My Journey toward Publication
By Kimberly Bunker
The other day, on a long drive up the east coast, I was listening to Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up. My mind was wandering (this was my fifth hour on I-95) when something he said caught my attention. I rewound to hear it again. “Despite a lack of natural ability,” he read, “I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”
Interesting take, I thought. This summer, I began the long, grueling process of trying to get my book published, and I’ve felt my biggest weakness was inexperience. But here, Steve Martin is saying that’s necessary.
Funny how those ideas come in clusters. A few days later, I read in Ann Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars, “To be truly brave, I believe a person has to be more than a little stupid. If you knew how hard or how dangerous something was going to be at the outset, chances are you’d never do it.”
Well, good. I might be more than a little stupid, indeed. Here I sit, mired in a swamp of agent queries, how-to blogs, lurking doubts, and raging fears. If I’d known ahead of time just how long the ride, how deep the troughs, would be, of this roller coaster ride—would I have gotten started? Well, yes, I think so. Writing this book has been my lifeblood, and now getting it published (or, doing everything in my power to get it published) is simply the next step. Yes, I came into this extremely unprepared and naïve. Every day, it seems, I learn something, and I hope that I put that something to good use. Perhaps that’s why that naïveté, or stupidity, is necessary—it’s a learning and a growing process. You gotta start somewhere.
One of the biggest personal challenges I faced in this adventure is the belief – partly formed by self-doubt, partly by reality– is that you have to “know people” in order to get anywhere in the world of traditional publishing.
My advisor, a best-selling author who’d just sold the rights for a movie, once told me, “The publishing industry is not a meritocracy. It’s all about connections.” Great, I thought. I didn’t grow up in high-class society, with swanky editors and publishers sitting around my parents’ smoky living room (this is how I imagine other people form connections). My heart wilted a little: I felt like I didn’t know anyone relevant to publishing. Did it matter, then, if my writing was good at all?
I worried more. What if I have connections, but my writing sucks? All the connections in the world—even if I knew Stephen King and his agent and his publicist—wouldn’t make my book any better. Even if the publishing industry isn’t a meritocracy, Barnes & Noble is full of well-written books, by skilled and talented writers—not just people who knew people. Right?
I’ve come to understand that getting published comes down to two main, and almost unrelated, things: 1. Good writing, and all that that entails, and 2. Connections. Of course, both are highly ambiguous and relative terms. How do you know if your writing is good enough, and if your connections are important enough?
Regardless of my doubts and this so-called non-meritocracy, I have, since finishing my novel, been using this as my road map:
1) Query agents.
2) Sign with an agent. Rewrite novel if necessary.
3) Wait for good news. Or bad news. If no news, start again at #1.
Okay, this list is extremely primitive, and it only really applies to the traditional publishing route. By that I mean, trying to get a mainstream publisher such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins to print and distribute your book.
But almost right away—even before my novel was finished—I knew I needed to get some of these mysterious “connections.” I’d been working for years on making the book good—now I needed people to help me get somewhere with it. So I started googling.
I feel like I lucked out, because the first conference I went to was a huge hit. Last March, I attended the New York Pitch Conference in Manhattan, which brings writers face-to-face with editors (temporarily bypassing the “get an agent” step). This conference was crucial in helping me write my pitch, which now doubles as my query. (You can read my “day in the life” at the conference here.)
My pitch worked—two of the four editors requested my manuscript. However, that doesn’t let me skip the step of querying agents. Even if one of these editors falls head-over-heels for my novel, I’ll still need an agent to mediate the contract (and probably do other things…but I’m not there yet). The good news is, now my query letter is stronger, because I can say two editors are already interested.
Perhaps this is how connections are formed—through professional development and active networking, not by being born lucky.
One take-away from the conference is that the value of “good writing” pales in comparison to other necessities of marketable fiction, such as a solid pitch and clear genre. Your writing, in order to sell, doesn’t just have to be good – it has to be pitchable. You have to “sell” it. And that means, you have to understand the greater context of literature, and how your work fits in. (And, truthfully, these things all link together, I believe. It would be a shock to find good writing that wasn’t pitchable.)
At the pitch conference, I learned that “literary fiction,” according to some in the industry, doesn’t sell. I was instructed to call my novel “upmarket.” Upmarket, I’m told, is “literary fiction that sells.” (Think Michael Chabon, Ann Patchett, David Mitchell.)
But if literary fiction doesn’t sell, why do so many agents list it among what they’re looking for?
So, despite the advice, I’ve reverted to calling my novel “literary,” and exclusively querying agents who list it as one of their interests.
I was one of the few people at the conference to have an MFA, and I think that made a big difference in my understanding of genre. In my MFA classes, people would actually scoff at pop-fiction writers. As if by being more marketable, they’re somehow less talented. I realized this on the first day of the conference, when someone mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert – and instead of eye-rolling, like I would expect in an MFA workshop, people nodded reverently. (I love Elizabeth Gilbert, so this was a good sign for me.)
And yet I’m writing literary fiction. Ideally, I want respect both from the mainstream, pop-fiction-loving audience, and from the MFA and academic world. (Maybe my book is upmarket. But, from my own research, it seems agents don’t really use the word “upmarket.”)
This was cause for mild panic, for a time. What if I tell an agent my book is literary fiction, and they dismiss it because they believe it won’t sell? What if I say it’s upmarket, and they have no idea what that is? What if my writing is good and I’ve got these great new connections but I label my book wrong?
Okay, truthfully, it’s not that panic-inducing. I feel comfy calling my book literary fiction, and so far, enough agents have expressed interest to make me believe I’m on the right track. Many new writers misunderstand their own genre—not just literary versus upmarket, but romance versus women’s fiction; young adult versus middle grade. As I understand it, part of an agent’s job is to accurately label the book.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I wish I could speak to the future steps of getting published. At this point, it’s one big fuzzy mystery, and it’s still really far away. But, I can honestly say that a year ago, as I chipped away at my manuscript like a sculptor, still finding out what my sculpture looked like —a year ago, this whole business of querying agents was completely opaque to me. I had no idea how nuanced it would be, let alone how hard. The truth is, every person carves out his or her own path along the way, and those paths lead to all different levels of success or non-success.
I think that naiveté Steve Martin talks about is a gift. And since I still have it about everything that still lies before me—I have the energy to keep going. Thank goodness.
Kimberly Bunker lives and writes in upstate New York, where she teaches writing at State Universities Geneseo and Brockport. Her fiction has won awards from Glimmer Train and The Story Plant, and been published in Glimmer Train, Portable Magic: An Anthology, PANK Magazine, Used Furniture Review, and other journals. When she’s not querying agents, she’s writing freelance, learning a new vegan recipe, or playing piano. Follow her @kimberly_mb.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.