First of all, this is not a story about triumph against all odds. I’m not here to encourage you to persist no matter what, or to face hundreds of rejections in the hope of succeeding one day even if it hurts your mental health. I will not succumb to the survivorship bias and claim I know how to get a book published – I’ve read too many breezy how-I-got-my-agent blogs (“I spent six months in the trenches and it was hell and then I got six offers”) that left me frustrated and dismayed. This is not one of those stories. Like so many things in my life, my path to publication was excruciatingly slow and uphill all the way. I’m writing it down just to show you there’s no trick, no magic recipe – just stubbornness and luck.
Dark Woods, Deep Water (formerly known as The Castle of Lost Time) started as an image and a feeling. The image was a desolate castle in a snowy forest, the feeling was a deep, hollow yearning, an inevitable sense of loss. I wanted to write a story about mistakes, about bad choices made in good faith, about people brought together by misfortune. It had three narrators from the beginning, an elaborate structure that brought three stories together, and Death at its core.
I finished the first, very rough draft in the summer of 2019. I had problems with plotting and pacing and it took a lot of rewriting – about 1/3 of the novel – to get the story where I wanted it to be. It was 30k words longer than it is now and it had a different, nested structure, which made it almost impossible to tick correctly. It was also my first full novel in English (English is not my native language), so it needed a lot of polishing as well.
I knew I needed beta readers, but I had absolutely no connections in the writing community at that moment. So I asked my friends – good friends who usually read speculative fiction in English – to help me. It was a huge mistake that left me with no actionable feedback and almost no friends. Then I tried to find beta readers online. After a few hits and misses, I stumbled upon Scribophile – an online writers’ workshop. I still believe it’s one of the best places for new writers, not just because they can get their work read and critiqued there, but also because they must read and critique other people’s work, which is immensely important of one wants to grow as a writer. I uploaded my whole novel there and got a lot of very useful feedback from many kind writers. The novel was now read by several beta-readers, rewritten, brushed-up and in a pretty decent shape. I thought it was time to send it out to agents.
Of course, I was wrong.
I sent my query in the late autumn of 2019 to about a dozen agents. I still remember that Saturday when, sitting in a restaurant with my family, I imprudently decided to check my emails. A short form rejection from my dream agent destroyed my lunch and my hopes for an easy entry into publishing. I sent about twenty queries altogether in that first querying attempt and didn’t get a single full request.
It was bad, but I didn’t lose hope. I went back to my novel, changed the structure, cut about 20k words, got more beta readers. I applied for a mentorship program and didn’t get in, but preparing the materials for that improved my query package and my opening chapter very much. So, in the spring of 2020 I was ready to start querying again.
At that time I started paying attention to pitching events on Twitter and got some positive responses pretty soon. Several agents liked my pitches and one of them asked for a full. Less than a month later, they offered representation. It was my only offer at the time and the agent was new, but they had experience in the publishing industry and they seemed to genuinely love my book. I accepted their offer, relieved to leave the trenches behind me.
It was May 2020, the beginning of the pandemic. I signed the contract and had some very productive and encouraging conversations with the agent. We had a rough schedule, too – they believed my book would be ready for submission by early autumn. I set down to work once more, editing and polishing my manuscript. My agent sent my book to a developmental editor, we were waiting for their feedback. And then… nothing happened. The agent became elusive and barely responded to my emails. The schedule went down the drain. When I tried to contact them and find out what was going on, they talked about the lockdown and burnout and everything except my book. At that point, I was still determined to keep my hard-won representation. But the initial six months since the signing of the contract had gone by and it was up for renewal. I demanded a firm schedule and a clear plan from my agent. In response, they sent me a bad contract, with much worse terms than the first one. It was a rude wake-up call. With a heavy heart, I decided to cut my losses and part ways with the useless agent.
It was December 2020 and I was back in the trenches, disappointed but not discouraged. If I managed to get one agent, surely I’d manage to get another, right? The manuscript was in a good shape, the querying package (query letter, synopsis, opening chapters, Twitter pitches, elevator pitch and all those senseless snippets of info you need for QM forms) was ready and I had a long list agents I was eager to query. I threw myself in it with all the energy I had.
I had decent success at first – partial and full requests, some useful feedback. One agent soliciting me because they read my short stories. All very encouraging and positive. But it was 2021, the height of the pandemic and the publishing industry became even slower and more unpredictable than before. Soon, rejections started rolling in – dozens of them. The ghostings too. And some feedback that had nothing to do with my book. I found myself buried under a mountain of NO’s. That year of querying almost destroyed me – it shattered my confidence, made me feel worthless and depressed, killed all the joy of writing. Every near miss, every “no” that could have been a “yes” made me a little bit more desperate and crazy.
At the beginning of 2022, as the last rejections trickled in, I decided I needed a different approach. Also, at that time, I got very sick and after I got better, I refused to expose myself to that level of stress again. I started querying publishers who accepted unagented submissions. In the summer of 2022, I sent my manuscript to Ghost Orchid Press. I’ve worked with them before and although they are small, I knew they were reputable and serious about the business. In September, they offered to publish my book and I accepted it.
And that’s how I got my publisher.
I’m very grateful to everyone who helped me and cheered me on this long path: to my beta readers, to the Scribophile crew, to my Eastern European gang, to my Codex and Twitter friends and to A. R. Ward, who opened the door and let me in.
2 Replies to “How I got my publisher”
Congratulations, Jelena! And thank you for sharing your story here.
Congratulations, Jelena! I am going to start querying in the next year, so this is interesting and insightful information.