What do Dr. Seuss, Louisa May Alcott, J.K. Rowling, and Margaret Mitchell have in common, other than having written some of the world’s most famous literary works?
It seems unimaginable now, but their manuscripts were rejected by publishing houses multiple times (Dr. Seuss’s first book, 27; Gone With The Wind, 38). Imagine a world without Rhett Butler, Harry Potter, the Cat in the Hat, or Jo March. I’d prefer not to. But Rejection is a writer’s middle name, and I am no exception.
As I get ready for next week’s launch of my first self-published book, Odyssey of Love: A Memoir of Seeking and Finding, I can attest to the long, often frustrating haul to the printing press. Rather than dwell on the general issue of rejection, I’m going to present an example of how it stopped me in my author’s tracks by squashing my enthusiasm (I call this “getting Grinched”), only to motivate me toward the finish line later.
Four years ago, I attended the York Festival of Writing as a way to connect with other writers from around the world and workshop the opening of my manuscript. Since I lived in remote Finland, England was the closest opportunity for writers this side of the Atlantic. I was SO excited! Not only is York a gorgeous town that I’d visited years earlier, but I had paid extra for a one-on-one meeting with a literary agent whose specialty was memoir. Although I didn’t expect her to sign me up as a client, my understanding from Festival organizers was that she would provide helpful feedback on the first ten pages of my book.
While there were positive aspects to the Festival, they were overwhelmingly overshadowed by my interaction with the agent (“Jan”) I’d so looked forward to meeting. As she introduced herself before our 15-minute interview, I noted she had scribbled “EPL?” on my cover letter. I had no idea what that meant; she quickly put the mystery to rest.
“It seems you’ve written another Eat Pray Love,” she said, wincing as she uttered the other book’s title. At once I understood what EPL meant. “Publishing houses are just flooded with travel memoir submissions right now.”
“But Eat Pray Love was a huge international bestseller, wasn’t it?” I said, confused. “That’s a good thing … right?”
“Yes, but that book had a very strong hook.” She clasped her hands together atop my manuscript and nodded in my direction. “Tell me about yours.”
My heart sank. If Jan had bothered to read the pages I’d sent, she would not have had to ask. The hook is in the first chapter: a 41-year-old woman leaves her boyfriend in Boston and moves overseas in search of a “tall man with glasses” and the “Russian icon” that a fortune teller has predicted will bring them together. I opened to that page on my manuscript and read the related passage to her.
“Look, Linda, it’s already been done,” she said, waving a dismissive hand.
“My book may also feature travel, romance, and spirituality, but it’s written from a different perspective than EPL.”
“Perhaps. But our authors have huge platforms.” Her eyes quickly scanned my cover letter in search of a magical number. “How large is your platform, Linda?”
At this point, I wanted to bolt from the interview. If I’d had a large platform, I certainly would have mentioned that in my letter. I explained that as an unpublished writer, my platform (mostly friends, relatives, and social media followers) was still growing.
Jan glanced at her watch, indicating our session had come to a halt. As I struggled to maintain my composure while packing up my briefcase, she offered some final advice: “I think your memoir would make a good vanity project. You know … something you publish just for interested friends and family.” Ouch.
I walked away quickly, lest Jan saw my tear-stained face. How dare she! If she wasn’t taken with the premise of my book, or even if she’d read the opening pages and didn’t like my writing style, Festival agents were supposed to offer “constructive feedback.” Instead, I felt deflated, as if she’d “Grinched” my writer’s spirit.
When I returned to Finland, I shoved my manuscript pages into a drawer that stayed shut for almost one year. I’m sure many other writers would have handled this resounding rejection differently and continued pushing forward, but my solution was to switch gears and focus on my musical endeavors, which always brought me joy.
As months went by and well-intentioned friends asked about the status of my memoir or when they would be able to buy a copy, I started to rethink the conversation in York. After all, before meeting Jan, Odyssey had received strong feedback from others in the publishing industry, as well as professional editors. Jan’s was only one opinion; why focus on the most negative one?
During this time, I came across a handwritten note my mother had scribbled to me before her dementia diagnosis years earlier: “I very much appreciate your taking care, however, I want you to continue with ‘The Finnish Line’” (Odyssey’s original title). I stared at the note for a long time and misted up, remembering Mom’s fondest wish that I publish my memoir. Seeing her words of encouragement again buoyed me, and soon after, I decided to bypass the traditional route and self-publish Odyssey of Love.
Any writer who goes down this path understands there is a lot to grasp about producing one’s own book, let alone trying to understand the ever-changing publishing industry. Because I wasn’t tech-savvy, nor did I have much knowledge of the business other than what I learned at the Women in Publishing Summit (highly recommended and very affordable!), gathering this information seemed daunting and very time-consuming. Clearly, I needed professional assistance. After my mother died, I took some of my inheritance and hired a team of self-publishing and marketing specialists. It was a gift to myself that I knew Mom would have approved of wholeheartedly.
Next week on my birthday, June 1st, Odyssey of Love will be launched at last! I am so glad that I listened to my inner voice and not Jan’s discouraging one. Otherwise, I’d never know the delight of holding my paperback in my hands, the excitement of seeing my book’s title translated into Japanese and Dutch on international store websites, and the fulfillment that comes from seeing Odyssey on pre-order at Amazon, where it’s been holding its own in two new release categories. The highlight came last week, when my memoir received a 5-star rating from Chanticleer Book Reviews, calling it “an uttering charming Eastern European take on (guess what?) Eat Pray Love.”
While citing the similarities of the two memoirs, the reviewer also noted their differences: “And it’s those differences that make her (Linda’s) trip a delight to accompany.” If you would like to read more, here is the link: https://www.chantireviews.com/2021/05/20/odyssey-of-love-a-memoir-of-seeking-and-finding-by-linda-jamsen-eastern-european-travel-biographies-and-memoirs-of-women-travel-and-adventure-biographies/
To all you aspiring writers and would-be authors: DO NOT GIVE UP! Don’t let anyone—a literary agent or “friend”—crush your creative passion or prevent you from pursuing your publishing dream. Listen to yourself, and then decide to put in the effort or hire others to do so. If I—an older, unpublished writer—can do this, you most certainly can, too. I wish you lots of luck and look forward to reading your books.
This was so helpful, thank you for your honesty and open advice.