A Devil’s Gospel: The (Long) Path to Publication

On March 17, I shared the “throwback” cover of A Devil’s Gospel and promised to talk about the path to publication for this novel.

First, I’ll say that the book took me a very long time to write, in part because I was working through the relevant portions of the Bible and several commentaries as I was writing each chapter. In the summer of 2010, I finally felt the manuscript was ready to shop around. I did seriously consider independently publishing the novel (which is in part why I designed the throwback cover and bound together a proof copy to give to my girlfriend at the time, now my wife), but I thought only in terms of print books and hadn’t heard of print-on-demand publishing. The costs were prohibitive. I wasn’t interested in ebooks or aware of how big they were becoming.

The way (I thought) traditional publishing worked, one had try to land an agent first. So over the next year I submitted queries and sample chapters. I’m no stranger to following submission guidelines—I’ve been submitting my short stories to magazines since 1998—and I know that different editors have quirks and ways they want to see manuscripts presented. But submitting to agents was a whole other kettle of slush. Many wanted a one-page synopsis; others wanted it in three pages, and some in five. Some wanted a marketing plan. Others wanted you to fill out a questionnaire with very specific questions. Some wanted cash for an “expedited review.” (I find it relatively easy to avoid scam magazines, but in novel-length publishing, it was a lot harder to tell legitimate agents and publishers from scammers).

I dutifully wrote, and trimmed, and expanded to match each guideline, and sent off query after query. Often I never heard back (so I guess I’ve been waiting for an answer for almost seven years now on several queries!)

In the meantime, I’d discovered that, in fact, many writers advised getting an agent once you’ve landed a publishing deal. I remember one piece of advice (I forget from who) went something like: “When the publisher calls with an offer, say you’ll have your agent contact them. Then go get yourself an agent.”

I decided to forget about agents for a while and try a prominent Christian publisher that I felt was perfect for my novel. I sent them a query, and within a week they requested the full manuscript. Once the selection committee had had a chance to review the full manuscript, the acquisitions editor (who was a delight to deal with and kept me informed throughout the process) told me I had reason for cautious optimism, though there was one dissenter on the committee who wasn’t sure about the subject matter. (I quickly wrote an afterword explaining the rationale for the perspective the book takes and sent it to the editor). The decision on the book was deferred from one acquisitions meeting to the next until, finally, it was decided that the publisher would get out of fiction and focus on nonfiction.

The whole process had taken almost 40 months, but with the exception of the result, it was positive throughout and made me feel good about my book’s chances. I spent the next four years submitting to several different Christian publishers. On two occasions I never heard back on the query and, after a year of waiting, gave up and moved on to the next publisher.

But the world had moved on too. Self-publishing was becoming a real, viable thing. Print-on-demand technology meant one could have one’s books printed, bound, and shipped off to customers with zero direct cost on each transaction. What’s more, ebooks had exploded and it seemed like everyone was reading on their phones, tablets, and the new breed of super-slick dedicated e-readers like the Kindle. That completely leveled the playing field—on an ebook store, a professionally produced self-published (or indie-published) ebook looks no different than a traditionally produced one.

I dipped my toes into self-publishing waters with Ooter’s Place and Other Stories of Fear, Faith, and Love and The Lost Stories: A Series of Cosmic Adventures (both collections of previously published short fiction). My wife (then still my girlfriend), coming from an academic perspective, had deep reservations about me self-publishing my previously unpublished novel-length work. So I made a deal with myself: I’d keep A Devil’s Gospel out on submissions but would indie publish the new novel I was working on, Father John VS the Zombies. I finished writing that book in the summer of 2012 and saw it in print before the end of the year. That same summer, I’d submitted A Devil’s Gospel to what I thought was a traditional publisher, which turned out not to be (I posted about that).

The experience with Father John was dangerous for my traditional-publishing aspirations. The path to publication for Father John took months and was fun. The path to publication for A Devil’s Gospel…well, two years later (at the time), it still hadn’t been published and I’d spent precious writing time working on variations of query letters and synopses that I suspected the intended recipients had never actually read in some cases. And I’d unwittingly walked into a vanity publishing trap.

Still, a deal was a deal and I was committed to keep trying the traditional publishing route with A Devil’s Gospel. On to the next query.

In the summer of 2013, my wife and I took a trip to Greece and I was inspired to start working on the sequel of Father John, which became Bishop John VS the Antichrist. I finished writing that book in the summer of 2014 (don’t ask me why it seems summer is my productive novel-writing season) and saw it in print by spring of the following year.

A Devil’s Gospel was still out with a publisher so I waited…and waited…and waited. By the end of 2016, though, I knew that I didn’t want to pursue a traditional publishing deal. There were too many well-publicized horror stories of publishers behaving badly: their contracts grabbing rights with both hands, rights that they had no intention of exploiting; insisting on non-compete clauses; giving the writer a pittance for ebook royalties; and maintaining poor record-keeping practices, which meant that many writers couldn’t believe their royalty statements (even if they thought their publisher was acting in good faith, which wasn’t always the case).

Although my indie published fiction hasn’t been overly successful in financial terms (I make more selling a short story to a professional magazine than I currently get from a year’s worth of sales of my indie-published books), it’s been successful in a way that’s much more important to me.

In 2017, when I realized that this Easter would be the last one East and West would celebrate together for another 17 years, I decided that was the kick in the pants I needed to start the process of publishing A Devil’s Gospel myself. It pleased me to say that it would be released on Palm Sunday, and not have to specify which one.

I’m excited to have the story out in the world. And to put it out into the world, I don’t have to jump through any query or synopsis hoops, don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission, don’t have to contort my story to meet someone else’s guidelines or biases.

This the story I want to tell, in the way I want to tell it.

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