It turns out, writing
a book is the easy part
Getting published? A whole new story
years ago, after a rather trying first year as a Grade 8 teacher in New
Zealand, I decided that I wanted to return to Toronto, take a year off
and write a young adult novel.
came back to Toronto with a cache of classroom memories and a head full
of ideas. After a couple of false starts, I came upon my protagonist,
and began to write a story about an adolescent revolutionary named Clouds
the process of writing the book was by turns enthralling, mysterious and
full of self-doubt, I soon found that the real puzzle was the publishing
industry itself. As I wrote the story, I began to research potential publishers,
and for every answer I found, two new questions sprung up.
it might be true that there are hundreds of publishers in North America
waiting to receive your manuscript, there aren't many that actually want
it. I learned this quickly after purchasing one of the many of tomes on
Getting Published -- a bookstore wall unto itself. Along with tips and
testimonials, these how-to books have long lists of prospective publishers.
quickly crossed out the feminist, Jesuit, non-fiction, science-fiction,
girls only, romantic, self-esteem, special needs and Hawaiian history
publishers. But the remaining publishers were not exactly begging for
of the houses only receive submissions from agents and published authors.
Others only take in summarizing query letters. More than half of publishers
do not take simultaneous submissions (SS), meaning that authors have to
wait three to six months for a response before they can send the same
manuscript (MS) to another publisher.
avoid having the receiving editor immediately transfer your MS from your
original envelope into your Self Address Stamped Envelope (SASE), and
send it back to you, you must include page numbers, have a title page
centred, one-third down the page, create a cover letter (a bookstore shelf
unto itself), and have no staples (paper clips only, please).
you decide to spice your manuscript up by printing it on shocking pink
paper or if you mention in your cover letter how much your niece loved
your book, you might as well not send the thing in the first place.
picked six North American publishers, two Canadian, four U.S., and I submitted
an earlier work, a 1,000-word picture book narrative called Felix's Big
Day. Feeling like I was sending requests for courtship to the Queen, I
washed my hands twice and carefully slid my six MSes with SASEs into their
envelopes. With one eye closed, I practised my form before finally laying
my stamps on to the envelopes.
I did some calculations. Which publisher would come through? Was it the
small Canadian press that prints four books a year and 20 per cent first
time authors, or the larger U.S. house that put out 90 books and had 5
per cent first time authors? Maybe, it was the publisher that, when describing
its narrative tastes, basically summarized my book, but also shut the
door on unpublished writers. Or perhaps it was the house that wanted only
first-timer authors who wrote pop-up book stories.
after several months of writing, calculating and waiting, I got some responses.
I received "Dear Author" form letters, mordant letterhead scribbles,
encouraging paper-clipped notes, and no-longer-in-business slips. In sum,
the answer was "No. No, no, no, no, no". When all was said and
done, I had six rejections and zero contracts.
reality is that thousands of would-be writers are sending publishers their
work. The receiving editor is haunted by the towering stack of manuscripts
dubbed The Slush Pile.
you are lucky, the editor who gets on her tippy toes and pulls down your
manuscript for the requisite five minutes is in a good mood that day,
or didn't just read another MS with a similar story line, or didn't just
get chewed out by her boss. You get one random chance in this cutthroat
business, and unless you are lucky or remarkably talented, the MS gets
put in the SASE, and is sent back to you ASAP.
my young adult novel, In Clouds, was finally done, I lined up some new
publishers. Although some more rejections came back, they were longer
and more thoughtful.
one publisher bit. I'd sent in six chapters to a large Canadian publisher
-- rarely will a publisher take the full manuscript -- and they wanted
to see the rest. In hours, I had the package ready and in the mail. A
tortuously long three months later, a response finally came.
was no promise of print runs or money or fame. Instead of a rejection,
what the publisher was offering me was another chance: she wanted some
substantive changes before committing.
analyzed the editorial notes. I had friends read them and recite them
back to me. I got down to work and one intense month later, I sent in
my revised manuscript.
waited a couple of months, and then searched out the publisher's number
in my Getting Published tome. I left a voice mail and received no response.
I waited several more months, left another voice mail and received no
waited three more months, left one more message, and received no response.
I wondered: "If a voice mail is left at a publishing house, does
anybody hear?" A week later, I finally got a call. But it wasn't
what I was expecting. My book was going to the Pub Board.
Publishing Board, a collection of the company's marketers, editors, advisers
and owners, is really what stands between a writer and an ISBN number.
If an editor brings your book to a Pub Board meeting, you at least know
you have her on your side. Then it's about convincing the rest of the
company. In some houses, it comes down to a show of hands. Knowing your
book is going to the Pub Board, one fiery hoop away from success, is enough
to drive an author to drink.
With more time
to kill, instead of drink, I focused my energies on getting an agent.
One of the many Catch-22s of the publishing business is found with the
agent -- you often you can't get a book deal without one. Meanwhile, it's
just as hard to land an agent as a publisher -- same slush pile, same
odds. But I was as close to being published as one can get, and this enabled
me to get to an industry-leading, yet compassionate agency. I landed my
agent, and then I finally got the call from the publisher.
18 months of anxiety, second thoughts, and, um, waiting, I got my answer.
It was yes, but it didn't sound like yes. I was expecting streamers and
horns, but what I got was plangent despondency -- Canadian Editor Despondency.
The editor said they weren't exactly bankrupt, but things didn't look
great. (Oh, and "Congratulations, by the way.") Within months,
the publisher did go bankrupt. Assets, including my untouched manuscript,
months passed. In the summer of 2002, the publishing house did eventually
get bought. I had a new publisher, a new life. I also finally received
a cheque, one-third of my advance on royalties. The total amount of the
advance is in the mid four-figures, but until I get an editor and can
produce a final draft the last two-thirds will elude me.
was over a year ago. What was once a spring 2004 launch has become, without
much certainty, fall 2004 (the publishing industry has two seasons, spring
and fall, and it thinks about years the way the rest of the world thinks
One publisher told me that it usually takes 10 years for
an author to get a first book published. So I guess I'm nearing the halfway
mark: four years, 11 months, and three days -- and counting.
With luck, 33-year-old
Matt Beam will be a Toronto-based
author as of fall 2004. Special to the Star