Getting published is hard! I often see bloggers posting their success stories, but I want to do something a little bit different. This post, I’ll be sharing one of my personal failures in publishing. I hope people will see this and learn about where I went wrong, but also see that failure in publishing is normal, and it happens more often than success.
Shortly after high school, I started writing a middle-grade fantasy book called Fire Master Marley. It was a book about a girl who has no magical abilities but finds herself in a competition of magic users and has to cheat to win. I wrote the first three chapters, but ended up stepping away from writing for a few years. Life happened, as it sometimes does.
About two years ago, I picked it back up and spent roughly three months completing the first draft. It was the first novel I’d completed in a very long time. In all the excitement, I then made an all-too-common beginners-mistake. I started querying before editing. I was sure my first draft was strong enough to make it. And it’s the heart of a story that matters, right? (No.) What’s worse, I didn’t know how to write an effective query letter, so I paid someone 30$ to do it on Fiverr.
As you might expect, this resulted in nothing but rejections.
After I’d burned a bunch of bridges, I realized I was doing something wrong. I went back and revisited the story, did some editing, wrote a new query letter, and started querying again. And the second version was better! Unfortunately, it still wasn’t ready. From developmental issues to grammar, it still needed work. I see it easily now, but back then, I was blind to its problems. But I did know I needed some fresh eyes.
Which is how I walked head-first into another mistake: the cheap editor***. I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on an editor to help me with the manuscript, so I found a cheap one. She did more damage to the manuscript than I ever could have imagined, and I literally had to edit her edits. Because this was a lot of work and I am clearly an idiot, I decided to hire yet another cheap editor to help me. This one seemed to do a much better job, and after he gave me the thumbs up, I figured the manuscript had to be just about perfect. (No.)
Once more, I received nothing but rejections, and I’d wasted a ton of money.
Finally, after some time had passed and I learned a thing or two, I gave the manuscript a self-edit and a new query. At 70+ rejections, I got my first request for more material. Two in fact! One from an agent, and the other from a brand new, unheard of, small press.
(Side note: Don’t query agents and publishers at the same time.)
After a few months, I got some great news. The press wanted to publish my book! It wasn’t what I had always dreamed of, but it was something. At that point, I was so defeated by the querying process I was glad just to get anything at all. So, I made another mistake. I withdrew my full manuscript from the agent and accepted the offer from the small press.
Now, to be clear, I didn’t do this quickly. In fact, I took two months to make the decision. During that time, I looked through the publisher’s website (which was poor) and their catalog (which had only a single book with a cover I didn’t like). Their logo was unimpressive, their outreach was minimal. Even the contract itself didn’t seem quite right. I talked to their only other author at the time, and she gave them a glowing recommendation—but that was about all they had going for them.
The fact is, I didn’t feel great about this press even from the start.
But so what? Did it matter if they were small and unheard of? If they were still figuring things out? So was I! We could help each other get noticed. There was always a chance. Maybe it would turn out okay?
I didn’t have the confidence I needed to say no or the courage to admit I needed to start over with a new book. I decided to take the risk and jump in, despite my reservations.
But things went wrong pretty quickly. The cover they designed for their second release was terrible, as if it had been made by an amateur using MS Paint. I’m something of an artist, so I took hold of the reins as quickly as I could and offered to make a new cover. The author and the publisher jumped on board, and my version replaced the original. This incident scared me half to death, and I started working on the cover for my own book, just to be safe.
Around that same time, I finally had the chance to read the press’s first book (I had previously only read a sample), and along the way I found formatting errors, typos, and other mistakes. Along with the cover, I knew I’d have to take charge of my book’s editing. I went back and did exactly that, getting it as polished as I could on my own (and with the help of my long-time critique partner).
When their editor finally got around to working on my book, he made three or four suggestions for small changes and that was all. Although I could have easily let my ego assume I was the best writer ever, I knew better. What I suspected was true. Despite having signed with a publisher, I was on my own with this book.
I knew the finished product was not going to be as strong as it could have been with real, professional help. Instead of feeling excited about the release, I only felt nervous and uncertain. But as it would turn out, it didn’t matter. A few weeks before the book was set to release, I received an out-of-the-blue email from the press telling me they were shutting down due to financial difficulties. My book was not going to be published.
At least my mistake wouldn’t be permanently stamped on my publication/sales history.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone at this publisher was very nice and they were great to work with. They had the best of intentions. But I never should have signed with them, and I am glad it didn’t work out. That press wasn’t right for me, and Fire Master Marley wasn’t meant to be my debut.
While all of this was happening, I wrote my first sci-fi novel which was already earning requests from agents. It gave me the strength I needed to finally call it quits on Fire Master Marley and put it on the shelf.
I don’t regret anything that happened. I’m thankful for it all. The lessons learned were invaluable, and like every book I’ve written, Fire Master Marley will always have a special place in my heart.
***(Edit: Some people have taken issue with my accusation that “cheap editors are bad.” It has been my experience that you get what you pay for with an editor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor is “bad” but it does mean if you pay 100$ for an editor, you will get 100$ worth of editing. That said, it is also entirely possible to pay thousands of dollars for an editor and they’ll still do a lousy job. Vet your editors. Get a sample. Read work they have edited. Don’t just believe the testimonials they have on their website. Look for people who have not been happy with their service and find out why. Check the legitimacy of their testimonials by actually looking to see if the quoted person exists etc. And maybe most importantly: be willing to admit that it may seem like an editor is doing a good job only because you yourself lack experience and knowledge.)