Agent or Publisher? The Road Less Traveled By, Part One

One of the questions I’ve been asked the most by readers and aspiring writers is, “How did you find a publisher?” I understand this enquiry deep in my marrow because before my book was published, it was the question I also had for every person I’d ever met who’d been lucky enough to see his or her work transformed into ink and paper. Sometimes I’d ask the question out loud, but most of the time I just kept the question on the tip of my brain and gazed intently at the charmed creature in front of me, trying to see the glitter and magic that had moved the work of pure imagination into the realm of public consumption.

Now that I’M one of those charmed (lucky) creatures myself, and my first novel is traditionally published, sitting still-stunned-to-be there in stores, on bookshelves, and in libraries all over the place (hard copies of my book have even made it to Senegal, West Africa, and New Zealand),

I can tell you with certainty that it wasn’t magic pixie dust that got me here. It was an old-fashioned, stubborn belief that my story was a good one, and someone, somewhere would figure that out and take me on as a client. It was also, through trial-and-error, a realization about what I wanted for my book, and what I was willing to gain and give up when I chose to stop sending my queries to agents and instead began focusing my attention on smaller-scale traditional publishers.

For those who don’t know already, there are many, many avenues to publication. One avenue which I did not choose and so therefore have nothing of value to contribute, is that of self-publishing or hybrid publishing. With the advent of eBooks, self-publishing has taken on a new life, and for some, this is the path that makes the most sense. With this choice, the author pays to have his book published, sells and markets the book himself, and keeps all the profits from that book. For people who are naturally good at sales, who have a built-in audience (like teachers of certain subjects or innovators of business with tips to share), or who don’t necessarily care whether their books make it into libraries or some bookstores, this is certainly a viable option. None of the above describes me, however, so I started with the agent route and then switched to looking for a small traditional publisher. If you are interested in self-publishing, there are tons and tons of articles about what to do and which self-publishing companies are the good ones, so get to Googling and get to reading, and the best of luck to you!

Back to my own journey, though: In this post, I’m going to talk about the most well-known avenue to publication, which is to query and gain a literary agent. Once the agent accepts you as a client, he or she will begin working to sell your books to a publisher. One misconception I think a lot of authors have is that an agent will get your book to the “big five” (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan). That’s simply not true. Agents may try for the big five, of course, but they will also often try to sell your book to a smaller publisher that may be more accessible. As you well may imagine, getting a “big five” contract is extremely difficult; I recently read a statistic that editors and publishers only accept 1-2% of the manuscripts they receive. That’s a figure from ALL editors and publishers, mind—not just the big five. So the first thing you have to come to terms with is that for MOST writers, this is going to be a long, discouraging road.

But remember: It only takes one yes.

When I finally finished White River Red: A Novel , I first took this well-trampled road of trying to find an agent for my book. I began by scouring Duotrope, which I had used for years to help me find magazines to submit my short stories to, setting my parameters to agents who I felt might be interested in my book. And here I stop to offer my first piece of advice:

  1. When it is time to start look for publication, figure out which key words fit your book best.

I decided that my book fell into the following categories: “general fiction,” “women’s fiction,” “historical fiction,” and “Southern fiction.” It was not “young adult” but nor was it “adult fiction” (that means something else!); it was not “horror” or “literary” or “romance.” There are hundreds of genres, and the first thing you have to do is figure out what your book’s genre is. This will help not only with the selling of the book to an agent or publisher but will also come in handy when you’ve sold the book and it’s time for marketing–these genre words become important hashtags for your social media sites.

I also Googled “agents looking for historical fiction” and visited MS Wish List, which is, as the title suggests, a site dedicated to the manuscript wish lists of agents and publishers. This brings me to advice number two:

2. Do your research homework!

This step takes SO. MUCH. TIME, y’all! I can’t even describe how many hours I spent clicking on agent sites, scribbling down what they wanted and how they wanted it (see my post on query letters). I created a Word document (because I just don’t get Excel!) and, in alphabetical order, listed the agents’ names, their websites, and what they wanted in terms of querying. I had read somewhere that you should only query about five or six agents at a time, so that if you get five or six rejections right out of the gate, you will know you need to tweak your query letter or your first chapter and not have exhausted all your possible sources with a “bad” first impression. Here’s the thing, though–it takes some agents FOREVER-AGES to respond back to you (to be fair, they are drowning in submissions). So I sent out about ten at a time, and when one came back rejected, I’d send out another one to replace it. I also very carefully used the strike-through function in Word to cross the agent off my list but did not delete him or her because I didn’t want to accidentally query the same agent twice.

3. I said it once, I’ll say it again: Wear that tough skin and keep going.

Rejection is just part of the process. It hurts, it discourages, but unless you’re very lucky and a super-star, it happens to all those who want to write. (Again, visit the post about query letters and pay attention to the part about all the famous folks who got rejected.)

I did the above for about a year. I had a lot of rejections from agents, and a few interested requests to look at my full manuscript, which in and of itself is a big deal because of the large rate of automatic rejections (take every win, guys!). I sent those agents my manuscript, and while I waited for them to read the book and get back to me, I started snooping on them. I looked at their public Twitter accounts and read things they’d written in blogs for the industry. What I discovered in reading these was that many agents have vastly different worldviews than I do, maybe because of the area of the country they live in, or maybe it’s just the nature of the business. I’m not going to paint anyone with a broad brush here because I know folks are different all over, but the ones I was looking at were not people I really wanted representing me. This sent me into a quandary–did it matter if my agent believed some things that went against my own beliefs? I mean, he or she would just be selling my book, right? The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how personal a relationship is between an agent and an author. I decided I wanted someone I could trust to care about my work like I did, and that meant someone who would not ask me to change vital aspects of my book just so it would sell better. Please understand me when I say emphatically that I’m sure there are thousands of great agents out there; I simply started to question if this path was what I really wanted for myself personally.

As I was reading more and more about the industry, I happened upon an article about choosing to go straight for a publisher and skipping the agent altogether. I started investigating the subject more and resolved to look at that option. I knew that the “biggies” in publishing didn’t accept queries from authors (only agents), but I started wondering if that was okay with me. As I mentioned before, I didn’t want to go the self-published route–I still wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publisher–but was I willing to adjust my thinking on having to have an agent?

The answer to that was “yes.” How I shifted and began looking for (and finally finding) the perfect publisher for me will be addressed another day. Until then, please stay healthy, keep your wits about you, don’t succumb to fear or despair, ask questions, demand answers, and for goodness sake, laugh every once in awhile. As Julian of Norwich wrote while living through The Black Death (the bubonic plague):

I wish you joy, dearest chums!

What’s Been Happening?

I know it has been a hot minute since I posted last; sorry about that. It’s due to the whirlwind of activity I’ve been engaged in since the launch of my book–and I’m not complaining, y’all. I’ve been having FUN! 🙂

Here’s a quick recap of all the doings and goings on since my launch:

  1. Public readings: I was able to share a chapter of my book at the college where I teach AND at the library I worked at briefly as a page before COVID went and ruined that. (I got too busy having to shift my classes to online and then having to figure out how to teach face-to-face while still keeping everyone six feet apart. Nightmare.) The audience at my college was mainly English majors, aspiring young writers, and faculty from the English department. Everyone was gracious and kind, and I was in my element, since teaching there has been my bag for lo these many years.

The audience at the library was made up of community folks, many who still remember the REAL White River Red and were happy to tell me stories about her after I read my chapter. I loved that part! I got to meet Charlotte Steele, whose late husband, Phillip, wrote the short biography of Forrestina that I relied on heavily for my research. I was also able to meet Karen O’Connell, the Arkansas State Library Coordinator of the Arkansas Center for the Book, and she said she would be adding White River Red: A Novel to their Book Club Collection so that libraries around the state would have access to it for their book clubs. So that’s pretty cool!

2. And speaking of book club picks . . . White River Red: A Novel has now been chosen for SIX book club picks so far, and I’ve offered to visit with all of them! I just recently dropped in via Zoom for the first one, and it was great fun answering questions and getting a feel for how people interpret my book. I’m looking forward to hanging out with the other groups, whether in person (my favorite) or on Zoom. If you are looking for a book for your book club, I reckon mine is a popular choice; if your group does choose my book, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to check in with y’all however is handiest!

3. Bookstores: In addition to being available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble online, I really wanted my book to have a place in physical stores. There’s just something magical about “brick and mortar” shops! And hurrah! My book is slowly finding its way into some great places. It’s now available at Barnes & Noble in Rogers and Chapters on Main, in Van Buren. (Both in Arkansas.) It will soon show up in Daisies & Olives in Prairie Grove and Oli + Meg in Bentonville, also both in Arkansas. I guess I need to start working on the Oklahoma market now, eh? 🙂

Dream come true–my book is IN Barnes & Noble!
Chapters on Main is the COOLEST bookstore, featuring both new and used books. It has fantastic staff, too!

4. Movie treatment: Before we get TOO excited, this is just an early stage, feeling-it-out process. I’ve been told by multiple folks that my book would make a great movie, and truth be told, I’ve always personally thought that Forrestina’s life was big-screen worthy. So with my publisher’s encouragement, that’s what I’m working on right now. (Actually, I should be working on it instead of writing this blog!) Stay tuned!

So there it is, friends and readers. Two months in since the launch, and I’ve been having the time of my life. And now can I ask a huge favor of you? If you have read and enjoyed White River Red: A Novel, would you take a quick minute to leave a positive review on Amazon? The more reviews, the more likely that my little book catches broader attention, and I’d love for Forrestina’s story to be known all over. Asante!

Achievement Unlocked: Celebration Launch Party

When I was mired in researching publishers and agents, reading about how to catch the eye of the aforementioned publishers/agents, writing query letters, and dreaming of that elusive, “Yes, we’d love to publish your book!” reply, I used to peruse published authors’ sites and sigh in jealousy over their launch parties. “Someday,” I told myself, “that will be you, Becky, and what a fine party it will be.”

Well, someday came last Sunday, and it was very fine indeed. I was surrounded by a vast number of friends and family in a friend’s event barn, and I felt overwhelmed by the love they all showed me in attending and cheering me on. I was able to practice my first reading, and I only cried twice (note to self: no more reading the dedication and acknowledgements aloud because you CANNOT HANDLE IT); afterwards, I had my first book signing and felt like the real deal. 

Next up: A reading at the college where I’ve taught for thirteen years:



It’s finally that day–the official release day of my book, White River Red: A Novel.

To celebrate, I went out to Friendship Cemetery in Springdale, Arkansas, where the real-life heroine of my book, Forrestina Bradley Campbell, is buried. I left her some thank-you flowers and wondered how long it’s been since she’s had flowers left at her grave.

The book is available for purchase on Amazon

and Barnes & Noble online

Don’t forget: If you read the book and enjoy it, PLEASE leave me a nice review on Amazon, B&N, and Goodreads.

Book Publication Progress Report

ONE MONTH UNTIL RELEASE DAY, and the early reviews (via LibraryThing) are making me feel warm and fuzzy inside! 🙂

The trade paperback edition will be available for order on Amazon on release day, April 5th.

To preorder the hardcover edition: T

To preorder the Kindle edition:

Publication Journey: Query Letters

Since signing my contract with TouchPoint Press for publication of my novel (reminder: launches April 5th and is available for preorder on Barnes and Noble online and Amazon, haha), I’ve had a few people reach out and ask me about the process of getting published. I fear my response to them was a tad disappointing, as it boiled down to:

1) write, rewrite, finesse, and rewrite again your query letter (HARD!!!),

2) be willing to spend an inordinate amount of time researching possible agents or publishers who are looking for your genre, and

3) develop an elephant hide so that when rejections come (and for most of us, boy, they do come), they will bounce right off and you can keep going.

That’s the way I got my contract, and it seems to be the experience of most novice writers (novice in being published, not in writing); if there is an easier way, I’d love to know it. 😁

So for those who are interested in the long path, I’ll add more detail to the above topic in a series of posts. This time, we’ll start with the basic assumption that you’ve already written something and revised it many, many times, at least once with a long break between revisions. I finished my rough draft at the beginning of summer three years ago, revised it twice, then had a small group of beta readers review it. These were people who I knew would be honest about giving opinions, adept at grammar enough to point out obvious issues, and gentle enough to not crush my spirit, because I was under no illusions that this was “the draft.” I revised again, using their comments, and then put it away in a drawer for a month before looking at it again and revising again. It’s amazing what a little time away does for your perspective—suddenly things I’d never noticed before were hitting me as trite or clumsy or telling-not-showing.

So after writing and rewriting your story x 1000, it is time to write a great query letter. To query, according to the old Merriam-Webster, means to “question, especially addressed to an official or organization.” What a weird term; technically, I guess the question is, “Will you read my manuscript?” And since I’m being honest, I will tell you I probably sent several dozen letters out during this process, and most of the time the answer was, “no.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that doesn’t sting. It does. A lot. Especially since most of the “no” were some form of, well, form. “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, your work does not seem to fit our needs at this time.” How do I know it was a form? Because I received almost the same thing from agents and publishers, with minor differences, many, many times. This brings me to the first point:

It may be you, but probably not. It’s probably them.

You know the old break-up standard, “It’s not you, it’s me,” a lie meant to soften the fact that it is 100% that person you’re dumping’s fault, but you’re just too nice to come out and say, a ’la Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses, “I want to smash your face in”?

Here’s something I was dimly aware of when I started submitting but never really processed until I read it in an article about dealing with literary rejection: Agents receive thousands of queries a year and sign three to five new books. Gulp! A THREE in a THOUSAND chance of getting signed! No wonder the form letter rejection exists—there are only so many ways to say nooooooooooo. Before you lose heart, though, here’s some tidbits to cheer you: J.K. Rowling was rejected twelve times for Harry Potter. Golding’s classic kids-are-freakin-terrifying novel, The Lord of the Flies, was rejected twenty times. Gone with the Wind was rejected thirty times (I maintain that the pain of that was one reason why Mitchell never tried to write another book.) Kathryn Stockett kept plugging her bestseller, The Help, despite its SIXTY rejections. Stephen King used to hang his rejection letters on a railroad spike driven in his wall. When one filled up, he started with another one. His first novel, Carrie, was rejected thirty times before publication. One rejection of his novel stated, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King’s novels of “negative utopias” don’t sell? Riiiight. May I be that unlucky, pu, pu, pu.

The fact is, the market is glutted and subjective. It only takes one “yes,” but you may have to endure a lot of “nos” to get there, so buckle up, buttercup, and hang in there. Faint heart never did win fair contract.

Second point: Maybe it IS you.

Maybe you need to spend some time reading through the countless columns of advice from agents and writers on what makes a “good” query letter. The hardest part is that “hook”—the first line or two that reels the reader of your letter in. Spend a lot of time on that part—whittle, finesse, whittle some more.

You might even consider hiring a professional to give you his/her feedback on your query letter. After a couple dozen rejections and rewrites, I did this very thing. Many agents in publishing also have side-gigs as editors and may offer their services at reasonable prices. I’m a big believer in editors, especially ones who don’t know me and so aren’t as worried about my delicate feelings as helping  me make my writing sing. So I hired Kaitlyn Johnson from Belcastro Literary Agency ( She was great, told me my letter was polished and had all the necessary ingredients, then pushed me to consider aspects of my book I had held back. After taking her advice and rewriting my letter yet again, I began to see some actual requests for partials or fulls of my manuscript—a big milestone. I was still getting rejections, but I was also getting requests for manuscripts, which let me know for sure that changing my query letter did matter.

The next task, then, was to really focus on what I wanted for my book, and I changed course from looking for an agent to looking for a traditional publisher. And that, dear ones, is a subject for another post. So until then, keep bleeding on those typewriters (okay, laptops. Hemingway’s quote needs an update) and chase that dream.

Breaking the Chains I’ve Forged this Year

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, and aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly process, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

From “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

What can I say about this year that everyone else hasn’t already said? It sucked. COVID, mask mandates, and lockdowns. Financial losses. Loss of real celebrations of big events, the things that make us glad to be humans. Worst of all, loss of loved ones, not to COVID, because yes, people do die from other things. Heartbreaks. Election mayhem. Anger, confusion, worry. Raging for a return to common sense. (I am one of those people who does not like to feel out of control and who equally does not like being told what to do if it makes no logical sense. “Just do THIS because we said so” doesn’t cut it for me. I can see what is working and what is not, and I know what the definition of insanity is. In short, I know a hawk from a handsaw.) As I plodded along this year, my fists clenched, I tried to remember that in this world there would be trouble, that I am not a citizen of this world so I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (and compared to eternity in heaven, everything here is the small stuff), but I confess, I failed and failed and failed in the hope department. I think that was the worst part of all. Sneering, ugly 2020 held a mirror to my face, and I found out how shallow my faith is and how easily I let the enemy steal my joy. I’m not afraid, but I’m not loving, either, and without love, I am a clanging cymbal.

My only resolution for 2021, my prayer, is that I will try harder this year to love and forgive so that the same epitaph for Young Goodman Brown (and 2020) won’t be inscribed on MY tombstone one day.

Happy New Year, friends. I can’t say it will be better, but I can say I hope to be.

“Come what may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”

Unfortunate Advent Event: A Warning

This is actually a retelling of a story I posted a few years ago on an old blog. It did not happen in the church I now attend. Our changing churches is completely unrelated to the following tale.

Christmas Sunday. Everyone is present and accounted for and looking mighty pretty in their special red and green sparkly Christmas clothes. The church, with its three Christmas trees, huge wreaths, and pots and pots of poinsettias, is not looking half bad its ownself.

A man and woman stride to the darkened stage and begin to speak solemnly about Christ’s coming. After awhile, they invite the congregation to participate in a corporate reading, praising God for His greatest gift to mankind: His son, Jesus Christ. A holy silence falls as the couple lights two sets of advent candles on either side of the stage–the purple candles of peace and hope, the pink candle of joy. As they finish lighting the final purple candle (love), everybody bows their heads.

Suddenly, a not-turned-off-as-it-SHOULD-be cell phone begins to sing out tinnily, softly at first, and then louder as its sheepish, blushing owner (a man, I must add) scrambles to shut it off.

And the song it sings? Well, let me give you the part we heard, and see if you can identify it:

“Ah–you gonna take me home tonight?
Ah–down beside that red firelight;
Ah–you gonna let it all hang out . . .”

I look down the row, past my kids, to my husband, who is looking back at me. We grin at each other in gleeful, horrified disbelief and simultaneously mouth the rest of the song: “. . . fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go round.”

It had to be Queen, and it had to be that song? God has a delicious sense of humor. And I bet somebody never brings his cell phone to church evereverever again. Fat bottomed girls, indeed.

Happy Advent season, y’all. And leave your phones in the car.

Thankful Reads

Some of the most fun I’ve had writing my book was creating the dedication and acknowledgements page. I understand that some publishers (and some grumpy readers) don’t like acknowledgements (more pages to print = more $$ spent, I guess; thankfully, my amazing publisher never batted an eye about including both a dedication page and an acknowledgment page).

I personally love reading these tiny slivers of reality. After I’ve been walking around in the dream of fiction and reach the end, where I sit for a few minutes, easing myself awake, the acknowledgements serve as a nice bridge between not real and real. Here, the author reminds me that she’s a human as well as a creator; author Anna North once noted that “We often think we’re seeing the author’s real self when we read her fiction, but as any author who’s ever been asked what happened after she fled her family of international superspies and threw in her lot with a group of itinerant circus performers knows only too well, this is a delusion. The acknowledgments at the back of a novel are tantalising because they’re often the only true thing amid a pack of lies.”

The other purpose the acknowledgements and dedications serve is to show that the author is thankful to those who helped her along the way. No writer is an island, and in a world full of people often obsessed with being perceived as uniquely superior (it’s the reason Instagram filters exist, right?), it’s nice to see a slice of humility.

Also, gratitude is just a great read.

Acknowledgments run the gamut from the utilitarian, where the author spends time thanking editors, publishers, and agents, to the very personal. As a practical consideration, writing experts often encourage authors seeking publication to look at the acknowledgement page in books in their genre and note the agents and publishers as people they may want to reach out to. It’s good advice that I took myself. I discovered my publisher by following a rabbit trail that began while I shelved books at the library part-time. As I pushed my cart around, pausing to fit a book in its tidy alphabetical or numerical place, I’d also sometimes scribble down publishers’ names I found in books that looked similar to mine, and as I later researched those publishers and sent out queries, I found a treasure trove of more publishers. A couple offered me contracts, one of which I happily accepted. So if you’re an aspiring author, I concur with the experts: Don’t neglect the business of reading acknowledgements

Beyond the practical, however, far more interesting to me in the acknowledgments is the personal, the human. Stephen King regularly adds a quick note of thanks to his “Constant Readers,” which is a nice touch. Craig Johnson, in one of his Longmire books, finishes his acknowledgment page with the following for his wife: “To Judy who, like the stars, wonders if she shines brightly enough and always does.” Leif Enger, in one of my all-time favorite books Peace Like a River, begins his acknowledgements thanking his father and his mother, Wilma, “who read us Robert Louis Stevenson before we could talk, and who writes better letters to anyone since the Apostle Paul.” In Will  My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, death queen Caitlin Doughty ends her acknowledgment page with “And finally to Ryan Saylor, the shroud to my casket.” (I LOVE this woman.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite anti-acknowledgement, E.E. Cummings’s “No Thanks” poem, dedicated to the publishers who rejected him. (Cue the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts’s character comes back in to taunt the snobs who make her feel bad: “Big mistake. Huge.”)

The story with Cummings is that his mother believed in him in a way that the publishers did not (ah, moms and their mom-goggles) and gave him the money to self-publish his book of poetry. His “dedication” page is as follows:

Note that the poem is in the shape of funeral urn; Cummings was feeling ALL the salt! All of us who have suffered the pain of rejection after rejection can now stand up and cheer.

One of the best dedications, of course, is C.S. Lewis’s dedication in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

To Lucy Barfield

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis

I mean, COME ON! We all want to be Lucy now, don’t we?

When I started counting my blessings in the writing of my own book, it was hard to stop. All the people who helped me as a writer, as a person, who love me in spite of my shortcomings—as I made my list and tried to, in my inadequate way, let them know how much they mean to me . . . well.

It wasn’t enough, but I did my best. Since I’ve been feeling very grouchy and UNthankful for this weird masked world lately, it was nice to take an unfettered breath and remember that for all the bad 2020 has thrown my way so far, there was once and has to be yet again, someday, so much to be thankful for.