Four Part Harmony, Part III: How to Get Published (At Least How I Did)
After I secured an agent I had a notion I’d get published in time. There aren’t many absolutes in the writer biz, but I think it is true without an agent it is very difficult to get a publisher. The publishers know if you have an agent a certain amount of the screening work has already been done for them. It must have some potential or the agent wouldn’t be involved.
The day I secured an agent was somewhat like the day I got a notification by mail I had passed Part I of National Boards. That step is about half way through med school, and back then was the final hurdle. If you passed it, you were gonna be a doctor. After I had an agent I knew it would take time, but felt like my book would see it to print.
First I thought I’d share some thoughts with you on what I am not an expert in: self-publishing. Because I didn’t go that route I can not write with authority but I believe there are excellent self-pub options available these days such as createspace.com. I hope a reader will comment as to their experience with self-publishing.
There is nothing wrong with being self-published. I wanted to go to press with a publisher if possible because while I enjoyed writing I had no idea what I was doing, and knew I would need a lot of constructive criticism to take my manuscript to a higher level. If one has that kind of feedback available in a writing group and an experienced editor, self-publishing might work out just as well.
After several more revisions, most of which were driven by my agent’s suggestions, he decided it was time to shop around the MS. We again faced some rejections. One said they only published one work of fiction each year and declined. Another liked the story and gave it a lot of thought. They finally rejected it because they were afraid “bluegrass people won’t read.”
I have to admit that only threw down the gauntlet for me. It made me mad. As Coach Cliff Searcy said, his teams often played a little better when they had a chip on their shoulder. My agent did some research and found out a recent book of that publisher sold 3,000 copies. There’s nothing wrong with that number, but the bluegrass battle cry became “3,000 or bust.”
One day a small publisher became interested. They felt it needed a professional edit before they would make a final commitment, so my agent launched into a search. I wasn’t scared of constructive criticism. If Mark Twain needed an editor, I knew Tommy Bibey did. He narrowed it down to ten he thought would work, and the two of us both went over those resumes and pared the list to three.
“Which one should I choose?” I asked.
“You’re on your own now, pal.” He went on to say he wanted to help guide me but the final decision would have to rest with me. He recommended I interview each one by telephone. I kept an open mind, but I wanted a female if possible. My agent was a man, and he was great, but I wanted the perspective a feminine point of view would add to the story. As I have always said, my favorite bands have at least one lady singer in the group.
Each of the three finalists were excellent. They all had extensive experience with publishing companies and had worked with some pretty famous writers. Each one of them felt the MS had the potential to be a national level book from a new Southern writer, and said they would like to be part of the journey. All also indicated they never took on any project unless they were convinced it had artistic merit. As I talked to these experienced editors, my faith in the book and my ability as a writer began to grow.
I liked each one and I’m sure any of the three would have been fine, but there was something about Dorrie. (She’s on my blogroll; Dorrie O’Brien) Part of it was she had a special interest in first time authors, and that was me of course. And I liked her process. She promised she would go through it chapter by chapter and make recommendations and then have me re-write it to see how it struck her. I didn’t want a ghost writer and she assured me she wanted no part of that either. She also indicated my voice was so unique if anyone else wrote any part of the story the passage would jump off the page as not authentic anyway. I can tell Darin, Wayne, or Alan’s mandolin style in three notes. It just jumps off the radio into my car. My family and office staff have read my notes for years and all say they know it’s me right away. As I always say, “Gotta be who you are ’cause you can’t be anyone else.”
Here’s my favorite vignette to explain the working relationship with Dorrie. There was one scene in the book when Martin Taylor and Bones discussed the case in terms of golf metaphors. Bones swung an imaginary golf club, and Martin Taylor analyzed his swing to make his point.
Dorrie found this a bit implausible. “Why don’t you have him with a real golf club in his hands?”
“Heck Dorrie, men in offices all over the country swing an imaginary golf club all the time. That’s what they do.”
Dorrie replied, “Perhaps so, but you have to remember most of your readers are not golfers. You must write this in such a way that a middle-aged housewife in Dallas, Texas who has never been on a golf course will get your point.”
I rewrote the passage and said something like this: ‘Bones asked, “Do you want me to go and get a club? I’ve got one in my car.”
Martin Taylor replied, “No. Hell, boy use your imagination.”
With that modification, Dorrie let me have my scene. But you had to negotiate with logic. She wouldn’t buy it when she knew the reader wouldn’t. Dorrie was excellent.
After Dorrie, the project picked up steam. The publisher was satisfied, and took it on. They put it through a line edit for typos and their graphic artist went thru several layout revisions. We all argued back and forth for days over items as simple as the subtitle before we settled on “Country Doctors, Honest Lawyers, and True Music.”
Finally the day came. We were at the Strawberry Park with the Lehmanns. The publisher over-nighted the proof to us there. I opened it up on a picnic table right outside our rented trailer. Jr. Sisk, one of my favorite bluegrass singers, was one of the first people to sign it. A young lady named Lisa Husted happened by, saw the commotion, and stopped to visit. She read the author’s note and opined a perfect quote on the spot. “I hope the world heals exponentially through your beautiful understanding of the healing power of music.” I asked the publisher to add the quote in the second edition, and they agreed.
I knew right then the book was gonna make it cause the true bluegrassers got it as soon as they read the first few pages. I soon came to realize that others not familiar with our music would also come to understand the fundamental truth I hoped to convey; we must always put the interests of the patient first, regardless of how much duress we are under, and music can help us do that. Lisa is right. Music has the power to heal, and gives us a way to help other human beings regardless of what kind of work we do. You don’t have to be professional musician (or writer) to help people with your art.
I was published and on my way. And I’ll admit it made me a bit misty-eyed. It wasn’t as important as the day our children arrived, but it was a pretty big day.
Oh, one more word on the “3,000 or bust” mantra. A young lady named Kathy Boyd of the band Phoenix Rising of Portland, Oregon read about this on FB and reserved copy number 3,001. It went out to her some time back, and I assume it is still on her book shelf. And I just gotta take one last dig at the prospective publisher who didn’t think bluegrass people would read. There is no way he could ever hear Phoenix Rising and know of their fine music and extensive charity work and hold to such an opinion for long. These are sophisticated, bright, artistic young people and the bluegrass woods are full of many others just like them.
I’ll be back next Monday with Part IV, or how to promote your work on the Internet. Talk to ya then.
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