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.

Run to the Light: Cover Reveal

Almost any author will tell you that the road to book publication is arduous and long, like a marathon course that scales high mountain peaks and snakes through twisted canyons. Maybe that’s why, for so many of us, the book doesn’t feel real until we see the final cover.

My beta readers, editors, family and friends know that I wrote Run to the Light in a 10-month whirlwind of intense late nights and weekday lunches and early weekend mornings. In fact, the actual writing happened so quickly that when I completed a first draft of the final chapter, I cried a little at the kitchen table of a friend hosting me for a race in Fargo, North Dakota. As much as I wanted to watch those pages become a real book, I didn’t want the writing to end.

I can’t capture the book writing process in a single blog post, but I thought it would be fun to share the story behind the cover scheduled to hit shelves in November 2018.

I always knew that I wanted one moment from the book’s final chapter to figure into the cover. In it, I’m running alone up a tree-lined street, leading thousands of other runners in a half marathon for which I received a 30-minute head start for safety reasons.

I asked my friend and colleague, photographer Rusty Williams, to help me bring the scene to life.

Rusty scouted the area several times. He wanted to understand not only how the morning light interacted with the thick canopy of trees and the pavement, but also how much traffic we’d have to contend with as I ran up and down the road, again and again, to make sure my photographer captured the perfect shot. (My husband, John, attended the shoot to help make sure Rusty and I didn’t get hit by a car).

The scene Rusty and I reenacted that day happened on one of the most beautiful streets in my hometown, but that isn’t why I chose it.

Here’s the thing: in real life, I couldn’t actually see the tree canopy or November sky above me or the ground beneath my feet, because I was blindfolded. When I ran through that tunnel of trees without the tether that had connected me to my guide for most of 13.1 miles, I saw my sister’s life and my own with perfect clarity. After years of suffering, I finally understood I’d received a great gift, no matter how much pain came with that gift. And since that moment, nothing has been quite the same.

I was alone in the tunnel of trees. My gait felt smooth, my body weightless, my breathing effortless. I thought maybe I could run forever. I touched the only photo that existed of Taylor finishing her first race, attached to my armband. It felt both heavy and light on my arm.”

Originally, I’d envisioned the cover with a photo of me running alone beneath the trees, just as I’d done on race day, so Rusty and I focused on capturing those shots.

We spent the better part of the shoot waiting for the morning light to look just right as it soaked through the leaves and shone on the pavement.

cover 1

This was our favorite from the bunch:

Laura running

For the heck of it, Rusty also took a few photos of my blindfold lying in the road. We thought we might get an interesting image for the back cover or for marketing the book.

blindfold photo

But when I shared Rusty’s work with my publisher, they preferred the blindfold concept for the front cover. They felt it was more unique and also more striking than the shot of me running, especially as a thumbnail image online.

When I saw the final result, I knew they were right.

Run to the Light book cover

While I didn’t have total control over the cover design (authors rarely do, except for those who self-publish), I appreciated that my publisher gave me a say in the process and allowed me to work with a photographer I know and trust. Run to the Light won’t be the last book I write, but it will almost certainly be the most personal.

This entire journey has been a blessing, from the earliest outline to the completed manuscript and finished cover art. I can’t wait to share the result with the world in November.

If you live in or near Charlotte, I hope you’ll join me at Park Road Books on Saturday, November 10, at 2 p.m., when I’ll sign copies of Run to the Light and read from the book. Subscribe to this blog for news about additional events. If you want to suggest a location, feel free to contact me