Rejection is the rule for publishing. James Patterson was rejected by dozens of publishers, as was Rowling. We’ve all endured it to the point that some days it feels like a gauntlet authors are forced to run to prove we are worthy of being elevated into the lofty ranks of the published. But before you get to the Y and Z sections of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents for your next query targets, why not think about creative and unorthodox ways for those agents to find you?
Like the majority of authors out there, I struggled to get my debut novel—The Reincarnationist Papers—picked by an agent and a publisher. I queried through a year of rejections until I finally decided to self-publish the novel in 2009, but a chance reading of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad sparked an idea that changed everything. In the book, Kiyosaki relayed a conversation he had with an author who was interviewing him. She was struggling to break in and get published and she asked the bestselling author for his advice. Kiyosaki told her that what she needed to focus on wasn’t her art, but her marketing.
Could marketing really be the key? His statement that marketing was potentially more important than the art itself infuriated me as an artist. But I realized I was more than just an artist, I had a lot of collaborative software design experience that I could use to improve my chances of breaking in through self-publishing. I focused on putting my Silicon Valley experience of crowdsourcing to work and I eventually came up with the idea to enable my readers to be the agents that I had been looking for that previous year. Crowdsourcing works by defining a project and its goals and then opening up the project for others to contribute, think Linux or Wikipedia. Specifically, I empowered my readers to help me by placing a cash reward on the first page to anyone who could introduce the novel to a Hollywood producer who would adapt the novel into a movie. This reward of an agent’s commission for making an introduction that led to a movie deal effectively crowdsourced my early readers into an army of new agents. This unorthodox marketing idea of incenting readers to become agents with a cash reward sounded like a crazy idea, until it worked!
I received a few inquiries about the reward in the first year, but the breakthrough happened on Thanksgiving Day, 2010, when Rafi Crohn, an assistant to a Hollywood director, found a copy of The Reincarnationist Papers in a hostel in Nepal. Rafi picked up the book and loved it and he contacted me about the reward offer. When he returned to Los Angeles, Rafi set about getting the novel adapted into a motion picture. It took him a total of seven years with stops at several studios, including Bellevue Productions who sold the adapted screenplay, INFINITE, to Paramount Pictures in 2017.
The plan had worked. Each book had become a marketing tool in the hands of readers, and it only took one reader who stumbled upon the book half a world away to start a chain of events that broke me through. When the first articles about the INFINITE movie, based on The Reincarnationist Papers appeared, the first agent contacted me, which led to a print, eBook, and audiobook deal with my publisher.
I love Andy Weir’s quote on how new technologies [in self-publishing] are turning publishing from an exclusive old boy network into a true meritocracy through direct access to readers, “There is nothing preventing you from succeeding in publishing anymore.” (See his 2015 TedX talk.)
But you have to be creative and imaginative and use any means necessary to leverage these wonderful new avenues to reach readers. I used an agent’s reward and crowdsourcing to empower my readers to help me get a movie deal. Andy Weir published chapters of The Martian for free on his website until he got attention from an audiobook publisher and then Random House. E.L. James started out with fan fiction and then self-publishing on her way to 100 million copies sold. Grisham famously sold copies of his first novel out of the trunk of his car. Magic can happen when you get your book in front of the people who matter most to the publishing industry—the readers.