Posted by: Michelle Mitton | July 21, 2008

Losing the Lottery (or: Publishing the Hard Way)

Author Michelle Gagnonby guest poster and author Michelle Gagnon

While I’m recovering from the weekend I have a wonderful post from Michelle Gagnon, author of The Tunnels and the upcoming thriller Boneyard. For all of you wondering where this blogging thing might be taking you, where to go with your writing or how to get to the next step of getting your manuscript published this is the post for you.

Ms. Gagnon has graciously offered to respond to any questions you might leave in the comments before Friday and a random commentator will receive a copy of The Tunnels. Or if that’s not rich enough for your blood go to and click on “win” for a chance to win a Kindle, ipod and other prizes.

Make her feel welcome!


A few years ago, when I had just begun my search for a literary agent, I attended one of Michael Chabon’s readings. During the Q & A session afterward, I asked how he had gone about getting published. He responded, “Gee, it was really easy. My grad school professor passed my manuscript along to an agent, there was a bidding war, then a year later it was on the shelves.”

And at that moment right there, I experienced my first murderous impulse. Michael is a very nice man and an amazing writer, but that’s the publishing equivalent of winning the lottery. And I found out the hard way that such experiences are very rare. So when Michelle and I chatted about my guest post, she recommended I write about some of the lessons I’ve learned while navigating the frequently choppy seas of the publishing world. I’ll detail the reality of what most of us experience, from start to finish. And just so that doesn’t become too depressing, I’ll follow up with inside tips and tricks on surviving relatively unscathed…

The Reality:

1. Rejection, and a lot of it. My first novel (which is now forever relegated to a storage box, never to see the light of day again) was rejected by over fifty agents. That’s right, fifty. It was even turned down by some fly by night operations that hung out a shingle and hoped for the best. (Although once I re-read that manuscript, I understood why. More on that later.) You need a thick skin to survive that level of rejection. Fortunately during my career as a modern dancer I’d already developed a carapace that nothing could penetrate. (Once during an audition, choreographer Paul Taylor told me that in tights my legs looked like sausages. No matter what an agent said about my manuscript, nothing could rival that.)

2. The Marginal Advance. There’s a reason that when someone gets a six- or seven-figure deal for their first novel, it makes the industry newspapers. It doesn’t happen all that often. On average, the money paid up front for a first novel ranges from $1000 to $25,000 (and I suspect the median amount is around $10,000). The vast majority of writers keep their day job through at least their first few books. In fact, it’s recommended that you pour as much of that advance as you can afford back into marketing the book. Which leads to the next sad truth…

3. Out of Pocket, or, “What do you mean, I’m not getting a book tour?” A few years ago comedian Will Farrell gave the commencement address at Harvard. In my favorite part of the speech he says:

You’re about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late. In addition to not even being a limo at all; often times it’s a Lincoln Towncar.

Whenever I attend an event where the (generally bestselling) author spends most of the night complaining about the fact that their publisher has put them on a ten city tour with bookstore stops, radio and television shows, a driver, and (I suspect), a nice hotel room, I’m reminded of that speech. A publicist recently told me she’s even had authors cancel such tours at the last minute because they changed their mind about going. Now, I understand how hard traveling can be, and the difficulties of being separated from your family and thrown off your routine. But what I would give to have all of that handled by my publisher!

Most writers organize their own touring schedule (local, regional, or national, depending on what they can afford). They contact the bookstore to set up the event, pay the travel expenses, and promote it…and after all that, sometimes only end up selling a few books. Last summer I flew to San Diego for an event, rented a car, spent $150 on the sketchiest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in (a Days Inn conveniently located right behind a strip club). And three people showed up. I loved the bookstore and all the wonderful booksellers I met (who outnumbered the crowd), and I tried to maximize my time by visiting every other bookstore in San Diego to sign copies of my book. Still, it was a bit depressing.

So, the good news?

Despite all of this complaining, I can walk into a bookstore and see my books on the shelves, and after years of struggling to get published, nothing compares to that. In the end, I won the lottery—but the truth is that I genuinely believe everyone could if they did this:

1. Finish the book. I regularly attend writing conferences, and can’t even count how many times someone has said to me, “I’ve been working on the first few chapters of my manuscript for a few years now…” Yes, I know it’s incredibly difficult to finish a book, but think of it this way: if you write just a page a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a book.

Along those lines here’s the best advice I can offer: don’t look back. I don’t edit a single page until the entire story has been written, I just do a quick check for glaring typos at the end of every day. Then I move on. Don’t get bogged down editing the first few chapters ad infinitum. Save the edits for later, when you have a finished product to go over. I know that my rough draft will be just that: rough. But I resolve that with drafts 2-5 once the bones of the story are in place.

2. Once you’ve finished the book, put in away. Don’t look at it for at least a month (I also don’t recommend showing it to anyone else, I usually save that fresh pair of eyes for the second draft). When you dig it out and dust it off, you’ll see things that you missed the first time around. It makes the entire editing process much, much easier. Remember that first manuscript I mentioned, the one rejected by fifty agents? I sent it out the day after writing “The End.” Huge mistake, and when the rejections started pouring in I looked at it again and cringed; but by then it was too late.

3. Get a literary agent. There are publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, but it’s relatively rare. Agents are viewed as the first guards at the gate: if a manuscript is represented, in the eyes of editors it’s already been vetted. So make a list of agents who represent the kind of writing you do (that part is critical: if they specialize in Young Adult novels, don’t send them your erotic horror masterpiece. Doesn’t matter how good it is, chances are they won’t be interested). Start with a list of five agents and send them a carefully honed query letter. If they all turn it down, go for the next five. But do not petition everyone at once, like I did.

4. Finally, when you have your agent, they’ve sold your book to a publisher, and you have your publication date, open a bottle of champagne and celebrate!

Then sit down the next morning and start working on your marketing plan. There are so many wonderful resources out there that can help, start sniffing them out. Figure out how much of your advance you can commit to marketing, and consider partnering with another writer to share the burden of tour planning and expenses. Keep your publisher posted on everything you’re doing, and ask if they might be willing to help in some way. Showing that you’re a motivated partner in the process can go a long way toward getting the sales team excited about your book.

See? Easy. You’ll have that limo picking you up at the airport in no time.

Questions? Comments? Fire away, I would love to respond to them all . . . I’ll draw names from that pool, and the winner will receive a signed copy of my first book THE TUNNELS.

And if you don’t win, go to, click on “win,” and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, digital picture frame, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller The Tunnels was an IMBA bestseller. Her next book, Boneyard, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she runs errands and indulges in endless games of online scrabble.

Sponsored by Pak Naks–Decorate your stuff with these cute rubber charms!

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