Canceling My Book Deal Was the Best Career Move I’ve Ever Made

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From Electric Lit:

I started querying agents for my memoir, Negative Space, in 2012, after two years of writing and revising. I got a few rounds of passes, including several friendly rejections in which agents said they just didn’t “know how to sell” my book. I heard this refrain enough times that I started considering the small press route—my book was not the most commercial, and maybe these agents were right that it wasn’t destined for a major house. I was blending reporting and memoir and visual art, and I understood why my project might be hard to fit neatly into a marketing niche. But maybe there was a small press out there that would be excited about my weird little project. That’s what small presses are all about, after all—taking risks that the big houses aren’t nimble enough for—and that’s why they put out some of the freshest and most exciting books.

But that route wasn’t easy either. By the time I got an offer from a small press in 2016, I’d received almost 50 rejections from agents and small presses alike, and rewritten the entire manuscript four more times. I was in that headspace that I think every writer reaches at one point or another where I was starting to wonder if the whole endeavor had been a waste of time—if maybe this book would end up in a drawer and nobody would ever read it, and perhaps I should just cut my losses and move on to a new and more sellable project. 

I was so used to rejection that I had to read the offer email multiple times before it sunk in: this press really wanted to publish my book! I was so grateful to have finally received a “yes” after four years of “no” that I decided to overlook the fact that I’d never heard of this particular small press until I found them on Poets & Writers’ master list of small presses, and that I’d never heard of any of their books, either. The publisher was upfront with me that they were a small operation and didn’t offer much publicity support. But that was okay—I lived in New York City and felt well-connected enough to run my own publicity campaign. And if I started saving right away, I might even be able to hire an independent publicist. The publisher also told me that they didn’t have a distribution partner, and that if I wanted to get my book into stores I’d have to do the legwork myself. That gave me a little more pause, since distribution was further outside my wheelhouse than publicity, but I wasn’t going to let a logistical challenge like that keep me from my dream of seeing my book published. I accepted the offer, deciding I’d cross the distribution bridge when I got to it.

All of that is to say: I settled. I won’t name the press here because the specific press is beside the point—the point is that not all small presses are created equal, and I should have gotten clearer on what exactly I expected and wanted from a publisher, and done the research to figure out which presses could and couldn’t provide those things. The arrangement this press was offering would have been fine if all I wanted was to have my book printed so I could say I’d published a book, and so copies would be available for my friends and family. But I had bigger ambitions than that—I wanted this to be the first book of many, and I wanted it to make at least a small mark. Still, I was so used to getting the door slammed in my face, it seemed absurd that I might decline to walk through this one that was finally open to me. I think this is a common author mindset: we get into a groove of asking to be let in, a groove so deep it becomes single-minded desperation. We become so fixated on getting the “yes” that we lose sight of the big picture, the real point: finding a publisher that will be a good steward for the work we’ve poured our heart and soul into. Someone we can trust with our life’s work.

During the six months that I waited for edits from this publisher, I focused on building my platform. I pitched essays to high-profile outlets, I went to readings, I spent time interacting with writers I admired on Twitter. I convinced myself I could do my own publicity and marketing and distribution. I knew it wasn’t ideal, but, I figured, I was an unknown debut author with a hybrid memoir—I had to take what I could get.

. . . .

Then, at the end of those six months, I discovered that my publisher wasn’t actually planning to send me edits, but was putting the version of the manuscript that I’d submitted directly into layout. That was the last straw. I felt like the book was in good shape, but I’d still been looking forward to some editorial guidance after so long on my own. And if they weren’t going to provide editorial feedback in addition to not helping with marketing and publicity, or handling distribution, what the hell were they doing for me, exactly? With what they were offering, I may as well have self-published, and if I was going to do that, why did I just spend four years getting rejected? 

. . . .

The process of cancelling the deal wasn’t as logistically complex or fraught as I thought it would be—no money had changed hands yet, and an email saying I wished to void our contract was enough to do so. The publisher was understanding—it was clear I was looking for more than she could offer, and she didn’t want to go forward knowing I’d be frustrated and resentful any more than I did. But despite the lack of legal hoops to jump through, canceling the deal was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life—professional or otherwise. I knew there was a real chance I’d never get another offer. That my book might end up in a drawer after all, that there was a version of the future in which I’d deeply regret this decision, and wish I’d taken a less-than-ideal deal and just made it work.

. . . .

The horror I’d felt at the idea of the current version being put directly into layout was a sure sign that it wasn’t actually finished yet, so I dove back in to push it as far as I possibly could on my own. Then I took a writing workshop, paid for a manuscript review from an author I admire, and revised some more. And during the two more years I spent revising, I was also slowly and meticulously building a new list of small presses to submit to. 

. . . .

Now I knew what to look for in a small press. This time, I was clear on the fact that while micro-presses are great for some writers and some books, I was looking for a more robust small press that could offer more support. This time, before adding a small press to my query list, I researched their three most recent titles in my genre, making sure they had at least a dozen or so reviews on Amazon (an imperfect indication of popularity, but still a sign that the books were actually being read) and at least a couple of trade reviews.

. . . .

I prioritized presses with a robust social media presence, and presses that had published books I was familiar with. That last one was harder the first time around because I was newer to the literary world and figured that just because I hadn’t heard of a book didn’t mean it hadn’t made a mark—but the additional time spent revising and familiarizing myself with the small press landscape helped with that: I was way more plugged in now, and knew way more small press authors, so I had a clearer sense of who was who and which presses were able to generate buzz for their authors.

. . . .

I also included on that list small presses that were running contests with well-known memoirists serving as guest judges—winning a contest adds a little extra publicity boost to a debut title, and if an author I respected had agreed to attach their name to a press, that was a major point in favor of the press’ credibility.

. . . .

Three years after I canceled my first book deal, I ended up winning second place in one of those contests, which came with an offer of publication.

. . . .

If you put everything you’ve got into writing the best book you can, you can’t just hand it over to anyone. It will always be worth it to hold out for the publisher that will champion your work, send it out into the world with the best chance of success, and fight for its success alongside you. 

My book is finally on its way out into the world, nine years after I thought it was done and started querying that first time; eleven years after I started writing it. I don’t know what will happen—it could still be a flop, after all of this. But no matter what, I’ll know I gave it the best fighting chance of reaching readers who will cherish it, and that I made the right call holding out for the right deal.  

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG did some brief exploration of the website of the publisher the author of the OP selected nine years after she thought her book was done and eleven years after she started writing it.

The publisher is Santa Fe Writers Project, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a delightful town of about 85,000 people that is nearly 2,000 miles from New York City. It is a very old city, first settled in about 1609, by a Spanish conquistador. In more recent times, it has developed a reputation as an artists colony.

PG checked out the publisher’s website and wasn’t particularly impressed by its sophistication and sales impact.

PG couldn’t find a list of the publishers best-selling books, but the most obvious of its novels was a book titled, “Cheap Heat”, described as the second novel in a detective series, written by an author who apparently has published at least five books. The publishers page included excerpts from positive reviews from the usual suspects, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Bookpage, Buzzfeed and a few more.

According to Amazon, Cheap Heat was published on May 1, 2020. The Amazon Best Sellers Rank for the book was #613,242 in Books.

In comparison, one of Mrs. PG’s last traditionally-published ebooks, released in 2010 (about the same time the author of the OP started writing her book), which hasn’t received any promotion for a very, very long time, vastly overpriced (higher than Cheap Heat’s ebook price), had a much better Best Sellers Rank than Cheap Heat did.

In the OP, PG’s impression was that the author was more interested in being published by some sort of publisher, even one nobody had ever heard about (and perhaps being able to tell friends and acquaintances of this accomplishment) than in selling very many books or having more than a relative handful of readers actually read her work.

With the OP’s casual dismissal of indie authors – “With what they (a traditional publisher) were offering, I may as well have self-published” – PG can only conclude that there are some authors who should never, ever, ever even think of quitting their day jobs.

With respect to the “Best Career Move I’ve Ever Made”, PG wonders exactly what sort of career the author of the OP is describing.

But, as usual, PG could be wrong.

8 thoughts on “Canceling My Book Deal Was the Best Career Move I’ve Ever Made”

  1. I feel like I just read a story about how the character learned a lesson, but then at the end they did not learn the lesson the story was about.

  2. Update: “Cheap Heat” is, as of a few seconds ago, #1,545,826 at Amazon. Ouch.

    To be scrupulously fair, PG, it should be noted that Mrs. PG’s books would certainly not fit into the catalog of the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Completely different classification than any of the books that I see they publish. (Definitely not the apparent preferred subgenre of the OP, which I call “Misandrist Rant.”) Something like comparing apples to… to… Indonesian tree slugs?

    • Hmm, if the author runs out of inspiration, maybe she should look up the latter GOR books of John Norman. From volume five on, let’s say. Or TIME SLAVE.

      Very popular once he dropped the whole ERB-pastiche MO and gave his audience what they really wanted. 😀

  3. Everything about the tone of the author sounds both elitist and wrong.

    If you’re able to get a major deal from one of the 4 big publishers with guaranteed entry into bookstores for more than a few weeks – fine. Go for it.

    But spending years and years accumulating rejections from smaller and smaller publishers just aches of… well, something not good.

    The amount of time wasted is humongous.

    Possibly it’s the book?

    • As PG sideways noted, the OP is one of those who is actually seeking validation of her work by the literati – not by the common proles.

      Looking at the blurb, and at the one for the other book by the same publisher, they fit into extremely niche markets. Her book is what I would call “misandrist rant,” and the other is apparently a “woke noir” (the protagonist celebrates “Friendsgiving”…). Major publishers do put out such, of course – when one by a marketable name comes across their desk; they’ll make their investment back and then some. Case in point, the “international terrorism thriller” by Hillary Clinton that, just by the premise, is an obvious train wreck – but it will most likely sell well. The OP may very well be an excellent writer, with a finely developed plot that builds to a peak and leaves the reader satisfied with the denouement – but she does not have a name.

      • In fairness to the OP, “Friendsgiving” is not necessarily a woke thing–some of my coworkers and I have done it these past couple of years, due to being far from home and not being able to get Thanksgiving off, and we’re about as unwoke as you can get.

        • Thank you, Tom. I’ve done that myself in the past (BC, before children) – although still called it “Thanksgiving.”

          Should have looked up the word origin first. It just sounded, though, like one of those “We must not celebrate that holiday of the White Supremacist Colonizers of the Indigenous Peoples!” notions.

          It being in KU, I may, time permitting, check out the start of the book. (Which is not by the OP, by the way, just by the same publisher.)

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