Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
Gregory P. Liefer
The path to becoming a successful author can be a time-consuming and numbing process, often filled with a strong dose of rejection, indifference, and even self-doubt. That’s not to say a new author can’t find success through a large, national publisher or even a regional one, but statistics show that is rarely the case. Read the biographies of many of today’s well-known authors and you’ll find they struggled for years before becoming recognized best sellers in their respective fields. With that said, don’t be discouraged. No one knows your writing better than you. If you believe in yourself and are convinced you have the “right stuff,” be persistent and do what it takes to make your book a success.
Notice I emphasize successful author, as opposed to published author. Some authors are satisfied with only seeing their books available at the local bookstore or as gifts for family and friends. If that’s your goal, great—the road is much easier. There is a bounty of self-publishing and print-on-demand companies more than willing to place your work in print, no matter the content or quality—all for a price, of course. But if your goal is fixed on a higher plateau, if you have the idea, the story, the talent, and the determination, I believe you can and will succeed.
My journey to becoming a successful author, and I use the word successful reluctantly, is a long one, encompassing more than 20 years and two works of fiction and nonfiction. The two fiction works were never published; the two nonfiction works were. Both nonfiction works reached marginal success in the geographical region where the material was focused. One made a reasonable sum of money for the publisher and very little for me. The other has and continues to make money for both of us.
When I first had the idea of writing a book, I was a United States Army warrant officer stationed in Germany, living an enviable lifestyle of flying on an almost daily basis and married to the woman of my dreams. In my late twenties, at that point, I was already living a lifelong goal of being a pilot and serving my country. One of my many hobbies was reading, a carryover from my childhood that remains today. Unintended, a propensity for reading eventually led to a slow progression into writing.
Of course, as an adolescent, and into my adulthood, I had brief thoughts of becoming a writer, but never seriously, constantly dismissing them as unattainable. Other pursuits in life were by then far more important. That changed after reading a particular novel purchased from the post exchange bookstore, whose title has long been forgotten. The plot was terrible, outdone by even worse writing that I struggled to get through without throwing it in the garbage. But finish it I did, and with the realization that if a book of such low quality could be published and make money for the author, then surely I could write something that would be far better.
Thus began my fledgling writing career. The next day I was outlining a great story, which from my perspective contained all the elements of a best seller: an enthralling plot, adventurous characters, and political intrigue. I wrote in my spare hours over the next three and a half years, finding the time after long days at work, military relocations, the birth of our daughter, and a litany of typical family and career commitments. Eventually, the story was transformed into a working manuscript, and with the loving assistance of my wife, was edited, altered, and rewritten several times until I was satisfied. But the endeavor was far from complete, for then began an unknown and sometimes more challenging process of finding a publisher.
I soon learned from dozens of rejected query letters and the informative purchase of a current Writers Market at the local bookstore that my previous endeavors had primarily been a waste of time. Anyone seriously thinking of finding a publisher for their manuscript should purchase a current copy of Writers Market and/or Literary Market Place. The books provided valuable insight into preparing your manuscript, writing query letters, finding agents or publishers that pertain to your genre, and a host of other insightful information.
Because I was still convinced my manuscript had national marketability, I began a second phase of finding a literary agent to represent my interests with major publishers. Almost all major publishing houses will not accept a manuscript unless submitted through a literary agent. Regional and smaller publishers are different in that they will often accept manuscripts directly from the author. Another value of Writers Market and Literary Market Place is that they contain detailed lists and rankings of all publishers and literary agents in the United States and Canada. Guide to Literary Agents is also a helpful publication.
After a few months of more query letters, summaries, and sample chapter submissions, I found a literary agent willing to accept my manuscript, signed a contract, and sat back waiting for the inevitable fame. I was naïve, of course. A year later, with the agent contract expired and a pile of rejections from numerous publishers, the agent bowed out, citing the decline in the economy and less than enthusiastic comments from some of the editors. The truth was I had a good story, but my writing was very rough and amateurish.
I rewrote the manuscript again, intending to achieve a much better product. But, unfortunately, with my new insight, the process didn’t develop into anything near what I thought it should. I finally admitted to myself that my writing was as bad, if not worse than the novel which inspired me to begin writing in the first place.
My writing was placed on hold during the next several years as I concentrated on family and my military career, until a medical condition provided the leisure time for more writing. I began with a short story that eventually transformed into a 400-page manuscript. The transformation was not immediate by any means. The transformation continues today.
Eventually, the second fiction manuscript was completed, or so I thought, and I began another quest to find an agent and eventual publisher. The rejections were quicker and harsher this time, which was welcome. Finally, I received some honest critiques on my writing deficiencies and, even more valuable, suggestions from editors on how to improve. It was a whole new awakening. My stories were interesting. I only needed the developed writing skills to reach a level of marketability.
While my second attempt at a novel was advancing, I began researching aviation accidents and fatalities in Alaska, more as a hobby than with any intent to write nonfiction accounts of the tragedies. The inspiration for the research was curiosity over the numerous crash sites I encountered during my extensive flying career in Alaska. One investigation led to another, often while discovering references to other previously unknown accidents, until unintentionally, volumes of information filled several filing cabinets.
At that point, the realization of the historical significance of the material was obvious. Far too many of the stories were never explained in detail, yet were captivating accounts of adventure, mystery, survival, and heartache, often as interesting as any novel. Together, the stories were a chronology of aviation history. Putting it all together was the challenge.
As my writing focused on nonfiction, I penned the aviation tragedies to paper in a collection of individual stories. First came Broken Wings: Tragedy and Disaster in Alaska Civil Aviation in 2003, followed by Aviation Mysteries of the North in 2011. Broken Wings has done well and is in its second printing. Aviation Mysteries of the North has done equally well and is currently in its second printing, yet there is a significant difference between their successes.
In my haste to have Broken Wings published, I signed a very one-sided contract with a less than trustworthy publisher. The limited royalties I’ve received are almost laughable, yet the publisher has done very well at my expense and has failed to honor major provisions of the contract. Make sure you research what should and shouldn’t be in a publishing contract, and on agents and publishers who are intended, business associates. I didn’t, and nine years later, I’m still paying the consequences. The Writers Market and Literary Market Place will again be of great assistance. An informative website is Predators and Editors at http://pred-ed.com/.
When dealing with a publisher, or any business for that matter, don’t accept assurances over the phone or in person. Anything important enough to discuss should be in writing. Clarify everything you feel is essential. Some things are negotiable, some are not, but make sure it’s on paper.
I also suggest being careful of using a Canadian or other foreign publisher. If future legal issues do somehow develop, you’ll more than likely have to litigate through that country’s legal system. Although a remote possibility with a reputable publisher, it can be an issue with less honest ones. By doing your homework before selecting a publisher and before signing a contract, you will gain information that will hopefully alleviate any future problems.
Soon after finishing Broken Wings, I began researching and writing my second nonfiction book, Aviation Mysteries of the North. By this time, I was retired from the military and employed as a contract helicopter pilot on the Trans-Alaska pipeline. A set schedule of equal work and off-duty time allowed more writing opportunities, ending with the manuscript being completed in a shorter time span. Well illustrated and better written, I was confident the book would succeed.
Unfortunately, I made the same mistake with Aviation Mysteries of the North as I had with Broken Wings. After I signed the contract, serious problems with the first book, Broken Wings, began developing, and I knew I was in for the same trouble with Aviation Mysteries of the North. Luckily for me, the publisher missed the two-year publication date, and after some legal intervention, I was on my own again.
While this was transpiring, I continued working on the second novel, never completely satisfied with the result and always adding or changing as my writing skills matured. Let me add that my changes became almost an addiction, focusing too much on the grammar and not nearly enough on the flow or readability of the content. For me, I’ve found stepping away for a few days or even weeks can place a whole new perspective on your writing, providing a new and more honest assessment.
Obtaining an honest assessment of your work is another important consideration. Family and friends often have a false, over-supportive view of your writing, or hide their opinions, being reluctant to provide negative comments. Find a good editor and unbiased readers so you can receive honest critiques. Negative comments are equally important, if not more so than positive ones.
While writing continued on my second novel and the contract expiration for Aviation Mysteries of the North was being argued, I added new information and more photo images as they became available. Research continued, and several of the stories were rewritten. Even better this time, Aviation Mysteries of the North was ready for a new publisher.
Unfortunately, finding a new publisher wasn’t any easier than it had been before. Many publishers were willing to accept the book, most with outrageous contracts that provided them lifetime rights, my investment money, and limited profit potential. Literary agents necessary for national publication weren’t interested, claiming the material was only marketable in a small regional market. I still went through the process, trying again and again, without success. After months of frustration, self-publishing appeared to be a viable alternative.
Once a manuscript is submitted for copyright through the US Copyright Office, which is strongly recommended, self-publishing advertisements will begin inundating your mailbox and e-mail server. All will have outrageous claims for your future success. Be wary. Most will provide accolades on anything submitted, regardless of the quality. With your money, they will design and print the books for you. The rest is up to you. Distribution, advertising, and sales are your responsibility. Depending on your business expertise, knowledge of the publishing industry, and material quality, you might make a profit, or more likely, have a garage filled with cases of unsold books, and wonder what happened.
If you have any inclination toward self-publishing, I strongly suggest The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Ross and Ross. The information can be overwhelming, but whether you pursue that avenue, the content is beneficial. It certainly swayed my decision to use another alternative.
Publication Consultants, a smaller but well-respected publisher, had been on my radar for some time. They had a good reputation and for Aviation Mysteries of the North’s anticipated market, were a proven successful Alaska publisher. Even so, after dealing with other regional publishers, I was skeptical. Only after speaking with the owner, Evan Swensen, on several occasions and reviewing his company’s different contract options, were my concerns alleviated. Since I was confident in my book’s future sales and profits, I chose a contract requiring my investment. I paid for the process of editing, design, layout, and printing, with Publication Consultants handling the distribution and shipping. Because of that, my profits have been substantially higher than if I had chosen a more conventional contract.
In perspective, Aviation Mysteries of the North has resulted in twice the profits, with half the number of books, in a quarter of the time of Broken Wings: Tragedy and Disaster in Alaska Civil Aviation. Having the right publisher and the proper contract makes all the difference in the world.
Being a published author doesn’t mean success is a given once the book is in print. Sales will, in large part, depend on your marketing and advertising. Although Publication Consultants has the contacts and means of distributing your book, getting the book on display for potential buyers is often contingent on your direct involvement. Book signings, literary reviews, newspaper and magazine reviews, news releases, and contacting potential retail sources are absolutely necessary if you want to be successful.
Research your book’s potential market and use it to your advantage. For example, the content and historical perspective in Aviation Mysteries of the North provides interesting information to visitors of aviation museums and libraries, particularly in Alaska and Canada. I’ve generated curiosity about the book by contacting the museums and libraries directly, resulting in orders that would not otherwise have been available. The same is true for reviews. Sparking attention from retailers and readers can and will result in sales. Advertising is a positive influence on sales; the more the better.
Currently, I’m involved in two writing projects. My attempt at a second novel, hopefully, my first to be published, is ongoing. I’m still my harshest critic and will continue editing, rewriting, and changing until I’m satisfied the manuscript is complete. A third nonfiction book on aviation history is also in the works, entailing more disasters and mysteries.
Still an avid reader, I not only wrap myself in the authors’ stories, but I also study their style, their plot twists, and developments, their characters, descriptions, and dialogue—everything that makes their stories what they are. Maybe I’ll reach that level, maybe not, but the process continues.