Written by A Guest Author July 27th, 2023

3 Mistakes That Eventually Led to a Small Press Contract

By Jean Burgess

If you are one of those “full steam ahead” types, who are too impatient to learn from your mistakes, then stop reading now. However, if you are willing to learn how, as a novice fiction writer, I made a few major mistakes and still ended up landing a contract with a small press for my debut fiction, read on.

As writers, we tend to get so excited when we finish our book that we just can’t wait to get it out into the world. Some writers want to skimp on services like competent development editing or beta readers beyond their best friends. Some are tempted by visions of dollar signs, then movie deals, then television series, then world domination…(See how quickly things can spin out of control?) And sadly, some have lost their grounding and forgotten why they’re writing in the first place.

I can point out these flaws because I’ve been there. Let’s dive in and see what can be learned from these errors.

Mistake #1: Pitching to literary agents before the manuscript was ready

Yep, that was me. The book was completed. I’d had several beta readers offer input and even made edits based on their feedback. I hired a copy editor who also offered a few developmental comments, all of which I acted upon. I decided I was ready to secure a literary agent. So, I queried and queried and queried. I received plenty of “Thanks, but no thanks” responses.

I also pitched at writing conferences. This was a better experience and here’s why: After submitting my three chapters or fifty pages, at least I received “Thanks but no thanks and here’s two reasons why… .”

Now I had something to work with and that’s exactly what I did.

Lesson learned: The feedback I received from the literary agents was invaluable for me. It caused me to ask: How do I fix that issue? As a novice fiction writer, I was able analyze my skill weaknesses and search for a solution. Take a workshop or a class if need be. The biggest lesson, however, was I needed to be prepared to revise (and revise and revise) my manuscript.

Mistake #2: Being uneducated about the industry

Guilty as charged. Looking back on my own journey, I now ask myself, “What was I doing querying agents when I didn’t understand a thing about the author-agent relationship?”

What did I want from a literary agent? Did I even understand their function in the industry and what they do for authors? And what about self-publishing vs traditional publishing? What is this hybrid publishing I keep hearing about? How can I avoid scams? Yikes! I realized I needed to get myself educated.

Lesson learned: I am sure there are a variety of paths to getting these questions answered. I chose to join several professional writers’ organizations. These offer seminars and resources that have helped me immeasurably, plus I appreciate the networking aspect of the groups. I also encourage reading reputable blogs and information about the industry. Secure a complete understanding of all the various publishing approaches – self-publishing vs traditional publishing vs small press publishing – before deciding which is right for you and your book.

Mistake #3: Not having a clear writer’s purpose

I do believe that having a fuzzy idea of my writer’s purpose when I took the next step in promoting my book, whether querying a lit agent or chatting to a reader, was a huge obstacle. It interfered with my messaging and my confidence.
When I say, “writer’s purpose,” I’m not talking about my reason for writing this particular book, but rather for writing anything. What motivates me to write? What motivates you to write? And if your answer is “For the big bucks,” you might want to dig a bit deeper!

I found that I was flailing with my personal response, which caused me to be unfocused when I spoke about my debut novel.

Lesson learned: Once I permitted myself to indulge in uninterrupted quiet reflection and meditated on the question “What motivates me to write? What is my purpose?”, I finally found clarity. My writing purpose applies to both my nonfiction and fiction works.

I write to help others and to start conversations.

Finally, clarity of purpose helped me to define my goals and decisions for moving forward. I decided to put all my efforts into pursuing small presses for publication of my debut novel set in the late 1970s around themes of emerging feminism and social injustice and music. As a result, at the next regional writers’ conference I attended, I skipped pitching to the literary agents on the roster and focused on the small press publishers instead.

In the past, regardless of who I pitched to, I must admit I’d be anxious about the whole process. But this time, I found I was relaxed and enjoyed chatting about my book and its marketing possibilities. Perhaps this was due to more practice with pitching. However, I believe my ease was related to being connected to my purpose.

The best news of all is that my debut novel, That Summer She Found Her Voice, has been picked up by Apprentice House Press and will be published Spring 2024. Based on my journey, being open to revisions, learning all you can about the industry, and taking time out to define your own writing purpose are vital steps toward securing your own publishing success story. Best wishes.

Bio: Jean Burgess is a writer, editor, and playwright with a background in theatre and education. Her debut novel, That Summer She Found Her Voice, will be published by Apprentice House Press and available Spring 2024. Follow her publishing journey by signing up for her monthly newsletter at http://www.jeanburgessauthor.com.


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