Shutting Down Places Like Eliot Ness

Ed. Note: In our spring/summer series – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them” – one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).

By J.J. Hensley

I wrote my first novel in 2010. After sending out a blizzard of query letters, I landed two offers from agents. One of the agents was based in New York and had worked for major publishing houses. The other one, based in the southeastern U.S., was brand new and had yet to make a sale. After a phone call with the New York based agent, during which he expressed his nearly-uncontrollable enthusiasm regarding my manuscript, I signed with him.

One week later, I received an email from my new champion. I do not remember the exact wording, but it went something like this:

Dear J.J.,

Recently, I was at a conference and met up with one of my friends who is also an agent. Apparently, he previously had read your manuscript and passed on the project because he did not believe it would sell to a publisher. Upon reflection, I do not think it will sell. I think it is best we part ways. I wish you the best of luck.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. I was confused. I was pissed-off beyond belief. What kind of agent has such little faith in his own initial opinion?

Fine, I thought to myself. I had already told the southeast-based agent I was going with other representation, but I’d go back to them with hat in hand and ask that they still represent me. I’d beg if I must. Fortunately, I didn’t have to and the agent decided to represent me. Within a few months, the book sold and was published.

Then the agent went out of business.

But I was now a published author and determined to overcome. My first novel was a critical success and I knew I wouldn’t have any difficulty finding a new agent. I sent out query letters, this time with a real writer’s resume! The rejections came back with real agents’ comments. Not the right fit. The crime fiction market is flooded. Have you thought of writing a book about a female vampire who has a dragon tattoo and she rides a train? It could be called the Girl Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo – on the Train! (I may have made up that last one)

However, I would not be deterred. I found a small publisher that had a promising business plan and was actively accepting un-agented submissions. I submitted a query, then my manuscript, and eventually signed on to have two books published over the following two years.  Sure, it wasn’t a huge deal with a Big Five publisher, but I was on the ground floor of a publisher on their way up. My two books were published, and life went on.

Then the publisher went out of business.

Dealing with an agent going under can be challenging. Dealing with a publisher shutting down is another matter altogether. With both my publisher and agent vanishing, I felt about as popular as Eliot Ness in a speakeasy. In fact, in my darkest moments, my mind took me into the film version of The Untouchables and I could practically feel Ness’s dying partner Jimmy Malone (played by Sean Connery who, at the time of the filming, was in his twentieth year of being 57 years old) gripping my arm and saying, “What are you prepared to do?”

Yes, it was THAT dramatic.

Shut up.

It was beyond discouraging, but if I wanted those titles to stay in print then I had to find the answers to several questions:

  • Would I try to shop the books around to another publisher?
  • Should I publish the books on my own?
  • Would I be able to get the cover art files? I certainly wanted to keep the same cover art, especially since I have a tattoo similar to one of the images. It’s on my left arm. I really didn’t want to throw out the old cover images, nor cut off my arm.

The thought of shopping the titles around to other small publishers sickened me. While well-received by readers, neither of those titles had huge sales. So neither would be particularly attractive to… well, anyone. I wasn’t particularly keen about self-publishing the books, but then I realized there were some opportunities present.

First, the former publisher sent me all the cover art and digital files and agreed to keep the work in print until I could prepare all the files for publication. The transition would be nearly seamless and the books would stay available for purchase.

Second, there was a typo in one of the books that ALWAYS drove me crazy. Now I could fix it.

Third, I had always wanted those titles to be turned into audiobooks, but I’d never owned the audio rights. Now I had all the rights, so I did a little research and discovered Amazon was linked to a service called ACX which allows authors to shop around for a narrator and then have an audiobook produced for either a fee, or a split of the royalties. Perfect. If I was going to be associated with two backlist titles that were not selling, then I was going to watch them not sell in my own way – dammit! 

I’d be lying if I said I did not still have some negative feelings regarding having an agent and a publisher go out of business. None of the negativity is directed toward the actual people involved in those closings, but rather the frustration of having fought tooth-and-nail to get represented and published only to have everything disrupted.

I am not going to say all the typical optimistic stuff: When life gives you lemons… blah, blah, blah. But, there are some opportunities that can be seized when confronted with such setbacks. And if I start to feel sorry for myself for having been forced to deal with these obstacles, I can always go online and try to look up the first agent I had. You remember him – the guy who told me how great I was and then dropped me a week later.

He went out of business.

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.

To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s forthcoming thriller, Bolt Action Remedy, click on the cover below:

Previously in The Tough Times (And How I Wrote Through Them)

“On Time Management,” by Mark Pryor