The Long and Winding Road

One of the things we often discuss on this blog is the long and often circuitous route to publication. From when you first decide, “I think I’ll write a book!” to the time you have a publishing contract, years can elapse. I had a startling reminder of this a few months ago when I was reading my daily Publishers Marketplace “Today’s Deals.” One of my friends, Ms. Agent, had sold a project by an author whose name was very familiar to me. I’ll call her Ms. Writer.

I thought back to my days as an in-house editor. We’d seen a non-fiction proposal from Ms. Writer and thought it was a bit raw, yet had terrific potential. Our editorial team decided to take a risk on her.

A few months later, Ms. Writer delivered her manuscript. I was the editor on the project, and unfortunately my first impression upon reading it was, “Uh-oh.” I tried working with it, but the work that needed to be done to make it publishable was too much for me with my full load of authors, so I ended up passing the project to a freelance editor. Eventually the editor came back to me with the distressing news: she felt the manuscript was simply too far from being “ready for prime time” and Ms. Writer wasn’t yet a skilled enough writer to accomplish the changes the book needed. Bottom line: we had to cancel the book. We were contractually allowed to do this; Ms. Writer had failed to deliver an “acceptable” manuscript. We had also gone above the call of duty in trying to salvage it.

Heartbreak all around; we didn’t like the situation and neither did the author. But Ms. Writer decided it was for the best. She was going to devote herself to learning the craft of writing as well as continuing to build her platform. We wished her well and sent her on her way.

Four years later: I’d just started agenting, and lo and behold, I got an email from Ms. Writer, who was shopping for an agent. She’d come a long way in four years, and was now ready for publication. Her platform was incredible; her writing had improved by leaps and bounds. She was also speaking with other agents, and eventually she ended up going with my friend mentioned above, Ms. Agent.

Ten months after that, Ms. Agent sold Ms. Writer’s book to a major publishing company. So, as far as I can tell, at least six years had passed between her first submission of a proposal to a publisher, and her getting this book deal.

Everything in its time, right?

Don’t underestimate the importance of having all the pieces in place. Your writing skill, your platform, and all the undefinable things in your life that spell your personal readiness (or lack thereof).

I want to encourage you… if it’s taking longer that you’d hoped, that’s normal. Take stock, be honest in your self-assessment, and keep moving forward.

Q4U: Do you have a story that involves publishing and timing? Tell us.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Marybeth on March 24, 2009 at 2:16 PM

    >I just had a devotion run on Proverbs 31 Ministries today that touched on this exact subject… the perfect timing and not giving up!

    Check it out at

  2. Marybeth on March 12, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    >I have to admit Rachelle that I am TERRIFIED of this writing world. And a bit overwhelmed by this post. I am a first time writer (Unless you count stories I wrote in grade school and the journaling I’ve done since.) I just finished my first novel in just under 6 months and although I feel it is near completion I suppose I should reconsider that decision.

    My question is…although I am prepared for a 25 year wait between now and the moment it gets published, does it happen sooner for some. Can I have any hope? Or am I in desperate need of snapping back to reality.

    Ah the joys of being young and naive!

  3. C.J. Darlington on March 12, 2009 at 8:16 AM

    >I was fifteen when I started the story that would become my first contracted novel, Thicker Than Blood (coming soon from Tyndale). I finally finished it when I was 23 or 24 (after many, many drafts) and submitted it to the very first Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest in 2004. Back then they were offering a $50,000 prize, so needless to say that was a great motivator! I placed as one of 20 semi-finalists that year but didn’t make it as a finalist. So I began the process of submitting to editors—and I received rejection after rejection. Originally I didn’t do simultaneous submissions, so many times I’d wait months before I received the “no” response and then had to start all over again. Some editors were gracious enough to give me feedback, and over the next four years I tweaked and revised. My original manuscript was only 68K, quite short for the market. I eventually added 10K.

    Through all of this I began to wonder if Thicker Than Blood was good enough to be published. I wrote a second novel and started a third. I was days away from giving up on it. Truly. It almost went in a drawer. But God always has a way of getting our attention. I was lying in bed and the thought hit me (I know now it had to have been from the Lord), “Wait a minute. I have a complete novel that’s better than before. Why don’t I submit it to the Christian Writers Guild contest again?” That was in September of 2008. In February I found out Thicker Than Blood won the contest, which includes a publishing contract from Tyndale.

    So… it took almost fifteen years for me to become published.

  4. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary on March 10, 2009 at 9:15 PM

    >After I got a contract with a great agent last summer, I was dead-set on having a finished first draft of my memoir to him by the first of this month.

    Just after I set that deadline I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant. The fatigue of pregnancy completely derailed my writing schedule, then the new baby (who arrived last week) means that I’ll have to take at least a few weeks off from writing. Long story short, I’ll be lucky to have the first draft done by end of summer.

    As I recently wrote about here, I’ve learned a lot about trust throughout all my derailed deadlines. At first I was exasperated, but I eventually realized that if it were truly God’s will that this book get published then I have nothing to worry about — it will happen in God’s time. And, actually, with the market being what it is, I’m starting to see that perhaps this delay will end up being a good thing for me.

    Anyway, thanks for another great post!

  5. Kim Kasch on March 10, 2009 at 8:37 PM

    >This isn’t my story but it’s an article about Two Agents I thought people might be interested in:
    ”Galley Cat Article”

  6. Jim Rubart on March 10, 2009 at 6:45 PM

    >In late fall of ’06 an editor at B&H said they were so impressed with my novel they wished a known author had written it. In other words, since B&H Fiction had just launched, they needed name writers; tough taking a chance on a newbie at that point. The timing for ROOMS was wrong.

    Fast forward a little over a year to Feb ‘08. B&H Fiction is rolling and The Shack has taken over the world. (My novel has some definite similarities with The Shack.) A key member of the pub board at B&H said they liked ROOMS more, so it’s easy to assume the timing of The Shack’s success contributed to getting a contract for ROOMS.

    (No, I don't think being compared to The Shack will hurt my sales.) 🙂

  7. Sharon A. Lavy on March 10, 2009 at 6:43 PM

    >I started my first novel with Writers Digest Correspondence Course in 1998. I kept retaking the course until the novel was finished. The recommended word count 60,000 words.

    Thinking it surely needed some polish I asked the instructor if I should start the class over and go through the novel again.

    “Oh, no,” she said. “Send it out.”

    I had more sense than to believe that. So I read books about writing. Self Editing, Sol Stein, etc. (I own over 100 writing books) Then hired a freelance editor.

    Took two WOW online courses for two straight years sending the novel through. etc. etc. (four classes)

    Two years ago I joined ACFW. Best thing I ever did. And the publishers at the conference said the manuscript was not long enough.

    My manuscript is now 97,000 words. I am happy with the structure. I am through editing until a publisher asks. I truly have been editing and re-editing that at first my husband did not believe me when I told him in February 2009 it was done. (I was a tad worried myself that I might be editing because I was afraid to let go of it.)

    Of course in the meantime I started a second manuscript and sent it through 4 WOW online workshops.

    I am finishing up the rough draft of the second manuscript I hope this week.

    The 3rd and 4th stories are a shadow flittering in my mind. And while I wait for an agent and a publisher I will keep working and keep writing.

  8. Litgirl01 on March 10, 2009 at 5:35 PM

    >Very inspirational post! 😉

  9. Jessica on March 10, 2009 at 5:12 PM

    Don’t be a party pooper. Let me rest in the belief that it takes a long time. I really need it…


  10. lynnrush on March 10, 2009 at 1:30 PM

    >Oh, great story!!!!! I love stories like this. Yeah, six years seems long, but hey, all in good time. Awesome. I don’t have a story to share, but I’m enjoying reading those posted thus far.

    Great post.

  11. Timothy Fish on March 10, 2009 at 12:16 PM

    >Concerning Amethyst’s question, I think what we have here is this Scotty affect. When Captain Kirk asks how long it’s going to take to fix the shield generator, he says it’ll take four hours, making Kirk believe he must be the most overworked person on the ship. But an hour later, when the shields are down and the Klingons within range, he somehow manages to bring up the shields and save the ship, making him a miracle worker.

    Author’s love to talk about how they’ve suffered for their art. “It took me ten years to write my first novel and I had to do it while sitting in an igloo with nothing to write with but a quill from a penguin.” But when the deadline approaches, the author suddenly gains the ability to crank out a book in three weeks. “It’s a miracle!” You can be sure that the author did very little actual writing during that first ten years.

  12. Amethyst Greye Alexander on March 10, 2009 at 11:50 AM

    >Yes, ma’am. Thank you.


  13. Rachelle on March 10, 2009 at 11:37 AM

    >Nemil, Find my posts of Feb. 20 and 22, 2008. (Over a year ago.) They answer your questions pretty well.

  14. Nemil on March 10, 2009 at 11:30 AM

    >Hi Ms. Gardner,

    Ready for a stupid question?

    You mentioned something about Ms. Writer’s platform, and I was wondering, do we need to worry about a platform or a reputation if we’re working on fiction? I understand needing a following for non-fiction, but I’m just not sure on this one. I’m a just-starting-out (as in, the last year) writer and am trying to learn everything I can about this business. Thanks!

    Oh, and double thanks for your blog, it’s taught me a ton 🙂

  15. Dara on March 10, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    >I don’t have a story about publishing timing, but I have been working on my current book for about four years (that’s counting the time the initial germ of an idea sprouted in my psyche to now with an almost complete first draft). Two of those I was in college, so I couldn’t devote the time to it that I wanted.

    It should’ve been done by now, but I know that’s due to my own procrastination. I’m guessing I have another year before I can start querying. I fully expect to have been working on this book a good eight to ten years if it’s ever reaches publication. 🙂

  16. Rachelle on March 10, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    I’ve addressed this a few times. See my post, Writing on Deadline.

    Also, last week, the comments on the post “Prepare Yourself for Success” had some helpful points from authors. Deborah Vogts and Karen Witemeyer are two of my clients, first time authors who now have 3-book contracts. They both left helpful comments on that post.

    Bottom line, that second book is usually far more difficult to write than the first, because now there’s a deadline involved.

    Hope that helps!

  17. T. Anne on March 10, 2009 at 9:32 AM

    >About eleven years ago I began to take my writing seriously. After a few barely there attempts I was able to land not one but two agents willing to take on my novel. I chose the wrong agent. Not only is she now listed as a predator on P&E, she was sued for stealing from her clients. Our relationship didn't go far, she didn't return phone calls or emails. Since she was too busy with the clients suing her, she dumped me after a short time.

    What began as something almost effortless, it quickly became the toughest road. I never stopped writing, however I didn't resume querying again until last year. I stepped away from the business end, but kept plugging away at my dream the only way I knew how. What does the future hold? Only He knows. I do believe, everything in its time.

    Thanks for your post Rachelle.

  18. Lady Glamis on March 10, 2009 at 9:03 AM

    >Thank you for a great story! I don’t have my own success story to tell at the moment. I feel I’ve barely begun down that winding road. I look forward to the trip now! Thanks, Rachelle. 🙂

  19. Amethyst on March 10, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >Ms. Gardner,

    Out of genuine curiosity about the process, I have a question.

    Often unpublished writers hear of debut authors signed to three-book deals who might tell of the long process they went through with the initial novel–years, like you mention. I imagine most publishers don’t want too many years to pass between books one and two, so what has this author done? Grown as a writer during the first book, so much show he or she can (comparatively) whip through the next two? Or is that second book benefitting so from already having the pub. editor’s eye, from inception? A combination? Does the reader reception have much to do with it (i.e., “We liked it when you wrote your book that way; do it again’, or “We didn’t like that; try it this way.”)

    This is in no way a rant, promise. I just wish I knew what to expect when/if I ever get to that point.

    Thank you,

  20. Jessica on March 10, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >What a cool story for Ms. Writer!
    I think one of the most helpful things about reading blogs and author websites is that I came into this knowing it takes a long time. When I get a rejection, it doesn’t usually depress me because I know I’m a newbie and that, considering the averages, I still have some years to go before I’m pubbed. So I’m excited to be on this winding road, enjoying the splash of flowers and the smell of spring in the air. It’s not my summer yet, but I’ve no doubt that summer will come, and when it does, I’ll be ready!
    Thanks for the reminder Rachelle! It’s important for writers to know the time frame of publishing.

  21. LJ on March 10, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >My story in numbers:

    First ten years: wrote 3.5 novels (I stopped counting the rejections). Learned to my surprise that I wasn’t the next C. S. Lewis.
    Next seven years: worked on picture books. Learned that the picture book is like a poem– anyone can write one, few can do it well.
    Next nine years: published seven picture books, illustrated one. Learned that few get rich in this business. Worked on novel number five.
    Next three years: published three novels, with more to come. Unbelieveably.

    By my count, that’s seventeen years learning the craft; ten more years of moderate success; two years when I was actually making a living at the business.

    Someday, someone is going to call me an overnight success! (And I am going to need the Heimlich manuever performed on me, fast.)

  22. Jen and Kev on March 10, 2009 at 8:42 AM

    >Oh, dear. If you are impatient, you will probably not want to hear my long and winding story!

    I started writing and publishing poems and articles when my children were babies, nearly thirty years ago. I was offered a job as an editor of a regional newsletter for an international organization, but I declined, wanting to be a full-time Mommy.

    When my kids were teenagers, I began writing devos for a local church’s monthly magazine, and attended my first writers’ conference. I had one article in a children’s magazine and several greeting card verses
    published at that time.

    In the last eight years, I have developed my platform by speaking to church and civic groups and publishing a bi-weekly devo/humor column in my local newspaper. I’ve also had several other articles published, two in secular magazines.

    I am now working on two books, one a compilation of my columns, the other a humorous recounting of my thirty-four years as a reluctant preacher’s wife.

    Yet, I still consider myself a newbie in the writing world!
    I am always reading, forever revising, constantly praying to improve my craft.

    If my books are published, yippee for God and me! If not, I will write anyway, because that’s what writers do.

  23. GentleLavender on March 10, 2009 at 6:01 AM

    >It is incredible to read your experiences as I can easily relate to it. Even after years of writing, I still can’t believe I am ready to take the plunge.


  24. CJ Raymer on March 10, 2009 at 5:41 AM

    >I began my first novel 6 yrs. ago. It took me two years to complete it (at least that’s what I had thought). I was pink-baby-bottom new, and was researching everything I could on the industry. But, being the only writer that I knew, it was a daunting task. (How do you know what to look for when you don’t know what to look for?) Anyhoo, I found a Christian publisher who was so excited about my work. They offered me a contract and I cried with joy! This was my first attempt at writing a novel, mind you!

    Then, as I progressed in the knowledge of this industry, and continued paying my monthly “author investment” (yes) I began to realize something… they (the publisher) weren’t giving me any input. Everything was great as far as they were concerned. But, I knew it wasn’t. From what I was reading and learning about novel writing, I still had a bit to learn, and a lot of areas to grow and develop in. I was concerned that they (the publisher) were willing to put my work out there, before it was the best it could be. And, that would mean my name and reputation as an author. (I also had learned a thing or two about “author investments.”)

    So, as heart-breaking as it was coming to the realization that I partnered with something along the lines as a vanity-press, I parted ways with said publisher. That was 3 yrs. ago, and have revised, over and over. I’ve since been learning a lot about the submission process, agents, publishing, and gleaning much from author and writer friends that I have met along the way.

    Yes, it is an arduous process. But, it will be worth it all when it is the best of who we are, as writers, that shines forth.

  25. Leigh Lyons on March 10, 2009 at 3:12 AM

    >I was the last entry for a short story contest. It was an 11th hour kind of deal. And I actually won the contest. The editor of the paper said that she probably would have passed on it if it had been earlier because she got so many submissions, one or two could easily be missed. I was glad I took the time to get the story just right and the main character is the one in my current fiction series.