The Road to a Book, Part Two

Meet Beth Kaplan, a member of the CNCF Board and Conference/Programming committee . A graduate of UBC’s MFA program, Beth teaches memoir and personal essay writing at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, where in 2012 she was awarded an Excellence in Teaching award. Recently Beth shared with us a three-part series of essays focused on the writing and publishing of her new memoir, which was released September 9, 2020. We’re certain our members will empathize with her trials and learn from her experiences.

So in September 2017, though I was still working with editors and rewriting, the search for a publisher — or first, an agent, to make the search easier — began.  After a big agency instantly turned me down, I contacted three acquaintances who are agents. One was retiring, another was only handling racialized and Indigenous writers, and the last said “with regret” that my platform was not big enough for her to consider me. A friend who’s an editor at a mid-sized publishing firm and to whom I sent a book proposal wrote that because she’d known me in Vancouver, she was “too close to the story to be able to work on it.”

My warning bells sounded. If this is what my friends are saying, what will strangers in the business say?

I retreated and spent 2018 with a new editor, doing more rewrites. I was also soliciting blurbs, including one from a major figure mentioned in the book who lived in France and who requested that I send a hard copy, which cost a lot in printing and postage. Just after receiving it, he died.

At the end of 2018, feeling as if I’d been pregnant for far too long, it was time to start pushing again.

I tried avoiding the slush piles and taking an easier route by pulling strings. I’d met a top editor of a big firm at a dinner party; when she found out I was a creative writing teacher, she offered to read queries from my students. In December 2018, wondering if I was being too forward, I wrote to her to say, thanks for your offer, I’ll gladly send student material, but in the meantime would she care to see my own manuscript? Her reply was immediate. “What a wonderful surprise to find this note in my in-box. It was a pleasure to meet you, too – and yes, I’d be delighted to take a look at your memoir.”

I could hardly believe such kindness and good fortune, this closed door opening wide, and, heart pounding, praying publication would be just around the corner, sent it off. After two months of checking my email many times a day, I wrote again to ask, politely, if she’d received the manuscript. No reply. I never heard from her again.

On the street, I ran into a publisher I’d met once. The year before I’d sent a query with sample chapters to his slush pile, heard nothing, given up. “Hey, I read some of your manuscript,” he said. “My submissions editor didn’t like it but I did. Send me the rest.”

Heart pounding, I did. That was the last I heard from him.

I met another important editor at a writing conference. “Good to hear from you,” he wrote in response to my query. “Your memoir sounds interesting and I would be happy to review it.”

This nice man did reply two months later. He said the book was “a well-crafted memoir. You do write very well and this struck me as an enjoyable and readable draft. My problem is that I doubt whether I could help you make a success of it in this demanding book market, given the memoir’s beautiful but gentle import – and your modest profile.  This is not about the worth of your memoir, but more the sales mandate I have to reach with every title.”

He suggested small presses. I, with my modest profile, was briefly embarrassed to have dared send something beautiful but oh so gentle to a major figure at a big press.

Stabbed with insecurity, wondering if I was fooling myself about the worth of this work, I asked a few more people to read the most recent draft of the manuscript. “Compulsive reading with some very funny moments. Highly readable, entertaining, very moving,” said a writer I barely knew. “Clever, funny, engaging, moving,” said a university professor. “The writing is a joy, full of insight and humour,” said a screenwriter. But “beautiful but gentle” was the opinion that counted.

I clung to my sense that the story had something important to say about the courage to change, about opening the heart, about how, no matter what we look like, we humans all have the same needs and wants. Also about life in the seventies: the charged advent of feminism, cocaine, the pros and cons of our new sexual liberation. Not to mention France and my ecstatic love of cheese. Surely this story would matter to someone.

So I rallied my tattered bits of confidence, made lists of the smaller presses in Canada and started to hit the slush piles. The submission process is a job in itself; some publishing houses want a full book proposal, some a hard copy of the manuscript, some both hard and digital copies, plus of course an author bio, a precis, sometimes chapter by chapter, and, often, a marketing proposal. That grated most of all, the marketing proposal. It’s not enough that you wrote the book, you also have to figure out for the publisher how to sell it. You need for example to come up with ‘comps’ — comparison titles of books in your genre that have been successful (but not too successful) to indicate your niche. My niche was ‘memoirs about a lifechanging journey, being an actress, working with people with disabilities, and France.’ I couldn’t find many comps.

By mid-summer 2019, still reworking and rewriting, I had sent the printed manuscript and/or a digital version, plus the long list of requirements, to over a dozen small presses and a well-regarded self-publishing firm and begun the long wait. Five eventually turned me down. The rest didn’t reply.

What was most disheartening during the two and a half years I went through the submission process — and the double meaning of the word ‘submission’ is relevant here — was that most presses didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the manuscript and/or proposal, let alone give me an answer.

I know that publishing is a difficult business, particularly now. I know they are understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, and that it’s almost impossible to land on a slush pile and be discovered. But I do think that after all the work that goes into sending a proposal — not to mention writing the #@ book! — the least a writer could expect is a note saying, Thanks, we received your submission and we’ll do our best to get back to you before you die.


To be continued …