How (Not) to Publish Your Novel

Note: The following is a tongue-in-cheek description of my experiences trying to sell a novel. Please don’t take it for more than it’s worth or let it depress you.

Congratulations on finishing your first novel.

Please take the time savour the initial rush of joy that comes with placing the final period at the end of the final sentence of the final chapter of your book. Enjoy this naive pleasure as fully as you can, for it will be short lived.

As it turns out, the period that concluded your manuscript was actually more of an ellipsis, because it is now time to embark on the essential, but painful editorial process.

You will find proofreading your own work to be quite strange. Due to your overexposure to the project, you will find it difficult to see the text through the eyes of a first time reader. You will be completely incapable of telling whether your clever attempts at themes and subtext are too heavyhanded or too vague.

At times, the text will seem nonsensical, like a word that’s been repeated until it sounds like gibberish. At other times, unless you are possessed of some otherworldly self-confidence, you will probably convince yourself that you have wasted a good portion of your life working on a mediocre book that no one will ever read.

Having others proofread your work for you is not much better. While positive feedback wwill give you a small burst of confidence, you will also start to harbour suspicions that your proofreader has either spared your feelings or missed something. Negative feedback, while it will probably make your book better, feels like an attack and may leave you feeling bitterly sure that the reader didn’t “get it.”

Once you’ve sifted through all the notes and made the few changes that you could stomach, you will get another (albeit somewhat watered down) rush of pleasure at having the now “final” manuscript in front of you. Go ahead and print it off. The world can spare a tree or two so you can feel the weight of that sucker in your hands.

The work is now done. Congratulations.

Of course, if you actually stopped working now, your book would just sit on the shelf and collect dust. If you would see it read by your fellow humans, you must publish it.

Now is the time to do some research on how to go about doing this.

During this phase, you will no doubt encounter the great paradox of the unpublished author when you find that you cannot submit your manuscript to a reputable publisher without an agent, and a reputable agent won’t give you the time of day unless you’ve been published.

You will, as we all do, track down the few publishing houses or agents that do accept unsolicited manuscripts, and this itself will feel like a vague success. Now you can send the thing off and wash your hands of it. After all, you’ve done your best. Sure, they might reject you, but that’s up to them. All you need to do is send it off and your job is done.

Don’t break out the champagne yet, though, because you’re about to read the submission guidelines, which will inform you that, in addition to your manuscript, you must also submit a cover letter and synopsis.

This will lead you to do an online search for what is expected of a cover letter and synopsis, which will in turn lead to one of the most depressing hours of web browsing you have spent in some time.

You will be told many different things by many different people about how to best go about creating these documents. Most of these things will conflict with each other. The one thing that all the explanations will agree on, however, is that these two documents are — despite what you might think — actually more important than the book itself. If these documents fail to wow the recipient, your manuscript won’t get so much as a glance.

You will be told, in no uncertain terms, that the people to whom you are submitting this treasured document are the pickiest, most impatient people on the planet. As such, your manuscript will be not just ignored, but burned, if you happen to have chosen the wrong font or — God forbid — used a staple where you should have used a paperclip.

In addition to these purely cosmetic issues, the actual content of your cover letter and synopsis will be malevolently scrutinized as well. If the tone of your letter seems either too confident or too humble, your manuscript will be discarded. If you appear to be either trying too hard or not enough, your manuscript will be discarded. If you give too many details or — worse yet — not enough, your manuscript will be discarded.

You will end this exhausting process with the knowledge that, if you want there to be any chance of them taking you seriously, you need to get every single aspect of the submission process exactly right, but that what constitutes “exactly right” in this case is anyone’s best guess.

Finally, you will be ready to submit. Perhaps you are convinced that you have navigated the labyrinth of dos and donts successfully. If you are, good for you! More than likely, however, you will be submitting out of exhasperation rather than confidence. Congratulations, you are in the majority.

Odds are, somewhere in this submission process you will have been informed that everyone in the world has a novel to submit, and though apparently 99% of manuscripts are thrown away immediately based on the idiosyncrasies of the person in charge of sifting through them, you should not expect to receive a positive response for at least three months. If the response is negative, you will not receive a response at all.

This may sound depressing, but it’s not! Despite the fact that your book will most likely not be accepted by whoever you’ve submitted it to, you will have optimistically convinced yourself that it will. Sure they receive mountains of manuscripts from a legion of soon-to-be-failed writers, but you’re different! Your mother says you’re very talented! Your 10th grade English teacher read one of your stories in front of the class for Christ’s sake! How many other unpublished authors can say that?

So enjoy these three months. You have earned them. When friends ask you how the novel’s coming along, tell them you’re waiting to hear back from some publishers. Their respect for you will immediately rise.

After three months, cheerfully remind yourself that the web-site said three months was the “minimum” waiting period. Have another month of uneasy relaxation on the house.

After the fourth month, feel free to continue deluding yourself if you can. More than likely, however, you will start making some nebulous plans for what to do next. Do you look for more places to submit? Do you start writing another novel?

It is during this phase that the rejection you’ve given up on waiting for will actually arrive. As you read it, you will realize that all those times you said, “I just want a response one way or another. The waiting is worse than rejection,” you were not actually telling the truth. Try to pay close attention as a you die a little inside. Perhaps you can use your observations in your next novel!

Now is an appropriate time to realize that these publishers you were submitting to are actually relics of a bygone era. After all, this is the electronic age! No one reads books on paper anymore!

Clearly you were wrong to go looking for success in the primitive realm of old-world publishing. Your book is a product of the modern age. Of course the dinosaurs of publishing rejected it!

No, your success lies in the wonderful world of e-literature. How could you have been so stupid?

to be continued…

David Warkentin is a maintenance man who sometimes writes books. His first novel, The Horrible Cripple of Toothpick Palace, is available as an e-book here.


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