The Three Chances of Publishing A Book: Slim, Fat, and None? No, Quite the Contrary

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There’s this secret that most published writers know, but dont often tell: That it is far harder to complete a book than it may be to publish a book. Seriously. How many people do you know who have elevendy-gillion unfinished book starts languishing in metal file drawers somewhere. Or just one book, started elevendy jillion times, but then set aside after page fifteen or page fifty, as life and other matters demand sustained attentions to family, work, health.

There’s another secret many writers wont tell: It has to do with the odds of being published by a mainstream press or a small publishing press. They are actually quite good. Yes, luck is needed in some small part. Good writing that’s compelling to someone somewhere (an audience, a demographic, a genre) is of the essence. Being able to put one sentence behind another is needed. Having a sharp beginning, an unsagging middle and a solid ending are mostly valued, with the exception of a few of my great loves, such as James Joyce, Ferlinghetti (who is 90 yaers old this year), Corso and e.e.

But, every day in the trades I receive online, there is news of at least 40 manuscripts per day being bought by mainstream US publishers alone. 40 x 7 days a week x 52 weeks, year in and year out. That about 1460 manuscripts a year flying out of the ‘finished pile,’ and over half of them, NOT by known writers, but by first time authors. The trade news I receive does not often cover the small presses, like Beacon, Gray Wolf, and sometimes not the university presses either. There are tons of opportunities, not to mention the stalwart souls who self-publish… a whole different and respectable endeavor in these past years of multimedia being within reach of folks like you and me.

For reasons I dont quite entirely understand yet, there’s an idea afoot for decades that it’s really really hard to be published. I’d say no. I’d say that’s some kind of re-direct tactic, a rumor meant to deter author competitors. If you believe it, believe that this only happens to generals, ex-governors, shlock hacks, celebrity authors, or famous drunkards, you’re sunk. And also not in the running to be published, which can be a relief to certain kinds of authors who jealously guard whatever it is they think they are guarding.

But it is not a relief for readers and not for publishers. Your writing is their life’s blood in many good and different ways. They are waiting. Because we are the last storytellers on the earth from the literally thousands of tribes that are now so shattered… so often with only one shred or two of derivative story left to them… there will always be readers, listeners and helpers to give stories life. There is a story gene in us, a story hunger. Food, water, shelter, love, work, meaning, stories. That’s our true aegis.

I say all this while at the same time noting it took me 20 years to write my first book, and that it was rejected 42 times by mainstream publishers I sent it out to, (with the then required SASE, self addressed stamped envelope for return of once pristine manuscript…almost always returned with coffee cup stains, pages missing, wrinkled, unsendable-outable without hand re-typing the entire 600 pages all over again. Ay!) and when it was finally published, it was brought out by a mainstream publisher (now wrapped into Bertalsmann) who had already rejected that very manuscript twice in prior years.

Nonetheless, sometimes at night, and those of you who know me, know I am a night-writer, far far far into the night… I think we can hear the cadence of things, things that are true… and somewhat like stars that are always there but just dont show well during the day, there are some things that can be seen at night and not otherwise. I think we can know that we are here and whatever good we are seeking is also seeking us. It may very well happen in our lifetime that what we create and what others are seeking find complementary usefulness with one another at last, and something… a third thing… comes from that meeting of two. An author with a manuscript, a publisher waiting, hungry even, to publish. And the third thing that comes of it all, a meeting of essential strangers? A book for instance.

Not a rare occurance, being published. A real one that occurs regularly.

A lot of people ask me how to write a book, sometimes how to write a bestseller. I tell them there’s three ways, but fortunately no one any longer knows what they are. That it’s as much about attitude as anything else. In the end, teaching young and middle aged and elders to write, I say it is perhaps just one thing: You have to serve someone.

In that vein, I have a little note at my desk all these years. It is all faded out and I’ve had to trace over the writing at least twice over the decades so I can still read the lettering. In terms of keeping going, so that the service can be rendered… this little note says: Every day do your work with full intent, full fervor, fullest spirit, hold nothing back. If you will do your work this way every day with all your heart, you will succeed: There is so little competition.

Below are just a few of the manuscripts sold today. I added additional ones that have been sold in other countries today, also. Ramping up the chances of being published by about a factor of 100x. I’ll add some more ‘forthcomings’ this week. As I said, anyone with a manuscript “that’s built” has more than a fighting chance. Lots of chances to publish if that is the call they feel they have to heed or else their lives will ever remain unsettled. Many writers can, indeed, grok that.

Fiction
Jan Watson’s SKIP ROCK SHALLOWS, when a young woman graduates from medical school in 1906, she unexpectedly finds herself the only physician available to a group of hard-driven Kentucky coalminers, to Tyndale, ifor publication in Fall 2011

Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Harry Turtledove’s SUPERVOLCANO, an epic disaster trilogy based on the terrifying scientific fact that an enormous volcano, bigger than any in recorded history, exists underneath Yellowstone National Park and could blow at any time, taking most of American civilization with it, to Roc,for publication in 2012, 2013, and 2014

Children’s: Middle grade
Caldecott Honor winner Tony DiTerlizzi’s THE SEARCH FOR WONDLA, when an intruder destroys the underground sanctuary that a girl was raised in by her robot, Muthr, the twelve-year-year-old is forced to flee aboveground: somewhere she’s never been before, tomon & Schuster Children’s, for publication in September 2010,

Business/Investing/Finance
President and CEO of global microfinance organization FINCA International Rupert Scofield’s HUMANITARIANS AT THE GATE: Surviving and Thriving in the Treacherous World of the Modern Not-for-Profit, a field manual/management guide for social entrepreneurs, to McGraw-Hill, to be announced, likely 2011.

History/Politics/Current Affairs
Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug’s DEFIANT COURAGE: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance, the shocking true account of Jan Baalsrud’s WWII escape, made famous in the We Die Alone, to Skyhorse, for publication in September 2010

Religion/Spirituality
Janet Thompson’s THE TEAM JESUS BUILT, a practical, teambuilding model based on Jesus’s example, to equip women in developing biblical leadership in women’s ministries within the church, New Hope, ifor publication in 2011

Science
Mark Frary’s BETTER LIVING THROUGH SCIENCE: The Basic Scientific Principles You Need to Solve Every Household Conundrum, an illustrated book explaining how all of the things we learned (or didn’t learn) in math and science class can help improve life in and around the house, to Rodale for 2010

Eccentric(in the eye of the beholder)
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s WALK OUT, WALK ON, taking readers on a learning journey into eight diverse communities that have walked out of a world of material individualism and walked on to develop a healthier, more resilient world based on people partnering together, to Berrett-Koehler, for publication in March 2011

Sarah Bakewell’s HOW TO LIVE: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers, to JOther Press, for publication in October 2010

H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace’s THE OFFICIAL CIA MANUAL OF TRICKERY AND DECEPTION, to Hardie Grant for 2010

Audio
Erin Blakemore’s THE HEROINE’S BOOKSHELF, a look at literature’s greatest and most enduring female characters — such as Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Laura Ingalls and others — and their authors, who have helped shape the inner lives of generations of women, teasing out universal tenets of strength, wisdom, and survival, to Blackstone Audio, for publication in November 2010

Translations:
((Interesting to see what other nations’ publishing companies are interested in channeling to their readers, some seeming contemporaneous buys, but some seeming (see Dylan, below) years after first pub in other parts of the world.

Translations (often interesting to see what publishers in other nations are channeling to their readers, either contemporaneously or somewhat late viz Dylan, below)

Translation into German: Philip Carlo’s THE ICE MAN: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, to Piper

Spanish translation to Patrick Rothfuss’s THE ADVENTURES OF THE PRINCESS AND MR. WHIFFLE: The Thing beneath the Bed, with illustrations by Nate Taylor, to Random House Mondadori

Dutch translation: Meredith Cole’s DEAD IN THE WATER, to De Fontein

Turkish translation: Karen Quinn’s THE SISTER DIAIRIES, to Pegasus

Translation into Korean: Wray Herbert’s ON SECOND THOUGHT: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, a guide to how our brains make snap decisions and what we can do to override our instincts, to Book 21

Arabic translation of Shelina Janmohamed’s LOVE IN A HEADSCARF, a Muslim woman’s search to find The One, to Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.

Russian translation:Daniel Amen M.D.’s CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, CHANGE YOUR BODY; THE BRAIN IN LOVE; MAGNIFICENT MIND AT ANY AGE; and HEALING THE HARDWARE OF THE SOUL, to Exmo

Portuguese Translation for Brazil: Garth Sundem’s THE GEEK’S GUIDE TO WORLD DOMINATION, to Pensamento-Cultrix

Traditional Chinese translation to Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES – VOLUME 1, to Locus

Author: DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

22 Comments

  1. Insightful article. As an independent bookstore owner I can vouch for the fact that not a week goes by without being regaled with tales of how they would love to be an author “if only”. I myself am content to be a reader … I am so far behind in my reading now I suspect I would never catch up should I commit hours every day to writing for publication :-)

  2. Dr E, thank you for this reminder. It applies to any of our heart's work – it's the sticking to it that does the job. It is so easy to get discouraged. I will consider this a footprint on the back of my pants :-) to put the pants back in the chair and get to it. Blessings and happy smiles to you!

  3. To be fair, my audio deal (listed above) was for a book that already sold to Harper in 2009, so only denotes the subrights sale. However, I do agree…done ALWAYS trumps hypothetical/undone (and the story of getting from deal to finished book was a hair-raising one, at least for me!). Thanks for sharing, and for mentioning The Heroine's Bookshelf! :)

  4. Inspiring, insightful, instructive and, most of all, encouraging to those who dream of “authorship” some day.

    Thank you dr.e

    Dorian

  5. How many people do you know who have elevendy-gillion unfinished book starts languishing in metal file drawers somewhere. Or just one book, started elevendy jillion times, but then set aside after page fifteen or page fifty, as life and other matters demand sustained attentions to family, work, health.

    I can definitely relate to this. I've spent the last 10 1/2 years working on a novel. After cranking out the first 100 pages in about three months, I expected the finished product (which I had expected to be about 500 pages at the time) to be completed in about 3 or 4 years. It's now 10 1/2 years later, and the novel has ballooned to 750 pages (single space, size 10 font) and will probably be at last another 300 pages before it's completed.

    It's good to hear that getting a book published is easier than completing it. If I ever get close to completing mine, perhaps I'll contact you, Dr. E. Thanks for your insights regarding this topic.

  6. “elevendy-gillion”

    A mathematician after my own heart. But you can write and of that I am jealous. But then my love is music and I wouldn't have time to become a serious author.

    You spoke a great truth talking about service. My wife and I have a small band and we play a lot of retirement centers and the like. The other night a gentleman, who was visiting his father, made the point to tell us after the show how much his father enjoyed the music. And he went on to say that we probably don't know how much good we do for people like his father. His father was suffering from Alzheimers but at one time had been a music teacher. At that point I realized what my purpose in music was; and it isn't getting a big recording contact or becoming a great financial success.

    Thanks for the article.

  7. I think your words would be easier to believe if the publishing industry wasn't handing out contracts to people who have never even written a book, and who reject debut novels because they're “not expected to break out in a big way” (??? Are all beginners expected to perform like champions?) or to web sites or blogs with flash-in-the-pan faddish appeal.

    The publishing newsletters and agent blogs tell a more pessimistic story than you do.

  8. Me too GiletteLKempf: I agree, need at least ten more lifetimes to catch up reading. Thank you for being in the trenches in indie books. You are authors' heroine. Hang in there.

    dr.e

  9. Hi there LizHill. LizHill is an author of four Young Adult books, and just published a wonderful book with co-author Ruthie Rosauer called 'Singing Meditation'… singing beautifully for peeps like me who were told they cant sing. One more form of discouragement that can bite the dust thanks to a book like that. You're right Liz, writing is different than talking and dreaming out loud, though those both have their place in creative process too, but not so much the book gets 'talked away.'

    Keep on.
    dr.e

  10. dear ErinBlakemore, thank you so much for writing to let us know about your audio rights sale. Keep going, and youre right about 'hair-raising.' The best relection I have about bringing a book from sold to store, is there is a loss of innocence each time. But, it leaves behind some greater wisdom too for next time. I hardly know an author Erin, who doesnt have the scars to prove they followed through. Those scars can be worn with pride, cause you're continuing to write. Lots of people stop. JD Salinger was one who stopped, for reasons that are understandable, but also, sometimes the mythology of stopping can be more seductive than the reality of forging onward.

    Thanks for your book and audio on how writers' lives and the protagonists they create mesh often.
    dr.e

  11. we're waiting for your book dorian. Dorian is a co-blogger here at TMV. He has many things to write about including his immigration that he's spoken about here sometimes, his views that are heartfelt as a military officer, his son and the journey they've had in life, which Dorian has also spoken of here.

    Dream it for a little while only, then start doing it.
    Thanks Dorian
    dr.e

  12. dear Nic
    Nic is a coblogger here at TMV and has other writing interests. He is a libertarian, and has a style of clarity and heart that are rare. 10.5 years is only long in dog years Nic. (Just my two cent's lol… I am just finishing a book that took 15 years… during which time, black hair to silver threaded). Keep going and thank you so much for laying out the scenario. I am never daunted by people who say it takes years to think something through, to create something. Every book has its length in terms of pages, and style. No one but the author knows which/what is best. It's internal music only the author can hear

    Note from my list above, Harry Turtledove’s SUPERVOLCANO, an epic disaster trilogy will be pub'd in a series in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Really big manuscripts are often divided into parts and made into companion volumes, or trilogies, or series.

    keep going.

    dr.e

  13. dear new cat, you made me laugh about mathematician. Yes, I studied math in the reformatory. ok ok , just kidding. barely.

    I liked your story about going to the centers for elders. That alone is worth some writing if you feel like it New Cat. What you said about knowing the heart and meaning of music for you, is… well you are lucky you know this. For many the contentment of how to/ what to/ why to of creative life, eludes them and sometimes embitters them. But even so, they can pull out of that too, and find their touchstones as you have.

    I was thinking about you and your wife having a small traveling band. That is so unique in this world that sometimes seems no one has worth unless they are ;big like a blowfish,' at least in appearances. I hope you will think about writing about your observations as you travel with your little band to these often forgotten places. People often tell me they havent anything to write about. I listen to their lives, and feedback to them, look, it's right here in your own life. Same with you new cat. In the meantime, continue and may you and your lady bring and receive much.

    dr.e

  14. hello there nicoleChardenet

    Just my two cents: if I'd listened or if i would listen now to all the dire and off-putting and impossibles others in the industry lay out like one-penny nails in the roadway, I'd be busted down on the salt flats with a trunk full of mss, a dragging muffler and nowhere to go. (actually have been there, several times in my life, but then, I hoisted the pack and traveled on foot)

    You'd not asked my advice, but I'd offer this: dont listen to, dont think about who else/ what else says what. Dont think about what others have or get. Especially dont do that. Their fates are not your fate. Only your destiny is yours, and it has many positive aspects. Many. Keep going. Keep your eye on the life spark, not on the ones you dont like, not on the ones you find to be rejectors. Just the Life Force in you, the life spark. Follow that.

    I dont know your path, but you can and will.

    dr.e

  15. Hey Archangel, I haven't given up on traditional publishing yet, I'm just waiting for it to pull its head out of its arse. in the meantime I've launched an experiment with self-publishing to learn the basics of book promotion and marketing. If it fails, it's okay…I've still got some other books I've put on hold until book publishing stops its current death spiral.

  16. good for you nicoleChardenet. There's a self-publishing group at Yahoo, of mostly very experienced people in SP. If you arent there already, check it out. They're definitely peeling rubber.

    dr.e

  17. Hello archangel
    I like your advice even tho I am not into writing:-) it shows that you indeed are trained into the healing aspects of the human mind.

    I think publishing houses are not doing well these days because of all the ebooks online that can be downloaded free, google and gutenburg just to name two. The future is POD meaning printing will be only for those that are on demand,saving the masses of books that are not sold and go to a recycle end that cost money too.

    I like to curl up with a good book often to reading books online. And my taste lately is for non-fiction or autobiographies, I just read 'Bodyguard, the story of Princess Diana,s last days and before that I read Kennedy john Jr.before his plane crash that one had me crying toward the end. I think those who write have a special need to share their voice and passion for life, its just a human condition to identify and touch human emotion through sharing that through writing which only grows through the experience that opens the doors of the heart and soul.

    I loved your book Women Who run with the Wolves. The storytelling from Myrths passed down paints a picture parrellel to life,s complexities in real time.

  18. You are very kind, dr. e.

    Thank you

  19. I had already decided to work my way around it and now I hear that the publishing industry is not what legend states. My plan was to just publish on the web and sell physical copies that we, me and my most significant of others, make. I still think I want to make a limited run of one thousand but you have made me consider sending it in before I post the entire thing online. I must say a timely post for me personally, I will be officially laid off in four days. I am counting the seconds because The Magical Sky Father book awaits.

  20. if that's the title, 'magical sky father' that is a cool title. I can see it already

    do your research in your genre. Target, target, target.

    please also check out [email protected]

    you can do both/ self pub first, and pull down a mainstream pub contract later if you pursue marketing your self pub'd work(s). Research in depth how NOT to pub online, as well as best pathways that others have successfully tromped before you. Some of the trailblazers of SP are at the URL i mentioned.

    hang in there; good things will come, meaningful things

    dr.e

  21. How marvelously synchronistic, that I should discover your blog, and that this should be the most recent entry. I have been re-reading and re-listening to your books / cds in the last few days. No external reason, just was called to. Discovering new and more wisdom, more riches, so gratefully. And I was just thinking today about my novel-in-progess. It will be my dissertation, actually, and I'm newly on this road and I was thinking how long it will be and then thinking, oh, maybe I should just do a “regular” old dissertation (much easier for me) but then, no, the daimon would turn into a demon, I can't not write this anymore. This is who I am, and anyway, I said to myself, at least my dissertation committee will *have* to read it, if no one else! LOL. But then I re-read the first 3 chapters, began making notes for the others, and thought, very very very quietly, in a whisper more quiet than a cat's purr: “This isn't so bad. In fact, I really like this. A lot. And that's really all that matters. I like reading this!” And I realized again how that the reason is that this is the first of the stories I'm truly meant to write, and I'm doing it courageously and I'm proud about that. And that all the other writing, all the other novels I've started and even completed, and all the letters and emails and notes and dreams and academic papers and journal entries over the years, all of it has been preparation for this one, the first of the ones I'm really supposed to write. And all that has come before, it's been the way I've honed my craft. And so now, well, gosh, now I don't even have the old but always usable excuse that I'm not “good enough” because I am. I'm pretty sure that is the Trickster I hear, laughing in the background. So, thank you for this, especially today. I'm printing it and keeping it at my workspace. And years from now, perhaps I'll have to copy over it, so faded will it be.

  22. “So, thank you for this, especially today. I'm printing it and keeping it at my workspace. And years from now, perhaps I'll have to copy over it, so faded will it be.”

    you are most welcome, and keep going, it's the home stretch that is the most peril. Keep going. And i smiled at your comment of 'and years from now, perhaps I'll have to copy it over… ”

    thanks,
    dr.e

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