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The Long and Winding Road to Publication (Part I)

book inc Peer Artist Leader Céline Keating shares the lessons she learned on the journey to publish her three novels.

By Céline Keating

August 10, 2023

My third novel, The Stark Beauty of Last Things, is about to be published. Yet my path to becoming a published author has been rife with errors, misjudgments, lack of confidence, and some extremely bad luck. Hopefully, sharing my story will help you avoid some of my mistakes and also highlight what has helped me succeed.

Although I began writing fiction as a child and made my career in publishing, it took me a long time to muster the courage to take my writing seriously. In my thirties, I went back to school for an MA in Creative Writing. I was shy about approaching agents for my Master’s thesis, a novel, and was grateful when a friend offered to ask her friend, who worked as an agent at a prestigious literary agency, to advise me. When instead he offered to represent me, I couldn’t believe my luck. In our discussion, he said that if he sent the book out to a few editors and there were no offers, it would influence his feelings about my book. Big red flag. I shouldn’t have been surprised when, a few months later, I came home to see my novel in a box on my doorstep (this was long before digital submissions) without so much as a note.

Eventually, I picked myself off the floor and found a new agent. But when she ran out of places to submit, I decided my book was clearly not commercially viable and to try my luck with small presses. I submitted to a few random listings in Poets & Writers and got an offer from Salt River Press. The publisher seemed a bit flakey, but I wasn’t alarmed. Then, just before my pub date, my publisher went incommunicado. It turned out she had run out of money and was floundering to try and keep the press afloat. It took concerted action on the part of the Writers’ Union for me and the other authors who were under contract to get our rights back. Here’s what I learned from my publishing experiences:

Lesson No. 1

Do exhaustive research into agents and small presses. Make sure any agent you sign with believes in your book and in your vision of the book. Make sure any small press you go with has a good track record and that you have coverage in your contract for getting your work back if something unforeseen happens.  

Needless to say, after this disappointment, I was too dispirited to try again. I decided the universe was telling me to give up. But I had poured my heart and soul into this novel. It didn’t occur to me to consider reworking it overall, but at least — one of my smarter decisions — I reworked some of the material into short stories that found a home with literary magazines.

Lesson No. 2

Get support with your writing projects, from professionals if you can afford it. Find a supportive community of writers to be part of. I can’t emphasize this enough–for the comradery, self-education, support, and networking, a writing community is a must.   

Having learned Lesson No. 2, I joined a workshop and I began a brand new novel. I did a better job of researching agents this time but then settled on one too quickly. He was smart and charming and said all the right things about my novel, Layla. He also was new to agenting, didn’t have much of a track record, and, I later learned, had serious psychological issues as well. Over the course of a year, he submitted the book and we got very close to success on two occasions. Under his direction, I rewrote the book for a YA audience because a YA editor wanted it. When that didn’t pan out I revised yet again, turning it back to an adult book and making it more topical. Once again the agent sent out the novel–or so I thought. A year later he confessed that my novel wasn’t being rejected by editors; the problem was he hadn’t sent the book out at all. All that time, while I was living with anxiety and expectancy, the book had been in his office and he had been in a treatment center. This snafu I put under Lesson No. 1 (Do the research!) as well as simple “bad luck.”

More bad luck was to come. Once again I decided against finding an agent and once again turned to Poets & Writer’s listings. This time I did the research: Plain View Press had been around for decades and had a good backlist. Again the editing and design and production went well. Again my book was to be published in a month when everything fell apart: the publisher died.

The press, like many small presses, was essentially a one-woman operation with just a couple of support staff. Miraculously one of these workers took over and pulled everything together. My novel Layla was published in 2011. By this point, I was more a part of the literary community and had an in with an excellent publicist who managed to secure several good reviews, including Huffington Post. The novel is still selling and has done really well for a small press publication. So far I’ve sold over 1,000 paperbacks and nearly 5,000 ebooks.  

In my journey up to this point, I did almost everything wrong except one thing: Nevertheless, I persisted.

Lesson No. 3

Don’t give up.

Stay tuned for Céline’s next Journal, “The Long and Winding Road to Publication (Part II)” where she’ll discuss the ups and downs and decisions that led to the publication of her second and third novels.

Céline Keating

Céline Keating is the author of three novels, Layla (2011), Play for Me (2015), and The Stark Beauty of Last Things (2023), and co-editor of On Montauk, A Literary Celebration.

Céline Keating is the author of three novels, Layla (2011), Play for Me (2015), and The Stark Beauty of Last Things (2023), and co-editor of On Montauk, A Literary Celebration.