Lessons: The Less-Traveled Road to Getting a Book Published

After 20 years of writing, my first novel, Swapping Purples for Yellows, finally entered the world in August of 2019. The book took four years to write, another two to sell, and 18 months to edit and prepare for publication. Along the way, my daughter grew from a newborn into third-grader; my wife and I bought a new, bigger house to accommodate this addition to our family; and I went from being a stay-at-home father to a full-time college instructor. This book remained the one constant. Now that it has been released, I’ve begun reflecting on the experience of getting to this point—and even have what I hope is a little insight into the process. Here goes:

1. Networking happens outside of Brooklyn, too.

I live in an actual one-stoplight town in North Carolina, so when I read articles that advised getting an agent by asking your friends to introduce you to their agents or pitching agents at high-priced conferences, I despaired. Nevertheless, I found my publisher through networking even though I live in the middle of nowhere. A year before I finished the novel, I attended a nearby writers’ workshop alongside another novelist-in-training who would later start his own “fiercely independent” small press, Southern Fried Karma. I submitted to their first novel contest not because I thought I would have an “in” with him but because I knew him to be a savvy businessman. If anyone could make a success out of a fledgling press, I knew it was he. I didn’t win the contest—which was judged externally, for the record—but I was a finalist. He offered me a “revise and resubmit,” providing a lengthy editorial letter on spec, and it worked.

2. New York isn’t the only game in town.

The first published novelist who read a portion of my novel counseled me to consider small presses, as he thought the book was a bit niche for the Big Five. It takes place on a college campus in the South, during homecoming weekend, and focuses on some of the minutiae of academia that has since become more relevant due to shifting attitudes toward higher education. No one does crystal meth or goes huntin’ with their dogs or speaks in tongues. It’s not a commentary on Appalachia or Trump voters. It’s a family drama about the ways people fail each other and what they can do to mend those broken bonds. My agent querying proved that novelist correct: The story didn’t have enough at stake or appeal to a broad enough audience. The independent presses scattered around the United States are bastions for work like mine. They aren’t afraid of work that might not appeal to the masses; instead, they look for the gems among what the Big Five have discarded. I sent it to small presses in upstate South Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore. I tried Indiana and Colorado. In short, my novel covered more of the country than I have. Southern Fried Karma is based in Newnan, Ga., outside of Atlanta. The press’s mission is “to tell a million tales of y’all means ALL, with a southern accent.” I found that awfully refreshing in contrast to the countless tales that travel from Brooklyn all the way to Manhattan.

3. Independent booksellers are where it’s at.

As my book was making its way into print, I read a great deal of advice about how to get it into people’s hands, most of it geared toward online retailers, namely Amazon. These articles explained how to make a cover that would pop when people browsed on their phones and the perfect bite-sized description that would give readers a sense of the book while leaving room for intrigue and more clicks. Very few of them referred to the author’s best friend, the independent bookseller. In my area, that’s George, who owns a primarily used bookstore in the neighboring small city. He was enthusiastic about the book even before he knew what it was about, encouraging me to lead his monthly creative writing class and to sell copies at a greatly reduced commission in his store. Next, my publisher set up a quick tour of the Carolinas, where I met booksellers in High Point, Asheville, Davidson, and Greenville, S.C., who were excited to see me and passionate about hand-selling the copies remaining after my readings. When I returned to one store a few weeks later, all five of their remaining copies were gone, an impressive total for a book that had that same number of reviews on Amazon at that point. 

4. People will disappoint surprise you.

The day my novel was released, my friends threw me an elaborate party, complete with a champagne toast, the kind of upscale event we don’t typically have for our laidback crowd. People I hadn’t seen in a decade tweeted about the book; my MFA alma mater, which I attended 14 years ago, invited me back for a reading; and one friend went so far as to reposition my book in a bookstore when I complained about where copies had been situated. Some people I’d thought I could count on went silent, while others, friends of friends even, wrote generous reviews. I’d love more publicity, of course—and for some of the people and organizations I’ve been associated with to pay some minimal amount of attention to the book—but overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised more often than I’ve been disappointed.

5. Getting to an acceptance is only the beginning.

During the 20 years I spent achieving this goal, I fixated on receiving an acceptance and, later, having a hard copy of my book in my hands. I rarely thought about the challenge of getting the book into others’ hands, or the dispiriting experience of arriving for a bookstore event an hour away only to find no one in attendance because the store did absolutely no publicity. I never thought about having to ask fellow writers for blurbs or reducing my novel to a 30-second pitch so that the customers at the wine-and-book pairing party could decide if the sticker price was more reasonable than that of the accompanying sauvignon blanc. And I never thought about the agonizing process of scouring the Internet for mentions of the book, for reviews and off-hand remarks. I’m glad I didn’t know all of this, however, as I fear it would have stifled me at a point when I needed all the optimism I could muster. I do hope that these realizations will make me wiser when it comes time for book number two. In the meantime, I take a moment every day to stop before my bookshelves and look at the spine of my book, arranged next to the ones on either side, the ones by writers I’ve admired for months or years, the ones I’ve read multiple times and the ones that might one day become new favorites. In the end, that’s what makes all of the above worthwhile.

Image: Patrick Tomasso