Trying to Break In? Think Out of the Box!

Photo Credit: © Winterberg |

Trying to break into publishing can be daunting, to say the least. For me, it was something akin to scaling the wall of a fortified castle, surrounded by a mote filled with hungry crocodiles.

I tried to break in as a fiction writer for years, first with a young-adult novel, then with a suspense-thriller. Both were well-written and polished. Both received good reviews from published authors. And both had received wonderful, glowing rejection letters, complete with encouraging notes from editors.

“This is great writing. Sorry, it’s not for us.”

“We love this, but we’re stocked up on YA material for the next three years.”

“The entire publishing committee wants to encourage you to keep writing. We feel you have what it takes.”

The first few times you get notes such as these, it is indeed encouraging.

After you get about 30, you begin to wish someone would say, “Hey, pal, don’t quit your day job.”

By May of 2000, I’d been trying to scale the wall of Castle Publishing for six years and had little to show for my effort aside from a stack of rejections and a seriously-bruised ego. For all intents and purposes, I had given up on the idea of ever breaking through and winning that coveted publishing contract. This was especially disappointing, as I had recently resigned my position as a pastor in order to devote my time and attention to prison ministry.

I’d hoped to have a publishing contract in hand by that time because I planned to support my prison outreach by royalties from my books. (Yes, I know that was a pipe-dream, but that story is for another post.)

Now that I was officially unemployed, I had to turn my attention to generating some sort of income. My brother-in-law, who teaches computer languages, offered to help by asking me to develop a course in HTML (the language in which Web pages are written). He told me that if I developed the course, he could hire me to teach it. The idea sounded good to me, so I started to research HTML.

During my research I discovered two things. One, HTML was very easy to learn. And, two, most of the books out there were much harder to understand than they needed to be. They were written by “techies” who could communicate well to like-minded people. However, for readers who didn’t grasp the technical aspects of web authoring, these books might as well have been written in Chinese. The more I considered it, the more I saw a need for a book on web authoring written in easy-to-understand language.

I looked at the class outline that I’d just developed, and it looked remarkably like a book outline. I knew that it wouldn’t take much work to further craft it into a book proposal. Over the next few days I wrote a query letter for a book on HTML written “for non-techies by a non-techie.” I sent the letter out to thirteen computer-book publishers.

Out of the thirteen, I received two positive responses.

One was from Osborne/McGraw-Hill.

They liked the idea and asked if I would modify the book to fit a series called “How to Do Everything With…”

Writing a computer book was completely "out of the box" for this non-techie!

I agreed, and within a few months I had my first book contract.

I never intended to be a computer-book author. That wasn’t even on my radar. My plans were to be a novelist. But when I allowed myself to think out of the box and consider a different type of writing, the walls of Castle Publishing came crashing down.

If you’re frustrated with trying to break in to publishing, in what ways could you think “out of the box”?

22 Replies to “Trying to Break In? Think Out of the Box!”

  1. Jim, this is a great post. I, too, am trying to break into Castle Publishing with women’s fiction/Christian fiction. I never thought I’d even remotely be interested in writing a non-fiction book – yet, that’s exactly my latest idea that won’t let go. Kudos to you for not giving up! That in itself is encouraging.

  2. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes? You never know what you can do until you try. You’re an inspiration, and I need to pick up your book. 🙂

  3. When I read your encouraging post, this verse came to mind: In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9). And, my what blessing accompanies His steps! Enjoy the favor of the Lord!

    1. I’ve heard a variation on that verse that I often reflect on: Man plans, and God laughs! Ah, humility – one of a writer’s best friends.

  4. Wonderful post, James. Not only do you make some great points about thinking outside the box, but you also make a point about being open to what other plans may be in store. It’s interesting what opportunities might be waiting out there when we’re quiet enough to listen.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Rebecca. I know the conventional wisdom is to choose a genre and stick with it, but as a Christian writer, my calling is to use my writing abilities for God–wherever and however He opens the door.

    1. Thanks! I hope you will check it out. Many people have said that it’s the first book on HTML that they were able to understand. It’s somewhat dated (it was released in 2003), but most of it still applies. I did a second edition a few years later, which is slightly more current.

  5. I know what you mean. I have had a little success with direct sales of a self-bundled set of short stories – I guess it was a form of self publishing but since a friend helped me I didn’t feel like it was “self” done. So true! That was Jim Published. Further, I ghostwrote a book on mutual funds a couple of years later, but unlike yourself I didn’t have much of a contract. It was one of those situations where one cries and tells oneself how $0.02/word is better than the $0.003/word the man in India was offering, and just do the job.

    1. The main thing is to stick with it and always work to improve your craft. The walls of Castle Publishing are high and daunting, but they can be scaled. 🙂

  6. Hi Jim. Great to get to know you a little through your post. It wowed me. Isn’t it amazing how God closes doors only to open others? Thanks for opening a window into your publishing experience of new possibilities.

    I shared your story with my husband and he reminded me how stepping out of the box probably gave you the knowledge to make your own website which will always help you – know matter what box you step into next.

    Continued blessings!

    1. Thanks, Cheryl!
      Your husband is correct. I ended up writing three books for McGraw/Hill, two on HTML and one on CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and I learned a lot about Web authoring and design. That knowledge has served me well over the years.

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