My dear friend Melodi told me that you write poetry and stories, and asked me to give you some advice about how to get published.
This is a perennial question—“getting published.” I’ve had three books published and have strong feelings, attitudes, and opinions about the subject.
To begin with, before I “became a writer,” I actually had an undergraduate degree in Communications—that’s where I “learned to write.” These writing skills and lessons later came in handy in graduate school, where I studied optometry. In fact, writing skills are valuable whatever you do, particularly when the other people around you cannot write very well—or at all.
In the mid 1990s I decided to start working on my first book, which eventually became What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism. I wrote three major drafts before I attempted to find a publisher. After each draft, I’d make 20 or 30 bound photocopies of the entire manuscript and offer a copy to friends and strangers with the proviso that if they wanted to read it they would have to give me written feedback, comments, and suggestions. And they did—some more than others, and some more valuable or germane than others.
One early piece of advice I received from a successful author was, “Make sure you know who your audience is, and write to your audience.” I pictured my “perfect reader” and thought about her as I wrote. (I can still picture her now, many years later.)
In the end I managed to incorporate every recommendation anyone gave me. (My favorite question was, “Is a kosher hot dog really kosher?” That turned into a whole chapter.)
It was a bizarre process, particularly because I’m not great at asking for or taking advice. But it worked, and by the end of the third version it was a much better book in every way possible.
Now here’s how publishing worked for me: For months I sent out copies with cover letters to publishers and agents, following the advice of a number of books I’d read on “how to get published.” I kept up with this soul-numbing process with the faith that someone, somewhere, would like my book.
However that’s not how it happened. What did happen was that one of the people I asked to review and edit the book was a patient of mine. I had just met her when she came in for an eye exam. Alice turned out to be a Catholic writer with a fair number of published books to her credit, and I asked her to take (and read) one of the photocopied volumes stacked in the corner of my office. She agreed to do so.
After reading my manuscript, we met, and I remember her words: “We need to get this book published!” Alice kindly offered to write a cover letter to one of her publishers. I sent it to him, and he politely rejected it. She gave me the name of another contact, but he too was complimentary, yet also rejected it. But the third time was the charm—Loyola Press offered me a contract if I would write specific additions to the book. I agreed, and in two years the book was released. To be honest, I had little or nothing to do with the actual publishing of that book. I even got a modest advance. (Good luck having that happen today!)
But then it was my job to sell the book. This is what hasn’t changed in the process. Every author who is not a well-known personality or New York Times bestselling writer sells books one-at-a-time. You go to your friends; you contact family members and high school classmates; you visit whatever book stores still exist and will let you do readings and book events. You travel wherever you can to give talks and present at events. (That, of course, was something we couldn’t do during the pandemic.)
Here’s a story I made up years ago and will share with you. It’s as true now as it was then:
A person has just written a book and has a copy of the manuscript in their hands. They’re standing in a very large room filled with other people, each of whom has written a book and is holding a copy of the manuscript, hoping to get it published.
There’s a door in the room. When your book gets published, you get to walk through that door. It’s your dream. Everyone wants to walk through that door.
Congratulations! Your book has been published and you get to walk through the door!
You’ve now walked through the door and find yourself in a large room filled with people. Every person in this room is holding the manuscript for their second book in their hands, hoping to get it published. In that room there is a door…
Get the picture?
Several years ago I walked from Huntington Beach, California to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Using the daily blog posts I wrote as well as the hundreds of photos I took along the way, I wrote my second book, On God’s Radar: My Walk Across America. I was fortunate that a local publisher was interested in my book. There were costs involved, but I’ve had success selling the book through local bookstores, friends, colleagues and former classmates, and of course, Amazon. During the trek I developed a large following on Facebook and Instagram, and later participated in as many book events and talks as I could. I produced a short video to introduce my book talks. I asked for advice from professionals and took that advice as much as I could.
I did the same thing for my third book, which I wrote with my co-author, Catherine deCuir. It was my first novel, The Rabbi Finds Her Way. The book is a good read, and we enjoyed writing it. Now we had to get it into the hands of both Jewish and non-Jewish readers and reviewers across the country, synagogue book clubs, etc. We spent a lot of time and money doing all this promotion. We have not lost money, but we’ve not gotten rich. Meanwhile, my first book eventually came out in an updated edition because I did not want it to go out-of-print.
I’ve come to some conclusions about the book publishing business, and I think about this all the time. I have in mind several more books I could write, but because of the pandemic and my personal experiences I am reticent to even start another.
The publishing business, just like the music recording business, is not what it used to be. Bookstores have gone out of business around the world—not all, but many.
Amazon is king, and now, you can publish your book or collection of poetry or essays on Amazon for virtually nothing. You can do your own publicity and promotion just the way you would if you had a conventional publisher. It’s a lot of work. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes.
Are you writing because you love to write, and money is not important? Or do you want to make a living as a writer? It is possible. It is also difficult, and competitive.
Some writers “make a living” blogging. That’s one way to do it. Lots of ads are involved, or subscription costs. Also lots of “come-ons” from people trying to get your money to teach you how to make money as a writer or “get published.” They all have an angle. Mostly, you’re the angle.
But who knows? Maybe you’ll find your niche. I once made a lot of money as a musician—I was an event bandleader (think: weddings).
I even made money as a composer! Strange as it sounds, a song I wrote, The Lights of Hanukkah, was included on a popular Christmas compilation CD (it was paired with another Hanukkah song I did not compose). Being a band leader was hard and often stressful work. Making money as a songwriter was an incredible fluke.
I do not want to discourage you from writing, but want you to be cautious and realistic. Make sure you know who your audience is. And be prepared to invest in yourself with your energy and your savings. Technology has changed. It’s no longer about “books.” (Do you know the Beatles song, “Paperback Writer”? Listen to it!)
Good luck, and as I learned to say when I was walking across America, God Bless You!