Monday, February 10, 2014

They're not Gatekeepers, They're Ass-Kickers.

In February 2010, I wrote a book I called The Walls.  Actually, I think I was calling it These Walls at that time.  Deathday hadn't been released yet, and I'd been struggling to write a followup.  I was actually supposed to be writing a road trip book that my agent-at-the-time was interested in and had told my editor-at-the-time about.  The road trip book wasn't going well.  The jokes were bad, the characters were insane, and I'd incorporated a show called Shock Till You Drop where contestants are allowed to shop in a mall, facing the threat of electrical shocks, until they couldn't go on.  It was terrible.

I sent These Walls to my agent, explained that I'd lost faith in the road trip book, and that this was the kind of story I wanted to write going forward.  He let me down easy.  Told me the writing had potential and that he might be able to sell it, but that it needed a ton of work, and he wasn't interested in representing it.

I was crushed.  I believed in the book.  But I also wanted to sell something else.  I refused to be one of those writers who faded away after a book or two, and I knew These Walls was THE BOOK.  I just felt like it was special.  We submitted another book that didn't pass muster, my editor brought me the idea for FML, and over the next year-and-a-half, I wrote what became FML.

During that time, I was secretly revising These Walls, which became The Walls (or The Hospital Book, as I sometimes referred to it).  Between May 2010 and November 2011, The Walls went through 6 revisions.  I combined characters, gave the comic book storyline greater prominence, introduced a couple of characters, cut others.  I begged friends to read it, had a brilliant freelance editor/friend read and edit it, and polished it until it gleamed.

In the middle of 2011, when I was knee-deep in fml, I parted ways with my agent.  I'd asked again about moving forward with The Walls and he wasn't interested.  I was scared that I was gambling my future on this manuscript, but I believed in it, and knew that if I made it perfect, someone else would believe in it too.

In 2011, I submitted a small round of queries for The Walls.  I sent out 5 queries, got five requests, and five rejections.  Every agent hated my ending.  I revised and tried again.  More rejections.  This time, the wonderful agent, Suzie Townsend, told me that Patient F, the comic book my narrator draws about, should actually have his own comic book in the story.

Between the end of 2011 and April 2012, I wrote the Patient F comic and interspersed it throughout the book.  I also did another revision to tighten the story.

In June, Amy Boggs at Donald Maass Literary Agency offered to represent me and The Walls.  She was and is a godsend.  We did another revision before sending it out on submission, now under the title The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley.

In March of 2013, Michael Strother from Simon Pulse, who published Deathday and FML, offered to acquire Five Stages.  It was clear to me from the first moment we spoke that he got the book.  They were going to have the Patient F comic drawn by a real artist, and felt that it really gave the novel something extra.

Between March and the end of the year, Michael and I did two more revisions—one a big picture revision and another smaller one.  In January of this year, I did the copyedits.

In the span of 4 years, I've revised and edited The Hospital Book somewhere between 10 and 15 times.  Each person who touched the book gave me insight into how to make it better.  The agents who rejected it and my first agent all gave me great advice for sharpening the book.  The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley wouldn't be the book it is without the input of all those people.  The things that make it special are all a direct result of the rejection-revision process the book went through.

And that's what scares me about self-publishing.  I believe self-publishing is going to be one of the biggest and best things to happen to books in my lifetime.  I believe self-publishing is a  valid route for writers to take to get their books published.  I believe there are great reasons to self-publish.  But if I had taken that manuscript after my first agent rejected it and self-published it, it wouldn't be anything like the book that's coming out next year.  It would contain all the potential but deliver of few of the promises.  And I wonder what other writers are missing out on by bypassing the system.  People badmouth the "gatekeepers," but every single rejection I got helped me make Five Stages into a sharper, more fully realized book.  Not one single person touched it who didn't inspire me to improve it.  And I think that's what we lose with self-publishing.

Self-published writers talk about maintaining the rights to their work, higher royalties, etc, and those are all important things.  I think traditional publishing is going to have to bend in some of those areas to stay competitive, but my goal is and always will be to put the best book possible into the hands of readers, and I just don't think I could do that alone.  Maybe that's a personal failing.  But next time you read a really good self-published book, ask yourself how much better if could have been.


  1. I'm glad you found trad publishing to be a helpful experience and hope you got a fair contract. I agree sometimes you need feedback from others to improve your work, but this doesn't always have to be from agents and publishing house editors. (Keep in mind they are most interested in the commercial aspects of your work.) Self-publishers can hire their own freelance editors and seek feedback from beta readers. Even reviews on a published work can help authors improve their next book. At the same time, however, sometimes too much feedback from other people can destroy the vital and unique aspects of a book. The wise author must learn when to use feedback and when to ignore it.

    1. You make very good points. I suspect many editors working in publishing will find work doing free-lance editing, and self-publishing will be all the better for it. This isn't to put down self-publishing, but to point out the collaborative nature of writing.

      Most of those people who offered me advice were either friends, who had no financial stake in the book, or literary agents who passed on representing it. I also think too many people oversimplify the role of agents and editors. Yes, they take on projects they believe they can sell, but I also know that good agents and editors take on projects they believe in over anything else. My agent, my editor, and all the people involved in publishing my book believe in more than the dollars and cents they can earn from it...they believe in the story.

      But the goal of this post wasn't to say that traditional publishing is better than self-publishing, it was to point out the journey that my particular book took, and to highlight that the process, rejections and all, made it an immensely better book. And I hope that when I do dip my toe in the self-publishing pool that I'll be able to find passionate people equally willing to help make my next book great too.


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