The Truth About Book Publishing

With so many books in the wild and politicians and celebrities writing and publishing memoirs in a matter of months, it’s easy to assume that the book publishing business is, well, easy. After all, some estimates pin the number of available print titles on Amazon at nearly 50 million (though Amazon keeps such information, and its formula for book sales rankings, close to the vest). But the instant bestsellers that garner six-figure advances and fuel nationwide book tours paint an unrealistic picture of the journey for most authors and, indeed, most books.

I majored in English literature with a minor in creative writing. I sold my first short story before kindergarten (granted, the buyer was my piano teacher, and the cover price was one dollar) and wrote most of a young adult (YA) novel during my senior year of college. I’ll admit that when I graduated, I thought I’d snap up an agent and a big New York publisher before I turned 25.

Of course, reality looks a little different. For two years after finishing school, I worked long hours at my marketing job and coached a soccer team and planned my wedding. I didn’t have much time to finish that YA manuscript or take the publishing world by storm. I was the quintessential modern writer, which is to say, I did many things in addition to writing. And when my 7-year-old sister, Taylor, was diagnosed with a devastating, inherited illness called Batten disease one month after I got married, my priorities changed.

I could have given up my comfortable, ordinary life in southern suburbia and chased my childhood dream. I could have lived on ramen noodles and cheap white bread and rented a studio apartment in New York instead of buying a house in Charlotte and cooking real food in the kitchen. I could have driven my Honda Civic for hundreds of thousands of miles and stared at the screensaver on my computer instead of buying economy class plane tickets to experience the images in real life. I could have done all of those things and still failed to achieve my dream. Because the book publishing business is complicated, and talent and effort aren’t always enough. Indeed, they rarely are.

Here’s a true story.

For seven years, I fought a monster called Batten disease. I did everything I thought I could do to save my sister’s life. I helped found a charity called Taylor’s Tale. Instead of writing the next great American novel, I wrote blog posts and brochure copy, speeches and scripts. I honed my craft, even if reality didn’t look quite how I’d imagined it. Meanwhile, Taylor kept getting sicker.

In 2013, the efforts and gifts of countless family, friends and perfect strangers started bearing real fruit. But it was starting to become painfully clear that we couldn’t harvest that fruit quickly enough to save Taylor. I almost quit (everything). Instead, I put on a blindfold and ran 13.1 miles – an act that served both as a publicity stunt and a deeply personal way to honor my blind sister. The run achieved those things, but it did something else: it saved my life, or at least my capacity to hope. And in August 2014, on a plane bound for Oregon and another race, I started writing a new book.

For the next 10 months, I turned piles of sticky notes and years of blog posts and thousands of pictures and memories into an 81,000-word manuscript. Meanwhile, I crisscrossed the country, running races to spread Taylor’s Tale. I wrote the final chapter on a chilly May morning in Fargo, North Dakota (state number seven), hunched over my laptop at the kitchen table of a friend’s parents, who’d taken me in for the race. The following weekend, I sat on my patio in the warm North Carolina sun and read my own book, cover to cover. One month later, I sent it to book publishing people, sure it’d quickly find a good home. In fact, I told my husband that when we boarded the plane for Hawaii in September (state number eight), I’d be celebrating a signed contract.

But the book business rarely works like that, especially for debut authors peddling a memoir centered on an ultra-rare disease. I started recording rejections in an Excel spreadsheet, copying and pasting the text of the personal replies I received (26, in case you’re keeping score). I looked for consistencies in the feedback. I read comp titles, taking copious notes. I reworked my query letter. I revised my opening pages, moving them to a later chapter and adding a prologue. And in moments of weakness, I complained to my husband about the so-called book industry experts who loved my writing but didn’t believe it would sell.

Then, on a cold night in February 2017, I got not one, but two offers. A few months later, I signed my publishing contract under a wide open sky in Montana, where I’d traveled to run the Missoula Half Marathon and hike in Glacier National Park. And on November 1, 2018, “Run to the Light” became a real book.

book and blindfold

Of course, Taylor didn’t live to see that day. She died on September 26, six days after my son (her nephew) was born. But I like to think that her spirit lives in many places – not just in the pages of the book she inspired, but also in the hearts and minds and souls of the many people she’s touched, and in the promising work Taylor’s Tale continues to do in her name.

Finding a publishing home for “Run to the Light” was, at times, as frustrating as writing it was rewarding – and took twice as long. I almost grew to prefer the form rejections over the long, complimentary emails from respected agents who took time to explain why they couldn’t make an offer. The form rejections felt like a first date without sparks, while the personal rejections felt like a real relationship that ended in heartbreak.

But I refused to let it go. My sister taught me that if you believe in something, you don’t quit. You keep chipping away, trying new angles, peeking beneath unturned stones. So that’s what I did.

The writer’s life isn’t for the faint of heart. For every overnight sensation celebrating that signed contract with happy dance GIFs on Twitter, there are thousands more on their third or fourth or fifth manuscript, still seeking publication – or who published their first but needed 10 years to write it. Thinking about it in that way, I feel lucky to have found a publishing home for the first book I finished (and only the second I started) while still in my mid-30s.

If you’re working toward a similar goal, I hope you’ll take a page from my sister’s story and keep at it, no matter how many roadblocks you hit. The intricacies of the modern book market have made it exceedingly difficult to jump from unknown author to bestselling author. But as an editor friend once told me, it only takes one (person who believes in your book and you), no matter how many rejections you receive. So keep working. Be willing to consider options b and c and d. If you’ve written a good book, you have a real shot.

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