The following piece is a guest post written by published author Faye Rapoport DesPres at the behest of her publisher, Huntsville Independent Press.
This morning I completed a Peloton workout on my father’s old treadmill. The workout involved running and walking, and after it was over I decided to do a little more. I started a 10-minute add-on, thinking a short add-on workout would be easy.
Fat chance. After I hit the “start” button, the instructor cheerfully announced that today we’d be doing 10 minutes of hill sprints.
Now, friends, I’m not a natural runner. I stand at five foot one. I wasn’t gifted with the legs of a gazelle or endless lung capacity. I run (and walk) because it helps me achieve my goal to stay fit and healthy. And when it comes to Peloton, I’ve made a deal with myself: once a workout begins, I can’t opt out — even if it’s more than what I bargained for.
So, I took a deep breath and did the darn hill sprints.
You might ask: what do hill sprints have to do with writing or publishing? For me, writing is like fitness. I have to put in the work, day in and day out — strap on those running shoes and turn on the treadmill even on the days when I don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes I do stop for a while, but I always have to get back to it sooner rather than later or else I’ll lose my edge. I have to read, write, revise, read more, write more, and revise more until I reach my goal — getting published.
But this begs the question: should getting published even BE a writer’s goal? Does publication equal that elusive thing many of us seek: “success?”
When I first began to focus on creative writing, I was coming off a career as a journalist and public relations writer. I’d written stories and poems as a child and studied literature in college. I pursued poetry at one point and even published a couple of poems. But I’d left creative writing behind when the pressures to earn a living and just life got in the way.
Then, one day, I had a panic attack. I thought I was having a heart attack, and in those terrifying moments, a thought pushed through the clutter in my mind: “I never published my book.”
That moment led me to pursue my childhood dream. At first, I didn’t know what it truly meant to publish a book. I wasn’t even sure what genre to pursue. I had always envisioned writing a novel, but the only creative work I’d done in years was “real-life” writing — personal essays, I’d soon learn such pieces were called. Writing about real life felt natural to me. I’d kept diaries all my life and had the journalism background. I selected a few essays, applied to an MFA program, and was accepted and funneled into creative nonfiction.
For two years I attended the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Newton, Massachusetts (the program is now affiliated with Lasell University). I entered the program completely naïve about the writing life; in many ways, I was starting from scratch. I had to unlearn the journalistic style I was used to and find ways to tap back into my more creative self. I had to re-learn everything from paragraph length habits to the use of vivid verbs. I read a lot, wrote a lot, worked part-time, and sat through classes taught by accomplished writers. I also sat through hours of workshops in which students read and critiqued each others’ work. The learning process wasn’t easy. Sometimes workshop comments could be pointed and feel brutal, and I left the room feeling as if I’d been kicked in the gut. There were days when the last thing I felt like doing was attending another class, sitting in on another workshop, or writing the fifth or sixth or twentieth draft of the same essay.
But I took a deep breath and I re-wrote the darn essay.
When you study martial arts, a sensei might tell you that black belt isn’t the goal — it’s just the beginning. The same proved to be true when it came to earning my MFA. Graduation was just the beginning. The work of being a writer — writing, submitting, facing rejection, repeat —had just begun.
For most writers, the writing life isn’t easy. The path differs for each writer. Poets, essayists, and short fiction writers might spend years submitting their work to literary journals. Novelists might spend those same years seeking an agent or publisher for one or more manuscripts. Some writers will publish more quickly and easily than others. A few might see success with major publishing houses. Others will stop writing before they ever publish or will feel satisfied with writing for their own enjoyment or to share their work with friends. Some will self-publish to maintain control over their journey.
Most writers who persist in submitting their work will face significant rejection as they pursue their dream of traditional publishing.
I did. It took me almost two years of enduring gut-punching rejections before I published my first personal essay in a literary journal. I revised my drafts, sought readers who I hoped could help me make them better, and tried new approaches or new work. Along the way, I learned that I had to find my own voice and not listen to every critique, while remaining open to advice that did resonate.
Even when I started to get more pieces published, the rejections always outnumbered the acceptances.
My first book, Message From a Blue Jay, is a collection of personal essays. Most are revised versions of the essays in the creative manuscript I completed to earn my MFA, revised and revised again before being published in literary journals and finally ordered into a manuscript. I had a friend who was an accomplished writer and sometime agent, and we came up with a unique arrangement — I paid her for her time instead of asking her to wait for the book to be published to take a percentage of the royalties. She did submit the manuscript to two small presses who accepted it, but the book was eventually published — believe it or not — by an independent press I connected with on Twitter.
I learned throughout the process of publishing my first book that writers must be persistent and creative with more than just their writing. They can apply the same principles to getting their work published. Finding an agent or being chosen to get published by a major press might have as much to do with a writer’s publishing history and platform, the marketability of their work, and the preferences of a particular agent or publisher as the quality of the manuscript. Writers whose work might not fit the mold many agents or publishers are seeking to fill sometimes have to think outside the box.
Before Message From a Blue Jay, I dreamed like many writers do of seeing one of the big publishing house’s names next to my work. But my journey led me instead to a small independent press. The owner of Buddhapuss Ink is an industry veteran who had founded her own press and was publishing award-winning fiction. She took on my book with a hands-on approach, though she also had staff to assist. She was passionate about my manuscript and its possibilities. As the publication date approached, I received bookmarks, business cards, and mailing stickers themed around the book. I arranged a book launch party at a local bookstore, and the publisher arranged for a cake to be delivered that was adorned with the book’s cover.
My dream had come true. It just looked a little different than I originally thought it would.
Message From a Blue Jay wasn’t a best-seller by any stretch, but the book found its way into the hands of many readers. Some wrote to tell me that the book — which chronicled some difficult times in my life — had helped them through their own difficult time. My words made them feel less alone. They related to what I’d been through, even if their journeys had been different. They thanked me for saying what they had never been able to say.
Those emails changed my life — and they also changed my definition of “success” as a writer. Sales and dollar signs weren’t the point, I realized. Touching the lives of readers meant so much more.
For publishers, however, sales ARE the point. Publishing houses, large or small, are businesses (or non-profits). They have to earn enough dollars to stay afloat. They might be in the business because of the owner’s passion for books and literature, but they need to sell books. A lot of books.
After quite a few years of publishing wonderful books, Buddhapuss Ink closed up shop. My next three books, the children’s books in the Stray Cat Stories series, were published under a hybrid model by an imprint run by the same person: Writer’s Coffee Bar Press. I didn’t want to self-publish because I felt I needed the validation and skills provided by a professional publisher. Under the hybrid publishing model, I contributed financially to the books’ publication and retained not only all the royalties but a certain amount of control. I was able to choose my own illustrator, Laurel McKinstry Petersen, whom I’d known and wanted to work with since high school. And I was able to donate a portion of the books’ proceeds to non-profit animal rescue organizations (which I still do).
The third and final book in the Stray Cat Stories trilogy was published 11 years after I earned my MFA and 13 years after I started that program. I mention that to get back to my treadmill metaphor. It took years of work, failure, persistence, and more work to become the published writer I am today.
So who exactly am I as a writer today? With four books under my belt, one traditionally published and three published under a hybrid model, I have two books coming out in 2023. I am a contributor to, and co-editor of, The Art of Touch: A Collection of Prose and Poetry from the Pandemic and Beyond (University of Georgia Press). My co-editor is none other than Joan Schweighardt, the agent for my first book. This book includes the work of 39 amazing writers.
But I also had my own project hovering in the background — a collection of one hundred 100-word stories. I’d been working on that project for almost a year. Bit by bit. Step by step. Strap on the shoes every morning. One story. Then another. Then another. Every single morning until the project was done.
I had submitted my manuscript to several agents and publishers when I once again found myself glancing at Twitter. There it was, a tweet from a publisher I’d never heard of: Hunstville Independent Press. I was intrigued by the tweet’s declaration that this new, relatively small press was the only traditional publisher in northern Alabama. I wanted to work with a traditional publisher for this project, and I liked what the senior editor, Joshua Adams, was saying in his tweets. I checked out the press’ website. Impressed by what I saw, I submitted my manuscript.
And here we are, with me guesting on the press’ blog as they prepare to publish my next book.
The senior editor of HIP, Joshua Adams, is something special. His drive, his ambition for his independent press, and his belief in the importance of bringing stories to the world are inspiring. He is dedicated to publishing carefully selected manuscripts the traditional way — without charging authors a dime — but he also wants to break new ground. He is overflowing with ideas about publication, marketing, and distribution. In a publishing world that can feel harsh and discouraging, Joshua wants his authors to experience simple joy.
After my long, winding, pothole-filled road as a creative writer, after the years of effort and failure and publication and rejection, I know this new book — Soul to Soul: Tiny Stories of Hope and Resilience — has found the home where it belongs. Some writers don’t consider themselves a success unless they’re published by larger, more prestigious publishers (though I have no doubt Joshua’s press will become those things). That’s not the case for me. Working with Joshua has been a pleasure from day one. He believes in my work more than I believe in it myself. He has big dreams for his press, for my book, and for me. He is as professional as they come, yet as warm and enthusiastic as an editor can be. I feel lucky and privileged to know that my next “baby” will be published by HIP, and that my work is also helping Joshua’s own dream come true.
So, have I found “success?” Today, I couldn’t feel more proud or successful. Huntsville Independent Press is a fantastic place to be. I’m excited about my new book, which will launch in fall, 2023.
But I’ve also finally realized that publication doesn’t define me. Publishing comes and goes. Books are loved by some and not liked by others. They sell, burn bright, and then often fade. If we’re lucky they endure and touch hearts — and minds — along the way. In the end, what truly defines me is who I am and what I do.
And what I will do is wake up tomorrow — no matter what I do or don’t accomplish today — and get back on that treadmill.
That, to me, is success.
Faye Rapoport DesPres
Represented by HIP
ABOUT HUNTSVILLE INDEPENDENT PRESS
Huntsville Independent Press is the premiere publishing imprint of the Southeast United States, and we want to help you, the author. HIP provides, at no cost to our signed authors, a better solution for the publication of your story. Our contracts are non-restrictive and offer higher royalties for our authors. No HIP advance is taken out of royalties. Your advance from us is a one-time payment for the privilege to publish your book and is not a loan. Our passionate team of editors work diligently to ensure that the uniqueness of your story is preserved through the editing process. While you’re here, feel free to look around to see if Huntsville Independent Press is the right home for your work. We are always happy to have talented authors find a publishing home here with us.