Written by A Guest Author February 24th, 2022

Case Study: The Potrero Complex’s Journey to Publication

By Amy L. Bernstein

When poet Robert Frost wrote about two roads diverging in a yellow wood, I doubt he had in mind all the writers striving to get happily (and traditionally) published. But my own publishing journey thus far suggests that there are indeed divergent roads a writer can take to reach the same destination.

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, I was gripped by the idea of writing a novel exploring some of the impacts a devastating pandemic (worse than our real one) might have on American society and culture after the crisis has receded. I can’t honestly recall exactly how and when the arc of the story took shape in my mind, but my files indicate I began researching and writing in March 2020—even though we had barely begun to process our collective new reality. (I must have been crazy, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.)

By setting the novel a few years into the future, around 2030, I was able to psychologically leapfrog past current events and begin imagining an aftermath. In my conception, it isn’t pretty. Fascism rears its ugly head to fill a terrified population’s overweening need to feel safe, social norms that had broken down have not been restored, and acute labor shortages give rise to enslaved labor.

Those ideas coalesced into The Potrero Complex, a dystopian mystery-thriller set largely in a fictional small town in Maryland where civilization is coming apart at the seams.

I worked furiously and completed the novel in a couple of months. I did not seek out beta readers or a professional editor. You can fault me for that—and you’re probably right. I don’t recommend the approach. But the book felt “done” to me (and no, authors are not always the best judge of this!), and I decided to bring it to the marketplace as an unagented author.

It had not occurred to me some agents—okay, many agents—did not want any material addressing a pandemic. Here I thought I was being relevant and topical, but I received a clear message that nobody wanted to read such dire stuff. Several agents specifically said they wanted uplifting books. So I failed that test.

I queried agents and publishers with open-manuscript submission policies for a couple of months. I was on the verge of taking a break from fruitless querying, when I decided to submit the manuscript to the Petrichor Prize for unpublished books that is sponsored annually by Regal House Publishing. I distinctly remember feeling deeply discouraged at that point, and I nearly did not submit because I was certain I wouldn’t even make a short list.

Then that moment arrived that every author hopes for, but which rarely occurs. I received the email from Regal House telling me I was a finalist for the prize. Great news. I could live on that for months. Then a second email arrived from the publisher within a few days, offering me a contract.

This entire experience—from beginning to write to signing a contract with Regal House—took six months. That’s an astonishingly short time. I didn’t set out to rush the process; it just happened. And for this particular book, the journey was just right. The book will be published in August 2022 and advanced reviews are encouraging.

All of which leads me to a couple of conclusions about this difficult business of getting published.

  1. Take an all-of-the-above strategy as you seek traditional publishing. That means cultivating a list of likely agents, of course, but also reputable publishers accepting unagented manuscripts. And don’t overlook time-limited opportunities, such as contests for first chapters and/or whole manuscripts. Authors Publish is a great source for these, along with Submittable’s ‘discovery’ feature, New Pages, and other outlets.
  2. Write from a place of passion, not market calculation. Had I known that pandemic fiction would be a nonstarter for many in the industry, would I have written the story? I shudder to think about it.
  3. Believe in your work and do not give up. You never know when a string of rejections will yield to acceptance. The past is not necessarily a predictor of the future. For interim validation, submit your manuscript to a professional developmental editor who will give you an honest and impartial assessment of the work’s strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t do that this time, but it’s a sound practice.

Getting published is usually a long, slow, emotionally taxing journey. You may improve your odds by exploring different avenues and byways of the trade. After all, any road may lead to success; you just have to start down the path.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series about how authors published their debut books. You can read the first here. If you want to participate, please send us an email with a pitch to submissions@authorspublish.com.

Bio: Amy L. Bernstein writes for the page, the stage, and forms in between. Her literary preoccupations include rooting for the underdog and putting ordinary people in difficult situations to see how they wriggle out. Her novels include The Potrero Complex (Regal House Publishing, Aug. 2022), The Nighthawkers (The Wild Rose Press, forthcoming), and Fran, The Second Time Around (Amazon, Audible, iTunes). Amy is an award-winning journalist and speechwriter as well as a playwright. https://linktr.ee/amylbernstein


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