That’s exactly how my pee wee hockey coach used to describe my skating skills back in the day, and that’s exactly how I would describe the process of trying to publish my very first book. To say this has been a long-term enterprise would be a massive understatement. I’ve wanted to give my unique take on stay-at-home fatherhood from the second I decided to pull the pin on my career and become a full-time parent. It turns out, I needed a full decade of material before I could actually begin my passion project. But once I actually got off my lazy ass, writing this damn book was actually the easy part. I started putting pen to paper in earnest in late 2013, and I finished it within my self-imposed one-year deadline.
So, there I was… in December 2014 with a finished manuscript and no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t sure what would become of my fun little exercise in creative writing, as I basically wrote it as a personal memoire. Would anyone other than me actually read this thing? Would anyone really want to? Was it any good? My first instinct was to ask my wife to look at it. She’s one smart cookie that is not only is an avid reader, but also edits and drafts enormous documents for a living. Surely she would happily edit my masterpiece in her free time!
Well, it didn’t actually work out that way. Lianne did agree to it, but weeks went by with no action on the “edit Greg’s book” front. I would occasionally drop hints to get the ball rolling, but they were always met with a: “Yes, yes I’ll get to it… eventually!” Then a few months went by, and still nothing. It turns out, my wife actually had a full-time job, and editing a 150-page word document in her rare and coveted downtime wasn’t making it to the top of her to-do list any time soon. That was my bad, so I decided to get professional help.
I hired a proofreading service that charged me only a few cents a word! That’s cheap… right? Well, maybe if your book is 100 words long, but my first draft was over 34,000 words. But, I bit the bullet, paid up, and was very pleased with the outcome. Who knew I was so terrible at grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation?
OK, it was now May 2015 and I’d say that my book was looking fairly polished, but now what? Do I want to self-publish this puppy? Do I want to send this off to traditional publishers? How the hell do I do that? I fired up the old Google machine and started absorbing as much as I could on all aspects of the literary world. Oh… and I also finally convinced my wife to read my book! It turns out; she really did want to read it. She just didn’t want to be responsible for fixing it. To my utter relief, she also really enjoyed it. So there, I had my very first positive review.
As I continued my research into a field I knew nothing about, I learned that sending unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses without a book agent was very likely a fruitless exercise. I also learned that it was exceedingly rare to get a book deal after you’ve self-published. I also found out that there are few very few literary agents in Canada… like, less than forty! Some of them wouldn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts unless you had a letter of reference from a “real” author. It all seemed so intimidating, and up to this point, the only two people who had actually read the book were my proofreader and my wife!
I was still very hesitant to fire off my manuscript to a bunch of agents, but then I stumbled across the website of a literary agent here in Calgary. She offered manuscript evaluations, (for a fee) as the first step to determine if she wanted to take on said author as a client. At the very least, I figured this person would offer up some good advice on how to further polish up my product. So, I took the plunge in August 2015, and waited the required six to eight weeks for a response.
Fast-forward to October 2015, and I finally had my evaluation in the mail in the form of a large brown envelope. She had excessively marked up my manuscript and also sent a seven-page document with even more questions, notes and suggestions. Her assessment was long, detailed and increasingly infuriating to read. Just look at all of this homework she was giving me! Gah! Why did I send this off to her! It would take weeks, maybe months to get through all of this! But then, there it was in the final paragraph: “I am happy to offer you a contract for the representation of Dad@Home.” Geez, talk about burying the lead! All of my frustration immediately evaporated, as the happy realization hit me: holy shit, I have an agent!
At the first face-to-face meeting with my new “representation”, I learned even more about the publishing biz, and quickly realized that my potentially best-selling book wasn’t going to allow Lianne to retire from her law practice any time soon. For the honour of publishing my work, any house taking on the risk of printing my book would keep 90% of the sales. Let’s say it retailed for twenty bucks. That would leave me with a whopping two bucks profit per book, with an additional 15% of that going to my agent. Wow, I guess you really have to sell millions of copies to make the serious coin.
My agent also told me that for a book to be reach “best seller” status in Canada, all you have to do is hit 2,000 copies sold. Just think, I could be a Canadian best selling author and stuff a little over three grand in my pocket! I guess first-time authors really shouldn’t quit their day jobs. It’s a good thing mine is already notoriously low paying. 😉
This was all very eye opening, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t doing this because I thought it would make me a millionaire. I just wanted to see if I could get what started off as a very personal pet project “transformed” into a real published work. So, I signed the contract and got back to writing. Her suggestions and questions not only gave me a much better book, but they also added over 5000 words to a manuscript that could be described as a tad “light”. My book isn’t exactly WAR & PEACE, but it’s not a pamphlet either… it’s somewhere in-between, and that makes it a nice, easy read. Within a month, I had my final draft completed, and I assumed we were ready to ship this bad boy off to a whole whack of publishers. NOT SO FAST! I wasn’t done writing just yet.
Publishers don’t simply accept the entire manuscript, but rather a “manuscript outline”, that consists of a cover letter, book overview, table of contents, chapter summaries, target audience, market comparison, online platform and an author bio. Oh, and don’t forget, it also has the first fifty pages of the actual book! I diligently got back to work and finished the outline. The only section I couldn’t complete was the one describing my online platform. I guess a lot of aspiring authors have a blog, or thousands of social media followers they could potentially rely on to help push sales of their theoretical book. At the time, I didn’t have any of that, so we went with what we had and started shopping the book to sixteen publishing houses across the U.S. and Canada.
It was December 2015, exactly two years since I started writing my book and it was now in the hands of people that could actually make me a published author. I was very excited to see what came next!
To be honest, I tempered my expectations so I wouldn’t be crushed by disappointment. Having an agent can be a huge advantage, but by no means does it guarantee landing a book deal. Right off the bat, I was warned that publishers do take their sweet time in getting back to you, while some don’t even have the common courtesy to respond at all. After a month or so, the rejection letters started to roll in to my agent and she would then forward them on to me. I would jokingly call the letters P.F.O.’s, but instead of getting me down, most of them actually pumped me up. Yes, they were still rejecting me, but they did it in way that completely validated my work. Here’s a small sampling:
“Gregory’s voice is warm, real, and often funny. Best of luck with this proposal—I did enjoy my read—and thank you again for trying us for Dad@Home.”
“Thanks so much for sending me Gregory Tysowski’s proposal earlier this month. His story is relatable and his writing is strong; I enjoyed this a lot.”
Thank you for thinking of me for this project. As a parent, I found Gregory’s proposal very enjoyable to read! Thank you for giving me a look and I wish you best of luck finding the right home for this project.”
I was assured that publishers don’t sugar-coat their opinions when responding to agents, so I should take these comments at face value, and be encouraged by them. And I was! I was also a bit confused as well… as they were saying some really nice things about my book, but somehow that didn’t translate into any offers to publish. Despite that, I took their positive feedback as proof my book didn’t suck. And that felt pretty, pretty good.
But… there were also some rejections that weren’t nearly as complimentary:
“There have been several similarly positioned humor/advice books for stay at home dads published in recent years and from what I can tell on Bookscan, it’s a real challenge to sell to this market. Without some major new hook, marketing platform and/or celebrity element – which I just don’t see here – I’m just not inclined to test these waters.”
“This is going to be a pass for us. Crowded category. Short book. Author with modest profile. Tough to acquire with these roadblocks.”
“Unfortunately it doesn’t feel like the perfect match. While I am interested in publishing into the demographic shift we’re seeing, with many more men working from home or raising kids, I didn’t connect strongly with this voice.”
“I’m afraid that it’s not a good fit for our list – we’d have a hard time publishing this in a big, commercial way without more of an author platform to leverage on sale.”
Remember when I talked about leaving out the “platform” portion of my manuscript outline? Well, that was coming back to bite me in the ass… big time. Most of the rejection letters mentioned my lack of online platform and profile as a major stumbling block. To put an even larger spotlight on the issue, I actually had some interest from a publisher! They weren’t saying no, but they weren’t saying yes either. Before they committed, they wanted to know how I would be able to help promote the book. They wanted me to show them I could develop a platform with social media, a blog, and connections in traditional media.
So, I dove head first into the online world, determined to increase my presence, my profile, my platform! The famous three P’s! I had a meagre Facebook following, a small Instagram account, and a rarely used Twitter profile. I started off with a mad rush to increase contacts in each and every facet of my online world. Then I joined LinkedIn, and followed that up by joining Google+ (can someone please tell me just what the hell Google+ is?) With great effort and whole lot of invites, I jumped from about 350 contacts across all of my accounts to almost 900! Most importantly, I started up this blog, and after a couple of months, I’ve had over 800 visitors.
Surely my social media blitz would impress that prospective publisher? Would I get an offer? I waited for weeks… hoping against hope that this would be the one! And just a few weeks ago, I finally got my answer.
PASS. NO DICE. NO SIR. NAY. NEGATIVE. NOPE.
Oh well. Despite some great feedback and a nice nibble from a U.S. publisher, I have to admit that I’m a bit discouraged. But I’m not giving up hope just yet. Because of several encouraging rejection letters to my book, my agent added another fourteen houses to the list, bringing us up to thirty publishers in total. We’ve heard from a majority of them, but not all of them, so as Lloyd Christmas from “Dumb and Dumber” would say:
When I finished the book back in December 2014, I just assumed that I would very likely end up self-publishing. Thousands, if not millions of people have done it and there’s certainly no shame in that. On the upside, I would actually retain all creative control and make a whole lot more money if I actually sold a significant number of copies. I was shocked to hear that if I did snag a book deal, I would basically sign away all editorial control of my work. The publisher could literally change details of my life, or the names of my wife and kids if they wanted to! Wait, what? That’s absolutely crazy, and despite the prospect of being forced to give up all artistic control of my work – a huge part of me still wants that feather in my cap, the “prestige” of being a published author through an established publishing house. I’ve seen some of the self-published literature on Amazon, and just between you and me, a lot of it isn’t pretty. Anybody and their dog can put their stuff out there and call themselves a “published author”. But then again, some of it can end up being a diamond in the rough. While it’s exceedingly rare, some self-published books have gone on to be picked up by a big publisher, and even made into a major motion picture.
If I don’t secure a deal, I already have a solid plan B. I’m seriously thinking about utilizing Amazon.com’s “print on demand” self-publisher. That way, I won’t have to print up my own small run of books and I won’t be stuck with hundreds of unsold copies collecting dust and cluttering up my basement. It sure would be nice to buck the trend and hit it big like The Martian, but I’m also pretty OK with just being The Calgarian… and selling a few books to family and friends.
This whole book-shopping process has been many things – exciting, painful, nerve-wracking and reassuring, all rolled into one. But most of all… it’s been as slow as molasses in January.
I will keep you posted on how it all plays out in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.