Remember Chutes and Ladders? Book Publishing is Just Like the Game

Remember Chutes and Ladders? Book Publishing is Just Like the Game

I am celebrating today — I got a meeting with an agent!

This knowledge is turning my insides to Jello and, in my excitement, I’ve gotten oddly reflective about how I got here.

To be honest, it feels a little like I cheated.

But when I stop and retrace my steps, I didn’t cheat at all—I just took advantage of opportunities available to me to enhance my odds.

(Not that I’m counting my chickens before they hatch! A meeting with an agent is not the same as an offer of representation. No. Chickens. Here.)

From all this looking back and reflecting, I’ve come to a realization: Publishing is an awful lot like the children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.

Block by block

I started out my publishing career stepping from one block to the next, like hitting every single space on a game’s board.

I took five years to write and revise my debut fantasy novel. Then I spent about three months querying agents, sending out partials and fulls, and ultimately, collecting rejections.

Then when a small press accepted it, I took my opportunity and put the agent hunt on hold.

I edited. I promoted. I wrote the next book. I picked up every lesson I could at every step.

But ultimately, this approach is still taking the publishing journey one step at a time. You’ll get to that destination eventually, but it’s going to take a while.

This is how most of us navigate publishing. Nothing wrong with it at all. (Heck, nothing wrong with deciding a small press or self-publishing is your end goal and pointing your journey there for the rest of your author career.)

Chutes and Ladders

But, if you want to make it beyond the mid-list, if you want a major publisher as a partner, if you want to replace your salary with your fiction, well, you might be interested in a few short cuts.

And they’re out there — if you step back and look at the board, you’ll notice the board is rife with ladders. Also, it’s rife with chutes, so you have to be careful to avoid the pitfalls that could set you back, too.

Ladders

For those of you who have not played this board game, a.k.a., had no childhood, passing by a ladder is like expecting to have to drive all the way around a lake, and then discovering there is a tunnel that goes straight under it

Publishing is just stuffed full of opportunities like this.

For me, it took a few different efforts to come together in just the right way. Let’s break it down, because I think it’s good for us to share our journeys, so we can learn from each other.

Submitting for awards

My first novel debuted in February last year. In March, I entered it into a contest on a whim. In October, I won the top honor in that contest.

Live pitching

At the same conference as the award, I took advantage of an opportunity to live pitch an agent for my next project, separate from the fantasy series developing from my debut. He liked it, and he gave me his card so I could send him sample pages when it was ready.

In fact, he liked it so much he told another agent about my story, and I ended up getting her card with an interest in pages, too. So I got to jump right over that slush pile, twice.

Seeking mentors

I write for a few blogs, and have built relationships with some of the editors, founders and other team members of those blogs. They’re not just s, they’re my friends—with more experience in publishing than me.

So when one of them was in D.C. for a conference last week, we had dinner. I mentioned I had a contract in hand for book two in my debut series, and she advised me to try to query it around a little and see if my award would pique interest in representing me. This idea would never have occurred to me in a thousand years.

(My small press has first right of refusal on the series, but there are a lot of related rights to negotiate—, of course, that other side project I’ve been polishing up since October, and other plans.)

Querying

I took her advice and queried some agents who’d had some kind feedback for my first book.

And then I got ballsy. I dug up the card from that first agent I met with in October, and I sent my pitch to him too—to his direct email, not the query address.

This is where I started to feel I was cheating, as what I was delivering in this case was not exactly what he’d given me his card for—that’s still got some weeks of polishing left to do.

But I was polite and respectful in my email, and even told him that if he felt I’d overstepped, to please push me over to his slush pile, with my apologies.

He didn’t. He replied to me the very next day, asking for a meeting.

Chutes

As you see, it was necessary to take risks to get to this point.

Pivot wrong, don’t do your homework, send out subpar work, and those ladders I listed above could have easily become chutes instead—ways to set yourself back even more, rather than get ahead.

Common chutes in publishing include:

  • Not editing your work, or sending it out before it is ready.
  • Sending out a subpar query.
  • Ignoring agents’ submission guidelines.
  • Being rude or dismissing to others in the industry (this includes online trolling).
  • Being difficult to work with for agents, editors or other publishing professionals.

And, of course, these are only a few of about a zillion different ways one might demonstrate carelessness, ego, laziness, unprofessionalism, or just generally being a jerk.

Don’t do that.

Be a pro and say yes

What it really all comes down to is pretty simple.

First, guard against chutes by acting like a professional. This doesn’t mean you have to be buttoned up or hide your personality, but it is extremely important to always put your best work out, and to be responsible and responsive.

Then, be ready for opportunities. Join and pay attention to writers groups of all kinds. When you find opportunities, say yes to them.

What’s that? You’re busy? We all are.

You don’t know if you can speak/guest post/xyz? Ditto.

Just put your best self out there and do your damnedest. Not every effort will be equally successful. But if you do this consistently, you’re going to learn a ton every time, meet people, and your successes will outweigh your failures by a landslide.

What unexpected ways have you found propel you to publishing success?

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4 comments

  • Ohita Afeisume says:

    Congrats!
    I like your success story

  • April Stewart says:

    Great analogy and very helpful info for us newbies! Good luck with your work. I’m writing a book series set in New Orleans. It’s time to get my author’s platform started (one can never start that too early I understand) and I so appreciate your insights!

  • Peter Fish says:

    Thank you EMILY WENSTROM for this amazing and helpful post!! ) It’s really great article , good luck with your work and never stop writing great articles!!!!

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