Waiting for Godot... or Publication, Whichever Happens First

Once upon a time I wrote a novel.

That’s the way all good stories start, isn’t it? And that’s the way that novels start, too: with an idea that eventually gets developed into a work of fiction. And if you’re a serious novelist, you don’t stop at writing: you keep working it until it’s the best that it can possibly be.

So I finished writing this novel and I submitted it, chapter by chapter, painstakingly, to the online novels critique group at the Internet Writing Workshop. I revised it. I revised it again. I had it critiqued again. I hired an editor to work on it. And then I sent it to my literary agent, knowing that not only was it the best that I could make it, it was decidedly the best thing I’d ever written. (My first-ever novel was published in 1980, so I did have a decent backlist to which to compare this particular book.)

My agent loved it. He called me late in the evening to tell me so. He said it was brilliant. And so I went on to my next project—that’s what writers do, too—and waited for a fabulous offer to come in.

Here’s what I’m grateful for: I’m grateful that I wrote my acknowledgments at the same time that I wrote the novel. Because this book was critiqued so long ago that none of the people I thanked is even part of the critique group anymore. I started submitting it in the year 2001, and my agent began shopping it in 2005 (yeah, revisions and editing do take that long). And earlier this year my agent and I agreed that—for reasons that escape both of us—it just wasn’t going to sell to a traditional publisher. So I pulled it out and went through it yet again and finally, via Amazon’s Kindle and Draft2Digital, I put it up online as an ebook, and will probably bring out a paperback version later this year.

Because the truth is that, despite everything, my re-read convinced me that it’s still the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with three novels written and published in the interim, two of them with a major publisher and one with a respected small press. I still think this is the best thing I’ve ever written.

And no one wanted it.

I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to do this independently. My day job is that I’m a freelance editor, and I know what work goes into professional editing—and how few co-called self-published books have availed themselves of that step. I know the value of the gatekeeper concept that’s behind traditional publishing, and I respect it. As a reader, I’m very cautious about purchasing books that haven’t gone through the lengthy, arduous, and completely necessary process of critiques, vetting, professional substantive and copy editing, and revisions.

On the other hand, I thought, someday I will die. Do I want this book to still be sitting on my hard drive when I do? That was enough to move me to action. And it’s not the first time I’ve turned to Kindle: my extremely lengthy medieval novel, The Crown & The Kingdom, went that route several years ago, since the major complaint of publishers (and this was before I had an agent, so I was submitting it myself) was that it was too expensive to produce. So now In Dark Woods (not a medieval novel!) has joined it.

Is this a tale of woe? No; but it is a cautionary tale. There’s too much talk on writing lists and critique groups of traditional versus independent publishing, as though the two were mutually exclusive and one somehow better than the other; and we’re going to see so many changes in the industry in the next ten years that it’s worth our while as authors to be a little flexible. To consider alternatives that we hadn’t in the past. To persevere. And to always, always, always be professional about it, whether it’s in hiring an editor—or in accepting that the “fabulous” offer we were expecting just isn’t going to materialize this time around.

Because we’re novelists, and so there’s always going to be a next time. It’s what we do.