With my first novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, scheduled for publication in May, I thought it might be interesting to review its path to publication.
In the summer of 2011, I was invited to a residency at VCCA France, a property owned by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the lovely village of Auvillar on the Garonne River. I had been working for a couple of years by then on a novel about an American Army veteran who returns from a posting in Seoul, Korea to his home in rural Virginia with a young Korean bride. The project was fun to write because it allowed me to revisit my own experiences of having worked in South Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer (minus the Korean bride). In fact, earlier that year I’d had the opportunity to return to Korea to visit my old haunts.
During the residency, I finished the book. Or, at least, I arrived at a point in the writing where I felt I could do no more and I was ready to look for an agent. When I came home in September that year, I began that process with a feeling of optimism and energy. It wasn’t the first time I’d queried agents—I had an agent for an earlier book who had since retired—and I knew the process. I did some research and targeted agents I thought would be a good match for the book, or agents with whom I had some previous connection. Off went the query emails.
To my delight, I didn’t have long to wait. I had several agents who expressed interest in seeing the manuscript, and ultimately four agents wanted to represent me and submit it to publishers. I was thrilled, but faced a decision—which one would be the best agent for me? I spoke to them all on the phone and ultimately signed with one of them. She promised to give me notes on the manuscript as soon as she could, after which she expected me to do a revision before she would submit it to publishers.
That sounded great to me, and while I waited for her notes I chugged along on a new project. Eventually, I got a long email from the agent with her comments on the book and we had a follow-up conversation about what she thought I needed to do with it. I didn’t disagree with these proposed changes, and dived right in. I cleared my calendar and went to work, anxious to produce a publishing-ready manuscript. I sent it back to the agent in about a month having made the changes I thought she wanted me to make.
A month later, in May 2012, the agent wrote back and told me I needed to find another agent. There was no explanation other than that she didn’t think I’d understood what she wanted me to do with the book and she felt I’d taken it in the wrong direction. After I got over being devastated by this news, I was angry about the agent’s unprofessionalism. She couldn’t do that in a phone call?
At that point, I was busy preparing for the publication of my book, What the Zhang Boys Know, due in the fall. I shelved the other book, not knowing what to do with it, and turned my attention to promoting the Zhang Boys. I was happy with the reception that book received—it won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction in 2013—and part of me hoped the agent knew that.
After the book was launched, I returned to the new manuscript and worked on another round of revisions, preparing to go back to the process of querying agents, which I finally did in the fall of 2013, more than a year after being dismissed by the agent. This time I was less optimistic because of what had happened, but still hopeful because of the success I’d had with Zhang Boys.
By the end of the year I had landed a new agent, we discussed changes he wanted me to make, and I completed revisions that I totally agreed with. In January of 2014, the book went out on submission to major publishing houses and I waited for lightning to strike. Digits were crossed.
The lightning never came. Over the next two years we got lots of very nice rejections and I was pleased with the effort my agent made on my behalf. But eventually an agent reaches the point where he knows the book just isn’t going to sell to the major houses, and we reached that point in mid-2016, two years after we started.
Meanwhile, I had finished another book. I could tell that my agent had some misgivings about the new manuscript. We discussed what the problems were and I tried to address them in a revision. But then we went out on submission with the second book, in hopes that maybe a two-book deal would be offered and we could resurrect the first novel. At the same time, though, I urged my agent to submit the first novel to some smaller presses and gave him a list of the presses I thought might be a good fit. He agreed to do that with a few where he knew editors, and gave me the green light to submit on my own to others.
That’s how the book, now known as The Shaman of Turtle Valley, came to the attention of Braddock Avenue Books. While other small presses expressed some interest, Braddock was the first to offer. Because I had met the editors there, I was pleased to sign a contract with them in the fall of 2017. I invited my agent to remain involved with the process, but I understood that it would be difficult for him to do that. Royalties from a small-press book are limited and his commission would be even smaller, so it wouldn’t be worth his time. We agreed to go our separate ways at that point. (Which meant that my second novel, then on submission to publishers, was orphaned, but it eventually landed at another small press. A story for another day.)
All last year, then, we spent on edits and planning. We chose March of 2019 as a publication date (later pushed to May 14, 2019). With the help of a reader, I identified some areas that I wanted to address in the manuscript and I completed a new draft by late summer. We then moved on to the publisher’s edits and then, in January, cover design. At this point, Advance Reading Copies are being sent to reviewers, the publicity machine is in motion, book launch events are being planned along with a modest tour, and one day soon I’ll hold the actual book in my hands.
The book is now available for discounted pre-orders from the publisher: The Shaman of Turtle Valley.
Your experience with agents and editors makes for high drama. Congrats on your successes. I enjoyed Zhang Boys and look fwd to reading The Shaman.
It seems there are different paths to publication but the main ingredient is tenacity. Your story is encouraging.
An interesting account of the vagaries of book publishing. Good luck with your launch.
Hi Cliff. Don’t know if you remember me, but you were once my tutor. I’m so looking forward to reading “The Shaman of Turtle Valley”. I have a grandson who is from Seoul, and I’m very interested in their culture, which I know very little off. And congrats on all your success!
Hi, Laretta! Nice to hear from you, and thanks for your kind words. Hope you enjoy the book! Cliff