her desk.  

I'm going to send it to some publishers but after three or four I'll probably self-publish it so I can do the same for my second book.

I think its mainly important to get it out there, if you have to self publish it then fine. You should write for yourself and your audience not grovel for that six fig advance.  At least you'll still have your writerly dignity. 




TommySalami's picture
TommySalami from New Jersey is reading Killing Floor, by Lee Child January 13, 2012 - 8:50am

Knopf, among others, put their submissions email right under their disclaimer stating "no unsolicited submissions." Send it. You have nothing to lose.

Personal opinion- try a different title. It might mean everything to you, but they are rejecting this unread. They didn't say "the middle was weak."

The editor will say that, if it is...

Keep hammering and stop rewriting it. Write something new. Send it out. You want to rewrite something? Rewrite your pitch, your synopsis, and your query letters.

Have you had stories published? Have readers said they enjoyed your work? Trust them. This novel may never sell, but you won't sell it by rewriting it a NINTH time ... keep that plate in the air and write other things in the meanwhile. What was Stephen King's first sale, his eighth novel? 

Flip Doubt the bird and get back to writing.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 13, 2012 - 8:56am

Tommy - are you saying I should change my title? Do you not like it? 

_'s picture
_ January 13, 2012 - 9:18am

This is gonna be awesome. I like that you're doing this in real-time and it's not some "here's how I made it" hindsight essay.

Search & Destroy, Rob!

CrispinXV's picture
CrispinXV from Chicago is reading Damned by Chuck Palahniuk January 13, 2012 - 9:29am

Rob, I think you are doing the right thing in being honest with yourself.  I agree with Tommy about thinking about your title.  The only reason I say that is because I am getting my first novel published by small house that accepts unsolictited submissions from a first time author if they think that the author has something.

I'll be honest, I thought my work was great when I sent it in, but after three edits with them, my novel is so much stronger and cohesive.  But the first thing that my editor wanted me to change was my title.  She said that my title gave away too much that I didn't want the reader to know until the climax.  So I went with a different title that actually came from a line in the story that is important.

I won't say that I don't like the title because I haven't read the book, but be open to changing that because it could be something that the publisher or agent might base a story upon.  I wish you the best Rob, being a first time author is not an easy process, but shit it is a fun ride.

theidiotbox's picture
theidiotbox from New Rochelle, NY January 16, 2012 - 8:44am

Thanks for sharing your journey with us. It's kinda like opening up emotionally to a bunch of strangers, seems weird, yeah? Good on you for being honest about your experience. It means a lot. 

abevelacqua's picture
abevelacqua January 16, 2012 - 2:30pm

I think this is an excellent idea for a blog.  Although I've seen similar blogs from upstarters in different careers, I have not seen a new writer provide a realistic look at the process of breaking into a closed-off industry.


It seems like a writer would be the most likely person to want to, well, write about an experience, especially one as major as publishing a first book, but I can see why Rob is the first writer to actually do this.  In truth, most of us want other people to view our writing as strokes of innate genius.  Most writers want the public to think that The New Yorker published the first story that she ever submitted or that an agent picked up the first novel that she submitted -- you know, because the work was so good it knocked the wind out of everyone in the industry and brought them to their knees.  


Writing about the process of rejection and disappointment take guts, it will likely not be pretty at times, but fortunately I think that we can all agree on the ending of this story -- publication -- even if we do not necessarily know about the timeline.  

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon January 21, 2012 - 12:03pm

Best of luck to you, Rob. I went down this road a little over a year ago. I had been editing my novel into the ground, and it took some critique group members yelling at me that it was done and to submit it already for me to finally take that leap of faith and start querying. I'd read all of the statistics, so I knew to expect rejections upon rejections. I busied myself with starting the next novel during the wait. Requests for partials were exciting, and the rejections that followed those carried some sting, for sure. In total, I believe I got three requests for the full manuscript (out of about 30+ total queries over the course of two months). Then one fine day I got a phone call. I was so overwhelmed that I got a sudden case of painful back spasms and in the midst of getting the offer for representation, I was trying to hide the fact that I was hurting very badly all because I was so excited.

Then I signed. Then this agent, who was very much excited about my book, decided that she thought it might be worth taking the time to do an excruciatingly thorough edit. (Before starting her own agency, she had been an editor for one of the big six.) So I've been in editing limbo ever since. It's been moving forward, but slowly because she's so busy, and I've learned a great deal in the process, but the wait has been hard. I've been keeping myself busy in the meantime still working on the next novel. I think that's the key to sanity in this whole thing--always be working on something while you wait. That way you never feel stuck and your career isn't on hold.

And for what it's worth--I had no platfrom to speak of when I started querying. I had no connections of any sort. I got picked out of the slush pile by the agent's assistant, and moved up the line from there to the head of the agency. I think I had a great deal of luck on my side. Right timing, right hands. Having connections and platform help, for sure, but not having these doesn't make it impossible either.

I hope it works out for you!


taralara's picture
taralara from Minneapolis is reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo February 2, 2012 - 11:13am

I just joined the group because of this article :)  Excited to follow your journey and see where it takes you.