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Checking the Last Window: How I "Broke Into" Publishing

It's such a funny phrase, "breaking into" an industry. It's sort of sudden and violent, and about as unlike my experience of signing with a Big 5 publisher as possible. There was no breaking. No entering. In fact, it very nearly didn't happen at all. I smashed no glass, but what I did do was check one last time if someone had happened to leave the window open. A little jiggle. On a whim.

And let me tell you, I'm glad I did!

The life of an aspiring writer is filled with advice so oft repeated that it borders on cliche. One of those mindset shifts we are supposed to remember is that it only takes one yes. If you've spent any amount of time considering the path of querying agents and submitting to major houses, you've probably heard this so many times that it makes you ill to see it again. One yes, they say. One yes is all it takes. You query a hundred agents, but if one says yes, you've made it!

Sort of. Now your agent has to get an acquiring editor to say yes. Then that editor has to convince the rest of their team to say yes. Then you have to say yes, to the terms of the contract. Assuming your agent is the right fit for you, you don't quite have to start all the way over with your next project, but you've still got an awful lot of yeses to gather up as the years go by, if you want to publish more than one book, do more than fulfill the demands of your first contract.

My publishing journey has been filled with no. Most of those came, not from agents or editors, but from myself. I have started dozens of novel-length projects, the majority of which I rejected before they were finished. Of these, I completed twelve before starting the project that became The Gentleman's Book of Vices. Out of the ten, I queried only four, the others being set aside and remembered fondly as practice projects.

The first book I queried in 2009 received dozens of rejections. I'm not one to save my rejections, so I can't tell you how many, exactly. It was certainly enough to get the job done, I know that much. The second book I stopped querying after one round of ten, rejecting it myself after noticing craft problems I could not fix. The third got me what many people would call "my one yes," but went on to be rejected by every editor my agent sent it to. When my agent did not say yes to my next two projects, we parted ways.

Sick of thinking about "the market" and "yeses," I wrote a weird little romance about gay Victorians for the fun of it, one that centered things that interested me about the time period, like queer subcultures and erotic publishing. I made it funny and quirky and just a little angsty. I expected to self-publish it, but thought I'd send off one round of agent queries just in case the market had changed since I last checked.

And guess what? It was no, no, no, all the way down.

These no's had a different flavor than the ones I got on other submissions, at least. I sent about a dozen, and nearly half of the rejections were personalized and very complimentary. I'd gotten the information I wanted from my round of queries: the book was good, but the market was niche. Self-pub was probably the way to go.

But there was one last window I hadn't checked. While looking for agents this time around, I'd stumbled upon Carina Press, a quirky, queer imprint of Harlequin that was typically digital-first and didn't require an agent to submit. I very nearly did not send them anything. I'd never been particularly enthusiastic about submitting to publishers without an agent's help. But I knew I had a lot to learn before I could self-publish effectively. I decided to submit a series proposal to Carina just to see what happened. Their website said I could expect to hear back in about twelve weeks, so I planned to spend that time writing the sequel and learning the necessary skills to start a self-publishing career. When this last-ditch effort at traditional publishing ended in the inevitable no, I would begin marketing the series myself.

Obviously, that's not quite how it happened.

I went to see my grandma one afternoon last August, to show her my new author website and the cover concepts I was working on for the books. She wanted to know when I would be putting the first one out, and I told her, "As soon as I get my rejection from Harlequin, I'll pick an official release date." I went home. I took a nap. Writers pretty much all become obsessive email checkers at some point, so when I woke up, that's the first thing I did.

I had an email from Carina Press regarding my submission, several weeks earlier than I'd expected. My first thought was, here's that rejection. I wasn't sad. I was more... determined. I'd been expecting this, after all, planning my career around it, thinking of it as a beginning rather than an ending. So I opened the email, finding something very close to what I was used to finding by now: Thank you for submitting. Loved this and that. Thought the characters were great, blah blah.

But where I had grown used to reading, "Unfortunately, this doesn't quite fit what we're looking for," I instead found an invitation to talk further about the book. Once I spoke to the Carina editors, I was given, not just one yes, but a yes, yes, yes; they wanted the series, all three books I'd proposed in my submission. They liked it. They believed there was a market for it. They were even going to try to get it in the Adores line, which releases in print as well as in digital, an idea that was successful in spite of supply chain concerns.

I was feeling pretty glad I'd checked! While I learned a lot of wonderful things studying indie publishing, as a former actor and theater person, I personally prefer the collaborative aspect of working with a traditional house. I've gotten to work with an incredible team to make The Gentleman's Book of Vices into an actual book (including the agent I signed with after getting the contract offer, but I'll leave that for another post!) I cannot wait to see where else this "last ditch effort" is going to lead.


Jess E.

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