Hope . . . perches in the soul
June 16, 2022
HOPE. . . PERCHES IN THE SOUL
Sad news first: The editorial director at Baker-Bethany who read and considered my new book contacted me this past week with the news that "after much thought and discussion we've decided not to pursue your book for publication." I had been praying for a calm, mature (I should hope so, at my age) response to their decision, whether an acceptance or a rejection.
I told a friend the other day that, oddly, I feel a little proud of myself right now—like a prophet whose prophecy has been fulfilled or like a student who nailed the only two right answers on a hard test question. You see, back in January of this year, I had submitted a proposal and a few sample chapters for the new novel and had promptly received very positive feedback, along with a request to submit the entire manuscript for their review. I did that in early April, so this latest response was the big one I've been waiting for. As the weeks kept passing without hearing yea or nay from the publisher, I began thinking of several significant changes that needed to be made to the storyline and also started feeling more and more certain that the verdict was going to be nay, not yea.
In addition to the deep-down feeling about the nay/yea matter, I had settled on the two big reasons they would probably cite for declining it. First, I told myself, they would say, "It's too long." Second, I predicted they would say, "The plot develops too slowly and needs more action." Well, bingo on both points! Not only did I score 100%, but the editor mentioned them in that same order.
As for the length, I do understand. It still amazes me, looking back on my earlier books, that I was never once told by any of those three publishers that I would have to condense the manuscript before they would consider publishing it. (In many ways, the publishing world then was much different than it is today, but in other ways it's the same. More on that to come.)
When I got to the second point in the editor's email, however, it was definitely déjà vu. I had heard the same thing from four different publishers about 25 years ago when scouting for a home for my second novel, Some Wildflower in My Heart. At that time I had signed on with an agent, who had sent the manuscript to five different publishers where she had close contacts. She heard back from four of them fairly soon and then mailed all four letters to me in a single packet. After reading them, I wondered if the four publishers had gotten together to discuss why they shouldn't accept this manuscript. I still have all four letters, and I remember clearly the reasons they gave for declining, all of them boiling down to the same thing.
One of them said, "The Christian market prefers lighter commercial fiction and isn't yet ready for literary fiction like this. Frankly, I can't foresee when it will ever be ready." (In writing/publishing lingo, "commercial fiction" is driven by plot, which requires plenty of action, whereas "literary fiction" is driven more by character, theme, and style.)
Another rejection read, "Our readers want and expect a sprightlier story than this," and another said flatly, "This is too heavy and ponderous." The fourth said, "Turner is a good writer and has a story to tell, but readers in our market don't want to be bothered with a lot of introspection." That was a pretty discouraging day, as you can imagine, and I went to bed that night thinking that the manuscript would likely end up in a dusty box in the attic.
About a month or so later, however, the fifth publisher responded. It was a brief letter from an editor at Bethany House, and it said, "I'm not sold on this, but I've passed it on to one of our women editors to confirm my opinion—just in case it's a guy-girl thing." It circulated among the other editors, and Bethany House eventually published that novel in 1998 as well as my next five. I'm deeply grateful that the Bethany team voted to take a chance on something different (I'm not saying better, just different) from the standard model they generally used for their line of fiction.
So back to this recent rejection. When he got to his second point, the editorial director repeated things I had heard 25 years ago. He also used the word literary, saying that "unfortunately, these days it has become much harder for Christian publishers to successfully publish literary fiction." (So that's one of the ways Christian publishing houses have remained the same over the past 25 years. Many of them still feel it's best to accept only novels with a forward-driving plot and a streamlined sequence of action leading to a tight resolution. To be honest, I read a lot of those kinds of novels from secular publishers, and I enjoy them! But after one or two, I'm always ready to return to something more complex and reflective, something that digs a little deeper and broader into the human condition.)
The rejection email went on to say that this manuscript lacked "the driving forces that push genre fiction [another term for mainstream, populist, plot-heavy novels] forward," and though "these are not criticisms, they do make it harder to market something like this to our core readers." He added that he didn't doubt that I could "write something more plot-driven, and do it very well," and he said he would be happy to consider something else of mine that was a better fit for them. It was a very thoughtful, clear, courteous, professional email, and it all makes perfect sense from his perspective. As editorial director, he's responsible for making hard decisions for the good of his publishing house and its base of readers. I understand his stance on this and the responsibility he feels as the chief pilot of the Bethany fiction department. Publishers are in the business of making a profit, and long, slow books simply don't sell as well overall as shorter, quicker ones.
I will be honest, though. My pleasure over being a good prophet and test-taker doesn't diminish the fact that this was disappointing news. I've told the following anecdote many times, but it adds a little levity and relates so well to the editor's comments that I'll share it again. About 30 years ago, after I had written my first novel, Suncatchers, I suggested to my husband that he could read the completed draft and give me some feedback. I was hoping, of course, for only glowing praise on the home front before sending it off to the publisher I had in mind. So he sat down at the kitchen table and started reading, none too excited, I might add, as he observed all the pages stacked up before him. Not wanting to hover, I left the kitchen to do some work in another room—but close enough to hear any admiring comments.
All I heard was silence and an occasional page turn. Well, maybe he's in total awe that he's actually married to the author of this amazing manuscript, I thought. The minutes ticked by steadily until I could stand it no longer, so I finally wandered back into the kitchen, where he was still dutifully reading, and saw that he was already well into chapter 8 or 9. So I casually asked, "So what do you think so far?" Without looking up, he sighed and said, "Is anything ever going to happen in this book?" His use of the word "happen," of course, referred to things like bomb explosions, spies, car collisions, gunfights, fistfights, plane crashes, the discovery of a dead body in a swamp, etc., etc. We still laugh over that incident, but it does reinforce what this newest editor said in his email, doesn't it? If my husband is going to read fiction, which he hardly ever does, it has to be extremely plot-driven, so he's a man after that editor's own heart! As you might guess, I've never asked him to read another manuscript.
Some of you may be interested to know how the publishing process has worked for me. If you're not, just skip this part and scroll down to the last four paragraphs. I'll never know.
I signed my first contract (for Suncatchers) in 1992 with Thomas Nelson Publishers, and that novel was published in 1995. Those were the days when writers still submitted unsolicited manuscripts to publishers—loose typed pages packed and mailed in a box. I vividly remember the night when I was cooking supper and the phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Thomas Nelson, who identified herself, then told me, "We want to publish your novel." And they did.
The merger of Nelson with Word Publishing brought about big changes in their procedures for acquiring and publishing fiction, however, so my second novel, Some Wildflower in my Heart, which had already been verbally approved by Nelson, was dropped and many of the Nelson fiction staff were let go after being told to inform their authors that any outstanding verbal agreements weren't binding. That's when my search for a new home for Wildflower commenced. One of those Nelson editors who was released decided to start her own literary agency and contacted me to offer her help with finding a new publisher. I signed on with her, as previously mentioned, and though four publishers rejected it, Bethany House finally decided to accept it.
The Bethany staff was absolutely wonderful to work with, and over the next eleven years they published Some Wildflower (1998), Thousand Stars (1999), a revised edition of Suncatchers (2000), Garden to Keep (2001), No Dark Valley (2004), Winter Birds (2006), and Sometimes a Light Surprises (2009). I had a warm, happy relationship with all those people and will always hold them in the highest esteem.
Sometime around 2003, Baker House bought Bethany, and as the leadership changed, so did policies and practices. When the nationwide economic downturn started in 2007, things changed more (along with every other publisher), and between 2009 and 2011 Baker-Bethany declared my novels "out of print," one by one, meaning they would no longer print additional copies and would sell all the "remainders" in their warehouse to discount houses for a pittance.
Around that time, in 2011, I went scouting again for a new publisher for a book I was just beginning to write. I had ended my agreement with the agent years earlier so didn't have her help, but in 2012 I was offered a contract with Penguin, and that novel (To See the Moon Again) was finally published in 2014 and is still in print. Something I didn't know at the time, however, was that talks were already underway for Penguin to be bought out by Random House. Same story repeated: By the time the novel was published, there had been a big overhaul of the Penguin policies and practices as new leadership took over. They did honor my contract by publishing the novel but gave it no marketing or advertising dollars. Their staff had a major turnover, and both editors I worked with are now gone.
So upon finishing this newest manuscript, which was written over a much longer period of time than any of my earlier books (8 years!), I decided to return to Bethany and see if they might be interested. I learned that their entire staff had changed also—I didn't recognize a single name in their directory—but I contacted them anyway, and that's when a conversation with the current editorial director opened up. None of them knew me or any of my books, so I was like any other newbie author to them, except they did know I had published with them years before.
So that's where the story links up with the opening paragraph of this newsletter and the recent rejection email.
BUT now some good news. In light of the sad news, how does the title of this newsletter relate to that? You probably recognize the allusion to Emily Dickinson's poem comparing hope to a little bird. And that's exactly what I'm feeling as I write this. True, the discouragement hasn't faded completely, but hope has fluttered into my heart and perched there, singing away.
Here's how things stand now: (1) I have already started making the changes I had decided were necessary. (2) As I go through each chapter, I will keep asking myself, "Does this part contribute to the whole enough to justify its inclusion?" Maybe this will help to trim it down somewhat. (3) I will not add car chases, bombs, mortal combat, UFOs, dragons, etc. (4) Sometime soon I will contact another publisher I already have in mind, will introduce myself, will send sample chapters if requested to, and will see if something opens up. (5) I will not give up on this book. It has merit. I know that. (6) If this next publisher also declines, I will consider self-publishing it. Even though a traditional publisher would take over the marketing side, which is always a plus, I could at least get the book up on Amazon and other outlets. I have a very fine, skilled assistant who could help with typesetting and all that. This would not be my first choice at all, but it's a possibility.
The new paperback reprints of my first seven books are currently up on Amazon, though they're challenging to track down since they're all mixed in with the earlier editions and reprints. (You have to keep clicking on "all formats and editions" while noting the "paperback" tab.) They're also being distributed through other outlets, I'm told, so I've fumbled my way through the initial stages of self-publishing, though I lack the skill and desire to do it again and do it well and easily.
I've heard from a good number of loyal readers recently, asking about when the new book might be available, and it's very encouraging to know people care. I hope this newsletter will answer any questions. Be assured that I'm not giving up on this ninth novel. I believe in it. And that bird of hope keeps chirping.