New York turned me down.
When I left Quivira at the end of 2015 to write full-time I harbored a hope that I would catch the eye of an agent, editor, or publisher. I started with a nonfiction book idea called The Threshold which I intended to be part memoir, part travelogue, and part analysis of the state of the world as we crossed a symbolic but key climate threshold. I worked hard on the Proposal, including the composition of two chapters, and then tried to interest someone in New York City. I failed. However, an agent at a big firm picked up a thread from the Proposal involving my father’s family tree, which can be traced back to Normandy circa 1020 AD (the de Lacys fought alongside William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings). For four months I worked closely with the agent as we drafted an exciting story about genetics and genealogy that stretched back to the origins of Homo Sapiens, tracing migration routes laid out by a DNA analysis of my ancestry. It was a departure from my normal nonfiction focus on land, water, food, and sustainability issues and I was intrigued by its novelty and its possibilities. Over lunch during a visit to NYC the agent told me I could expect between $80,000-$200,000 from a publisher for a book deal. Talk about getting one’s hopes up! When we completed the Proposal, the agent shopped it around to publishers. It belly flopped. Not long afterwards, the agent stopped responding to my emails.
I was disappointed but not surprised. I knew I was starting behind the pack in the publishing race. An agent I met here in Santa Fe in early 2016 said I had to have 50,000 Twitter followers before any publisher would even look at me. But I don’t even have a Twitter account! In fact, I don’t spend much on social media for reasons I’ll explain some day (hint: I don’t like the Internet’s role in what’s happened to the world). I hadn’t been willing to make that sort of investment in social media, to my detriment, and my day job at Quivira prevented me from pushing my nonfiction books very hard, though perhaps I could have tried harder. In the publishing world, the Santa Fe agent told me, an author had to bring his or her reading audience to a project pre-sold. One way is to spend your career writing books. I didn’t do that. Another path to a publisher’s heart is through what the industry calls your platform. The agent defined it simply: how famous are you? Publishers are lazy, she told me, and don’t want to work hard for authors who can’t guarantee huge sales. You must build a big platform through YouTube and Twitter, she said. I didn’t do that.
I decided to switch gears to focus on fiction – a longtime goal of mine. I had been working on a novel titled Consilience about a young woman who time travels to the present day to gather information needed in the future. Blithely, I decided to finish the novel and see where it led. As that writing project wound down in 2017 and I began working on The Sun and the Saga, I rummaged around among my meager contacts in New York to see if anyone might be interested in a newbie novelist, hoping against hope that the stories themselves would be enough to entice someone’s attention. The feedback, alas, was consistent: don’t even try. One editor told me flat out that I would “confuse” my nonfiction readers by trying to write novels. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I decided to self-publish The Sun, following the lead of an acquaintance who had successfully self-published a series of young adult novels (and paid for a vacation to Europe with the proceeds). Doing research into the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional I was encouraged by the arguments about freedom and control that came with working independently. At the same time, I was dismayed to learn that nearly 60,000 new books are published every day! Yikes.
Then last month, a surprise: an agent read The Sun and loved it. She was impressed by the writing, the artwork, and the series concept. She understood that I was a newbie without a platform but she decided to explore the publishing options anyway on my behalf. I wrote an outline of the Sun Ranch Saga (fourteen books set in a twelve-month period) and answered her questions about former book deals and the path I had taken to this point in my writing career. Against my better judgment, I became excited. I mean, who doesn’t want the imprimatur that comes with a New York publishing house? I maintained my glimmer of hope despite the inevitable email from her inquiring about my book sales (they were poor). We talked. She would still ask around, she reassured me. A week later she wrote a very nice email explaining the impossibility of my situation. She passed on the book, she told me, including the series and everything else.
So, I’m back at square one. At least I don’t have any illusions now and in a sense that’s liberating.