My first novel, Samurai Awakening, has now been on store shelves for a bit over a month. It’s been an amazing ride over the last few months. A ride I had not planned on taking. The second I knew I had a story to share, however, I started learning. Getting into any kind of writing is a difficult process, mainly because there is no rule, but plenty of people out there trying to sell you “the way.” I was shocked at the fact that there is an ENTIRE INDUSTRY out there trying to take advantage of want-to-be writers. Some of the people in that industry sincerely want to help and improve the market. Many are sharks looking for their next bite.
The fact is, many people have a story to tell, and want to share that story. A lot of people also think they will somehow make a lot of money by selling a blockbuster right off the bat. Writing has almost become a kind of lottery, where people keep putting entries in and hoping one will hit. The reality is that if you want writing to be a career, you’ll have to get into it the same way you get into any career, through education, hard work, and determination.
I’ve already talked about how I started writing. For most writers this should be the easy part. If you’re having trouble getting words onto paper, you need to figure that out before you even consider tackling a career in writing. With my story in hand, I started looking at the industry as a whole. The thing is, its changing and there are a lot of different aspects. You might note I say “writer” rather than author. Overall, I think what I’m writing here applies to a broader segment of the industry than just one set, the author, but be aware that blogging, news, short stories, picture books, non fiction, etc all have their own nuances. Since I knew I had YA fiction I focused on that.
My initial research told me I had two options. Self publish through amazon or the like, or go traditional. I like reading, and I like ebooks, but I decided to try for traditional and have self publishing as my back up. I did this because I knew I was new. I have read a lot, but no newbie knows how to put a book together. No matter how much you research you’ll never know how to really create a quality book until you go through the process. I wanted to traditionally publish as a learning experience. I wanted a set of professionals to help guide my story through the process so that my naiveté would not ruin its chances of being read. I was also wary of the huge numbers of companies and people ready to take advantage of new authors.
I also knew that most publishers do not have slush piles anymore, and that if I wanted a big publisher, I would need an agent.
The Agent Search
I do not have an agent. This is probably where I succumbed to my first newbie writer mistakes. I read a lot of websites, even a few books on writing query letters and getting an agent. I went through drafts of query letters then got my hands on a list of agents and started sending out emails. I wasn’t ready. My story wasn’t where it needed to be, and neither was I as a writer. Worse, it showed. Since I sent out emails to the agents I was most interested in, I ruined a lot of chances right off the bat. After a few rejections, I went back to editing.
Down the line, as my story came together, and more importantly, as I understood that story better, I wrote more persuasive query letters, and even began getting full requests. Unfortunately, the list of agents I could or would want to submit to had shrunk.
Aside from the big 5 (formerly the big six and perhaps soon to be four) there are a lot of small presses that tend to focus on specific areas. From my own Japanese studies, I knew that Tuttle Publishing did great work on Asian-themed books. I started looking at small presses and also started reading Publisher’s Weekly for news items that would point me to presses that might match my work. I noticed that Tuttle Publishing had many books on Japan in everything from non-fiction to origami and children’s but did not have any young adult. I also saw that they took unsolicited submissions. After all my research, they stood at the top of my list so I submitted. Then I went back to editing. As my book changed, I realized that as with my agent search, I had likely submitted before I was ready.
As I kept working on my story, getting feedback and trying to make it better, I pulled away from submitting to agents and a few small publishers. I changed the title of the work, and began writing more on my first blog. Then I found out about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Since it was free to enter, I figured it would be a good way to test my writing and possibly even get some feedback outside friends and family.
I entered and found the pain of waiting. Perhaps nothing else is more important to a perspective writer. The industry is changing quickly, but still moves slow. It takes time for people to read, especially when they have hundreds of submissions to get through. I was impatient, but learning. I spent that time working on my second book. As I progressed in the competition, I got to the point where my work fell under exclusivity for the duration of the contest, and so I emailed Tuttle Publishing to withdraw my submission. Surprisingly they emailed me back almost immediately with their regrets and welcomed a re-submission after the contest.
In the end, I finished in the semi-final round of the 2011 ABNA, and got a Publisher’s Weekly review that I used to help refine my work. I edited again, and then resubmitted to my editor of Tuttle.
After negotiating my first contract, we signed in September of 2011 for publication in 2012. I did not have an agent, so I could not rely on anyone for help, but I did plenty of research on contract terms and had no one to pay a percentage to. I was happy to work with Tuttle over a big publisher because I knew Tuttle would support my efforts to show real Japan over trying to just sell a story.
My story is both unique and not. I went from never having written anything longer than a business plan to a published author in under two years. Most writers take years of training, years of revisions, and years of searching for a way in. I got in quickly because I found a publisher that fit with what I was doing and skipped the agent gate keepers. Should everyone do this? No. Agents are another layer of professionals that can help improve your work… or never sell it. It depends on you and your skills and your desires. If I had spent another year revising, then gone and resubmitted to agents, I could probably find one, and maybe I might have even made it to a big publisher. I opted to keep more control over my work and get it to readers sooner.
My advice is be wary, educated, and take your own path. Find the right course for you and your writing.