Are you eager to see your writing in print? Today’s guest, Judy Dearborn Nill, who also happens to be my sister-in-law, gives an insider’s view which may help you achieve your dream of getting published.
From Craft to Draft
NN: When did you first think about publishing a novel?
JDN: At age 31, I had been reading a memoir by a favorite author, and all of a sudden I itched to get something published. A novel, not newspaper or magazine articles, which had failed to satisfy my byline craving. I wanted to see my work between the covers of a book. I immediately sat down to write what was to become my first novel. I was in graduate school at the time, so I wrote half of the initial draft that summer and half the next summer.
NN: How did you know which steps to take to contact publishers and how to query?
JDN: I didn’t, even though I’d had experience as a news reporter. I started reading The Writer’s Market and magazines for writers. I also attended writing classes and seminars and eventually joined a writing group. For many years I was far more inclined to read about writing fiction than to write it. Writing fiction is hard work!
NN: What was your experience as you tried to find a publisher or literary agent?
JDN: Frustrating. Often I met with responses of “close, but no cigar.” The first novel I wrote—which, after 35 years of on-again, off-again drafting and redrafting, is now under contract with Guardian Angel Publishing — went through four rewrites at the behest of an editor at Scribner’s in the early 1980s. The last thing he said to me was, “I can’t look at it any more. It lacks something, but I don’t know what it is. Humor, maybe.”
NN: Did you seek out other publishers after that?
JDN: Yes. I wrote three other novels and a picture book, all of which languished for decades without representation or contracts. After taking third place in a Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest, one of my novels was repeatedly misplaced by the editor who judged it. She would request a new copy every time I inquired as to its status. Finally, she said she’d moved it from a stack in her living room to a stack in her bathroom. I took some hope in this progress, but, alas, I never heard from her again despite my carefully spaced follow-up calls. Another novel was accepted verbally by a small publisher—or so I thought—but nothing came of it, again despite follow-up calls and letters. That publisher eventually folded. Yet another novel, Simple Twists of Faith, was a semi-finalist in an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and received a glowing review by Publishers Weekly. It still failed to interest agents or editors.
NN: Did you query publishers directly?
JDN: Yes. At the time I began marketing my fiction, most agents would not consider a writer who had not been published. It was only after the marketing climate changed—some 15 to 20 years later—that I queried agents.
New Publishing Options
NN: What prompted you to publish on Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace?
JDN: Time and circumstance. Thirty-some years ago, when I first sought a market for my fiction, I hadn’t yet developed the skill to be published as a novelist. Unfortunately, none of my teachers and none of the editors I approached could tell me what I needed to do to improve. I had to learn through rewrite after rewrite that I suffered from too much journalism training. I was terse to a fault and perfectionistic about style, frequently short-changing the sweep of the story for what I imagined to be elegant prose. By the time I was skilled enough for publication as a novelist, the tide had turned. Inexpensive online self-publishing and the whole Amazon collective had begun to dismantle brick-and-mortar bookstores. Traditional agents and publishers became more and more cautious, all looking for the next bestseller, largely unwilling to take chances with what they used to call midlist books.
NN: What was it like to see your book in print for the first time?
JDN: It was truly a dream come true. Because I went the Amazon route, I received print-on-demand copies of all three of my young adult novels at once – Simple Twists of Faith, Just for Kicks, and The Rise and Fall of Bibi Karstad.
I cradled each and every one in my hands and gave them a prominent place on my office bookshelves, but I still haven’t read them. I don’t want to reread them now they’re in print. I would only want to rewrite them if I did.
NN: What were the advantages of self-publishing?
JDN: Speed, certitude of publication, control over the process from start to finish, including cover art and presentation. My nephew Adam Youngers did a fantastic job on the covers. He also formatted the books for Kindle. I had to hire someone to format the books for CreateSpace, the print-on-demand paperbacks.
NN: What were the disadvantages of self-publishing?
JDN: Feeling like a second-class citizen was the worst.
For example, upon hearing that I had decided to publish via Amazon, one of my traditionally published author friends said, “Sheesh! Everybody’s an author now.” Limited sales came in a close second. Amazon has changed its policies in the last five years to favor readers over indie authors by banning promotion on reader sites, cutting the number of categories per book from five to two and not making good use of subject tags, among other things. After the first two or three months, the vast majority of self-pubbed books get buried in obscurity.
NN: What made you rethink what you wanted and pursue traditional publishing for your kids’ book?
JDN: I didn’t rethink anything. I just found what I’d wanted all along—a publisher. Guardian Angel Publishing, which had published books by a friend of mine, also took Samuel & Sophia: A Tale of Two Teddies. Later the same publisher accepted my multiply rewritten first novel, Too Big Too Soon, as well. I wouldn’t call GAP a traditional publisher, by the way. It’s one of the many small-press and hybrid publishers that have come into being with the development of the same technology and entreprenurial spirit that enables self-pubbing on Amazon.
NN: How did you find Guardian Angel Publishing?
JDN: My former writing-for-publication instructor Colleen Reece — now a friend — who taught in the Writer’s Digest correspondence school and who has published more than 150 books and 500 articles in the last 40 years, had several books published by GAP. Her former students call her the Queen of Marketing, because she has her ear to the ground in that sense and has made a living solely as a writer and teacher of writing since 1978.
NN: What is a hybrid publisher? Is GAP a hybrid?
JDN: Several excellent articles online, including one by Forbes reporter David Vinjamuri, say that the umbrella “hybrid” covers most of the territory between self-publishing and traditional New York publishers. Each hybrid, however, has its own business model, so they vary according to what works best to keep them competitive. If the small press that gave me a verbal acceptance of one of my novels 10 years ago had been able to transition into employing the technology and business models that keep hybrids afloat, it may not have gone under. However, I don’t think many small presses such as GAP would call themselves hybrid. It’s a label from the outside.
NN: What are the general differences between hybrids and traditional publishers?
JDN: The differences lie in the number of people employed by the publisher, print runs (most if not all are print-on-demand), outlay of expense per author/project, distribution and marketing. For example, GAP is pretty much a one-woman operation. Dynamo publisher Lynda Burch has produced more than 500 titles in the last 10 years. For the most part, she handles all the financial, technological and marketing details with volunteer help in the editing department from her stable of authors. Writers and illustrators work on a royalty basis. No advances are offered, but royalties run three times higher than those of traditional publishers. While GAP lists books through traditional distribution outlets (including Amazon), its primary sales venues are book fairs, home schooler associations, the GAP website and the authors’ and illustrators’ own efforts.
NN: What services do they offer that CreateSpace doesn’t?
JDN: Hybrid publishers take on projects in the same way traditional publishers do. They are responsible for producing the book in every aspect, so once the contract is signed, the author’s work is done until publication. But because hybrids are smaller and more personal, authors and illustrators often have more say about the finished product. I was consulted about artwork, for instance. KC Snider, the illustrator of Samuel & Sophia, chose to use my nephew’s concept of the bears, which pleased me no end.
NN: What’s the best way for writers to find a hybrid press?
JDN: Talk to other writers at conferences and writing groups. Google small presses and hybrid publishers online. Check out the results with Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors and other author-protecting sites, because, in the words of one blogger, “not all hybrids are created equal.”
NN: Do most hybrid presses take un-agented material? What is the submission process?
JDN: As far as I know, all hybrid publishers take un-agented as well as agented material. I’ve contacted four or five hybrids, all with online submission guidelines which ranged from uploading on a website to emailing a query with synopsis and partial or full manuscript. In the case of GAP, I got quick responses, but the wait time between contract and publication was at least as long as with traditional publishers. I understand this is not always the case—that some hybrids put out books at a much faster rate than traditionals.
For Writers Only
NN: What advice do you have about publishing for not-yet-published writers?
(1) Be prepared for daunting disappointment in the traditional field. I read somewhere that most writers can expect at least a decade of failure to sell before their first acceptance. I had 30 years of no’s—or deals that fell through—before I got a contract.
(2) Be prepared to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Even if you choose the self-publishing route, you will not be happy unless the work you put out there is the best it can be.
(3) Read more novels—or whatever it is you want to write/publish—and less about how to write. The “how to write” advice is too often distracting, confusing, alarming and nit-picky.
(4) Be prepared for surprises. I finally found a publisher when I’d all but given up hope.
* * *
Thank you very much, Judy, for taking time to share your experience with what continues to be the hot topic in today’s publishing world. And congratulations on your latest book contract!
Posted on October 13, 2015