Hey, Who Moved the Finish Line?

A year ago I signed with a small press to publish my debut.  I loved the acquiring editor and her “take” on my book. I felt comfortable with the owner, liked the fact that they’d do an actual print run (not just POD and E-book), that the press was run by women, and that I was free to release (and profit from) an audiobook on my own.

I was set.  March 16, 2021. Book release day.

Based on developmental comments from my editor, I spent the next nine months tearing the novel apart and putting it back together in interesting ways, totally revising the ending and layering in deeper emotional truths and complications that made the story richer and more resonant.  During that time, I also dedicated myself to building a stronger author platform. I hired a top firm to revamp my website; grew my Instagram account from 0 to 1450+ followers; hosted 25 podcasts with debut authors; retained an audiobook narrator; hired an outside publicity firm; brainstormed cover design ideas; and joined the board of Chicago Writers Association to support my regional writing community.

The path to publication is not always a smooth one.

Fast-forward to mid-July 2020 when my small press imploded.  Mass resignations, shut-down of communication, lawyers, even a Writer Beware exposé. I finally got my rights back, but I’d lost a year and was right back where I started, back in the query trenches, nowhere near the finish line. For weeks, I couldn’t get that image of  Sisyphus rolling the boulder out of my head.  After several restless nights, more than a few glasses of wine, and a screaming fit that involved throwing a few choice objects against the wall, I took a breath and assessed my situation.

The first thing I did was let myself off the hook.

I’d made a sound decision a year ago, based on the information I had. This publisher appeared stable financially, I loved my editor, and I liked the idea of being with a small press where I could be an active participant in the publication process. They were distributed by Small Press United, a reputable firm that could place my novel in bookstores. I ordered one of their published books to assess the quality, which was outstanding. I talked to three of their authors who gave them glowing reviews. I scoured the internet for any issues and turned up nothing.

I was anxious for my book to get out into the marketplace and figured this way, I’d be on the shelves within eighteen months, not languishing on the sidelines, hoping to interest an agent (by then, I’d had thirty rejections). What had happened was not in my control.

Then I looked for the positives.

Yes, I’d be querying again but this time, with a much stronger book.  Most of my previous rejections had been based on my novel’s ending. Now I’d rewritten those pages, coming up with a much stronger and more positive resolution. As well, I had a more robust author platform than I’d had a year ago. And finally, when I shared my story with my writing community, I was overwhelmed with the support and encouragement I received.  I realized these were people I could count on to publicize my book once I found a new home.

My situation was small potatoes compared to others.

In some ways, having this happen in the middle of a serious health crisis helped me keep perspective. My husband and I are healthy as are our young-adult kids; we both work from home; we have a stable nest-egg to fall back on; we have a nice home in a safe neighborhood and friends who keep in contact through Zoom. I’ve always been a glass half-full kind of person so complaining about this set-back was really not my style (particularly when compared to issues around systemic racism, hate-mongering, loss of jobs, and oh yes, a world-wide pandemic). But I did feel the need to tell my story because something like this can happen to anyone.  Maybe your agent can’t sell your book. Maybe your publisher puts off your pub date. Maybe your imprint goes belly-up.

If it happens to you.

Don’t think your writing career is over. It’s not.  Regroup, rethink, pull up your big girl pants and get on with finding your manuscript a new home. Start writing the next book. Submit a poem or a short story to an on-line magazine. Write a blog post. Help other writers through book reviews or critique sessions. Sign up for classes with top-tier teachers to improve your craft (there are dozens being offered free on-line this summer). Whatever it takes to reignite the creative fire in you.

Me? Instead of crossing the finish line this March, I’ll be in the middle of the race. But you know what? That can be exciting, too. Maybe I’ll land a top agent this time around.  Maybe a new imprint will take me on. Maybe I’ll find another small press that’s more stable and will welcome a manuscript which has been thoroughly vetted.

All I know for sure is, I’m committed to finishing this race.

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