Why are so many writers and artists so scared? This morning I started reading the Weekly Digests of some of the blogs I subscribe to and decided this post I’m about to write needed to be written–and fast– because so many writers and artists seem to be living in fear and intimidation, and they needn’t. There is no reason that the processes that come after the exhilarating execution of the work—dealing with “gatekeepers”– agents and publishers, clients and galleries—need be dreadful.
The gist of many of the posts written by the more experienced writers in particular to less experienced writers is: “Here’s how to get your book published. I will be your wise guide.” I will not give you any advice like that today, but only tell you about my experiences and that of a friend in breaking into “big time” publishing. My experiences were quite different from what you find described in many intimidating blogs. I hope my experiences make you confident and sure of yourself, less fearful, and less intimidated. And bolder.
I’ll be talking about writing professionally in this post because writing professionally is what I’ve been doing—and thinking about– for the last few decades. But I’m sure there are painters, sculptors, actors, dancers—artists generally—who could tell the same story of how breaking into their field wasn’t as awful as they were told it would be, and in fact found it painless, exciting fun.
I had an idea for what I thought could be a really successful nonfiction book, just as you think your idea would make a successful book. Nothing like my book had ever been written before and it had potential, so I was confident that I had something. But I knew nothing about publishing. Oh, of course I’d heard the horror stories about the tremendous odds against getting any book published. Everybody on earth knows that—especially a first book, odds of five thousand to one and so forth.
But my exact thinking went like this: “Thousands of books are being published every year and I’m betting I’m more skilled than most authors of them (after all, in college a famous creative writing teacher had said teachers like her wait their “entire career for someone who can write like you.” And hadn’t I had a story published in a prestigious literary journal while just a student?) So why shouldn’t my book be published?”
Then I learned that you had to write a persuasive book proposal and get an agent who would contact editors on your behalf. I had written many, many proposals in business and so I wrote a six page double-spaced book proposal—a short proposal, not a long one, a plain, simple one, not a complex, elaborate, fancy one: short and I hoped, sweet.
I hadn’t written a sample of my writing other than the proposal itself and a cover letter that talked about my unique qualifications to write the book or a refined table of contents because I hadn’t completely fleshed out the book in my mind. (In fact, I wouldn’t know what I was really trying to write until I had been working on the book for 1300 hours. Then it hit me!) I just had this good idea for what I thought would be an exciting, profitable book someone would want to publish.
Now I needed an agent to send the proposal to. I looked at a directory of agents and sent the proposal to the first name on the agent’s list. Then if he didn’t pan out I would send the proposal to the second name on the list and work my way down. I wasn’t experienced enough to know then that some writers send their proposals out in batches to twenty or thirty agents at a time. I would send off my stuff to one agent at a time and wait to see what happened. I had no idea then that the agent I sent my little proposal to was one of the most highly regarded agents in the literary world—serendipity at work. (A reminder that a good amount of luck is involved in a writer’s life and you don’t want just any agent working for you, but a good one with a reputation above reproach whose tastes and judgment of talent editors respect very highly.)
Within three days he called me on the phone to tell me he would like to handle the book—he thought it was incredibly timely and he liked the way I wrote. And he liked short, sweet proposals. So now I had an agent. He pitched the book right away (a man of action; my kind of guy) to an editor he thought could very well be interested. And in a week and a half I had a publisher who was eager to put out the book—a top quality publisher. The advance I received was a good one, much better than I’d expected. I wrote the book in twelve grueling months as I was contracted for (be sure to establish a reputation for never exceeding a deadline) and then months passed while the book was being edited and published.
The pub date came and the book was given a promotional budget but not a big one—I was “unproven.” I appeared on a few radio and TV shows, and then two important things happened: a freelance journalist fell in love with the book—Fighting to Win— and wrote a superb and flattering full page, multi-column piece on it in The Washington Post that drew a lot of attention, and the publisher’s sales rep in Chicago fell in love with it too and promoted it with book stores in Chicago’s large, good book-buying market and with the publisher’s other sales people working in other cities and marketing staff decision-makers. And the book became a best seller in Chicago and Washington. Then in San Francisco and Las Angeles and other cities.
Other syndicated journalists liked the book and started writing about it—articles appeared everywhere. It began popping up on college reading lists, and now there were foreign editions that were doing very well. There was a buzz about the book and I was sent off to other major cities for more interviews on bigger shows. I got to enjoying publicizing the book so much that I decided I would rather promote books than write them. In fact, the publisher asked me jokingly if I would go on shows and promote other of their books too.
I had a hit that went through ten printings. With each new printing the book’s cover price rose one dollar, so my royalties were climbing. Now I was no longer unproven and had a track record, and my proposal for my next book consisted of a total of four sentences spoken over coffee to the publisher. The advance for it was substantial. When that book was published the publisher said they would like another book from me. I asked what they wanted me to write about and they said, “Whatever you want.”
I know a man who wrote a book he thought had the potential to be published and be popular. His expectations high, he contacted a great number of agents and no one was interested in handling his book, telling him that in their judgment unfortunately it would be impossible for it to find a public. The agents’ tastes ran in other directions and based on their professional experiences over many years with many books they felt that this one just didn’t have that—that whatever it takes for people to want to buy a book.
He didn’t give up after he had exhausted his long list of agents, but contacted publisher after publisher himself, writing them, sending his manuscript, calling them up, making appointments, pitching the book on the phone and in their offices, expecting all the time that eventually he would succeed. He met nothing but failure—no one thought anything of the book—but he still believed in it and in himself. He still expected the book to be published and be successful. He had faith that one day he would see it in book store display windows.
Then an editor of a small specialty publisher he had contacted called him to come down and talk. When my friend entered the office his manuscript was spread out on the editor’s desk and the editor was bent over it, reading. The editor looked up and said, “Oh, good, you’re here” and with a smile on his face added, “I think your book will be the number one best seller in the country.”
That book became a publishing phenomenon—a cultural phenomenon–and sold an astonishing 25,000,000 copies in paperback alone. It became America’s—and the world’s–number one best seller. Within two months the author was famous and pretty soon he was rich. The book was When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the author was Harold Kushner.
Writers and artists who harbor deep and prolonged doubts about their capabilities are easily set back by obstacles and failures. But when confident self-directed writers and artists encounter daunting obstacles, disappointments, and failures, they show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed.
So I’m saying what all my blogs say—be supremely confident, be non-attached and fearless. Don’t be scared. Persevere. Be indefatigable. Be committed to your work every moment of the day. Never let discouragement and negativity penetrate to your depths. No matter what happens, good fortune, bad fortune, keep your spirit light as a feather. Develop your skills to the highest possible level and become what I admire most—not just a writer, but a REAL writer; not just an artist, but a REAL artist.
© 2015 David J. Rogers
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