“Sorry we don’t publish unpublished authors.”
This is the conundrum I found myself in when I finished writing Hellbound. I had sent submission letters to as many agents and publishers as I could find on the Internet. Their responses were largely saying the same thing; unless you have a successful body of recognised work behind you, we won’t even read your manuscript.
Somewhat disheartened, I turned to my contacts to see what I could do, or whom I could approach to at least get an unbiased opinion on the story. My search led me to Michael Williams, a man connected with a radio station I was doing the weekly surf report on Friday mornings. Michael had previously worked for one of Australia’s largest independent publishing houses, Text Publishing. He ever so kindly accepted my request to take a look, and offer some advice.
We met for a beer one night in Melbourne near his home, I having emailed him the manuscript a month prior. I’ll never forget what he said. “I’m glad I don’t have to give you the stick to your day-job talk. But, you need to know, getting any kind of novel published is incredibly tough and this one will be near impossible. The genre isn’t huge in Australia and it has big, and maybe too many original ideas. It is the kind of manuscript every publisher dreams of taking a chance on but never, ever does.” So what do I do? I asked. “Firstly you need to edit it. It’s really only about fifty percent complete, there are some plot holes you need to fill, and you need to build the main character more. But more importantly you need to get the right people to read it, without them thinking they need to make a yes or no decision on it.”
After an hour or more of probing questions on my behalf, Michael’s advice boiled down to a few key strategies:
• Join online writers forums and build a following
• Enter the script and any other writing I had into as many writing competitions as I could.
• Do anything I could do to get anything published, at least somewhere
• Join a recognised creative writers course where industry folk can critique your work
The last piece of advice, while great, wasn’t so practical for me since I was living a couple of hours drive from any kind of city where I might find a good course. So, I took to the first three. The first would later prove (for me at least) to be the road to success.
Writer’s Beat, while a bit more underground, was a superior site in terms of getting honest and constructive feedback. Other members critiqued a variety of things about my work, from story to characters to basic spelling and grammar mistakes. However, (and this is true to all writer’s forums) you only get as much as you give back. To get people to truly read your work, you must read and comment on theirs. You simply cannot plop your story online and expect someone to find it, you need to interact with as many people as you can. The plus side of this is you get to read some new and interesting writing. It’s a bit like panning for gold, mostly it’s grimy dirt but occasionally you come across a nugget, which makes it all worthwhile. Chapter 1 of Hellbound ended up winning the ‘Writer’s Choice Award’ and was published in an issue of their online magazine, ‘Writer’s Beat Quarterly.’
The second site, Authonomy.com run by publisher Harper Collins, was the place where I was finally ‘discovered’. The site has thousands of unpublished manuscripts uploaded, with more being added every day. It is almost like a gameshow environment, where people vote for and rank your work. After some months of interacting and reading other’s work, I was into the top 100 scripts on the site, with well over 400 comments on Hellbound. If you can make it to the top 5, Harper Collins will read and assess the worth of your manuscript for publishing. I wasn’t even close to the top 5 when a stroke of luck hit.
A friend, who had seen Hellbound and the positive reviews it was getting on Authonomy, sent a link of it to a fellow author named CJ Werleman. Coincidently, CJ was also living in Bali where I resided, and had a successful non-fiction book out called God Hates You, Hate Him Back. Considering the similar religious themes to our work, CJ suggested we meet for a drink and a chat at one of Bali’s many seaside bars. We spoke about how CJ managed to get published (he was discovered on Twitter, where he has a strong following), and what I could do to get my work out there. We spoke about the potential of self-publishing and how it can be a good option to break into the market. He also asked if he could read the full manuscript of Hellbound since I’d only loaded a portion of it up online and he was wanting to know how it ended. We parted ways, saying we’d catch up once he’d finished reading my book. Two weeks later, I ran into him in the same bar. “Tim!” He said, jumping out of his seat. “I’ve been meaning to call you, I finished Hellbound in just a couple of days, it’s amazing! I’ve convinced my publisher to pick it up. I’ll have the contracts to you in a few weeks.”
I couldn’t believe it. The first person to read the updated manuscript of Hellbound in its entirety wanted to publish it. And they had started reading it, not thinking they needed to make a yes or no decision on it. It felt amazing, but very surreal at the same time. After all of the submissions, hours online giving and receiving reviews, editing and re-editing, Hellbound was finally going to be published. It certainly wasn’t the conventional way to go about getting work printed, but it was successful and that’s all that matters in the end.
So when people ask me ‘how do I get published?’ I tell them: Join online writer’s forums, get a twitter account, enter writing competitions, join writing classes, submit to slush piles, edit and re-edit your work, do it all. No path is the right way, and none of them are easy. In a world where just as many people want to be writers as want to be rock stars, the only certainty in being successful is that it takes a hell of a lot of hard work, a hell of a lot of persistence, and a tiny piece of good fortune to live your dreams.