How I Survived My Debut Book Publishing Journey at 55 Years Old

Forty-two – it’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything[i]. It’s also my new lucky number — the number of queries I wrote before signing a book publishing contract. Most Hero’s Journeys start with a starry-eyed protagonist like Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker, but mine starts as a 55-year-old dance instructor with teenagers at home. I humbly share my journey for anyone late starting on their dreams or hoping to reinvent themselves.

The Humble Beginning

In Spring 2020, Covid-19 staged its global coup, and I lost my employment. I was lucky. I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t die; I didn’t have to work night and day in a hospital or clinic. Like many, I embarked on a months-long cycle of doom scrolling, puzzles, board games, neighborhood walks, and too much baking.

And then, in the silence, with a life utterly decluttered, I realized what I missed, what I surprisingly didn’t miss, what was essential and what was not. I felt like I finally found the true meaning of Lent, the Christian religious observance commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert.

The Call to Adventure

That’s when my journey began. Through childhood, my mother had told stories of growing up in her parent’s Detroit laundry business during the Great Depression and later in a Cantonese village on the eve of the Sino-Japanese war. She also spoke of what it was like to survive on her own as a teen waitress in mid-century California.

There were stories of gamblers, an American dream, dashed hopes, dangerous superstitions, wartime privations, folklore, those who take advantage of the economically vulnerable, racism, and toxic cultural expectations relating to sexuality and marriage. There were also stories of persistence, resilience, the kindness of guardian angels, and the value of fighting for one’s authentic self.

In years past, I had interviewed Mom and her siblings and set down their stories. I had pipe dreams of publishing …someday. Someday was calling.

Refusal of the Call?

But who was I fooling? I was a ballet and ballroom instructor with virtually no writing experience. I had once got an article published in a small magazine years ago. Otherwise, I had done technical writing in my previous employment as a safety analyst. These were hardly sterling credits.

Learning the ropes of a new industry in the autumn of life felt daunting. Still, I couldn’t help but think that if my mother had lived this extraordinary life and had overcome so many hurdles to succeed, I could somehow find a way.

The universe offered a nudge. I met a woman at my church, Helen, who had just self-published her first novel in her 70s. Helen was my mother’s name. Could I call and pick her brain on how she did it? She kindly agreed.

Meeting Mentors

At Helen’s recommendation, I hired a developmental editor to assist. A developmental editor performs big-picture editing relating to structure, form, plot, and characters. They bear the target audience in mind, helping authors develop a marketable manuscript.

My editor was instrumental in helping me whittle the manuscript to a better length and resolving a point of view issue I was struggling with. Best of all, she encouraged me. She told me she thought I had a shot at publishing traditionally if I preferred that to self-publishing.

I glowed that week. Hope is good for the complexion.

In Fall 2020, I attended a querying webinar to learn how authors query literary agents for representation. There I learned about Twitter pitching events where writers pitch their complete manuscript on Twitter during specified times. You have 280 characters to sell your book.

If a literary agent or publisher likes the tweet, you are invited to query them, which may lead to their requesting your manuscript. If they love it, they’ll make you an offer.

I had not even started querying agents when I learned that #DVPit was about to happen. #DVPit is the Twitter pitching event for Diverse Voices or “historically marginalized authors.” Only three tweets per manuscript are allowed.

Crossing the First Threshold

On the appointed day, I posted a tweet. Crickets. I posted a second tweet. Again crickets. Feeling humiliated, I decided this was probably useless and almost didn’t bother with the third tweet. At 4:58 pm, with minutes to go, I posted a third tweet and walked away from the computer to make dinner.

’30s Detroit. I live behind a Chinese laundry & stand on a box to iron clothes. I dream of a home & the elegance of my Jane Arden doll. But when Ma dies, Ba sends me to live in his ancestral village. Through hunger, superstition & war, I hold tight to my American dream. #DVPit

My #DVPit Tweet

Later that evening, I found two hearts from small press publishers on my final tweet, meaning they were inviting me to query them. I shudder to think that I almost didn’t post that tweet. And I later came to understand that I was incredibly lucky. This was my first try; it is more common not to get hearts.

I sent off my queries. Both publishers asked for the entire manuscript. Both loved it. Both made me offers. Whaaat?!

My query teacher advised me to query agents before accepting a small press offer. I tried a few, didn’t hear back, and got jittery about losing the small press offers. When I met with one of the publishers, I liked everything about them.

They committed to getting physical books into my local bookstore chain, so I could have the pleasure of seeing them on the shelf in my hometown. They were willing to consider allowing my daughter, an art student, to design the cover under their guidance, which was unbelievable, and a dream come true. Their marketing manager said she wanted to submit the book for award consideration because she believed in it that much.

For several months, everything went swimmingly. I loved working with their developmental editor. Her thoughtful, insightful edits prompted fascinating new conversations with my aunts and sister and further research on my part, all of which strengthened the manuscript. We reviewed, selected, and edited photographs to illustrate the text. The marketing manager scored an interview for me with Authority Magazine, which was a great experience.

It was all a dream come true…until it wasn’t.

The Test

In June 2021, I received a letter letting me know that the publisher had succumbed to the financial pressures of the pandemic and was likely to go out of business. They offered to let me back out of the contract. After a few days’ consideration, I agreed. It took that long for reality to sink in. And now, the real quest began.

But I felt confident. I’d received offers before, and I had an edited manuscript. In my search for pandemic proof work, I had begun freelance writing for local news outlets, where I received two editorial awards. I was a real writer! I was twice featured in an online magazine as a soon-to-be-published author of the book.

Journey to the Dark Realm with Allies

I needed the armor of that confidence because I sent out 41 queries without getting offers. A query is a brief letter of about 300 words in which authors seek to interest an agent or publisher in requesting to read their manuscript.

The letters take way longer to write than their brief length would imply. In a sentence or two, you explain why the agent or publisher is a good fit for your work, which means you’ve researched books they’ve represented. In a burlesque form of writing, you reveal enough of the plot to entice without giving away the whole story.

You approach your work like a student writing an expository essay and convey the book’s “big idea” or central concept that encompasses the entire book. Finally, you present a brief bio that ideally implies you already have an audience for your writing, something I lacked as a debut author.

I queried only literary agents for a long time, hoping to hit the big time. Agents represent your work to the big publishers who can get you into bookstores nationwide. I usually got a form rejection letter. But occasionally, an agent would write a thoughtful reply of encouragement and, like a sprinkle of rain in the desert, that refreshed my spirits enough to keep going.

I joined an online writing group. It was as simple as logging in to a Zoom meeting a few times a week. We would say hello, exchange pleasantries, then write for 90 minutes to three hours. That commitment to logging in and writing in the company of others was powerful in keeping me on task.

I also kept a Hero’s Journal to track my progress and set down three “seize the day” tasks for each day I committed to working on the quest. Limiting my daily to-do list to three top tasks made the list feel manageable.

The Ordeal

The most common comment from agents was that memoirs were difficult to sell without the author having an audience of fans eager to buy the book, such as through a popular blog or a massive social media following. I didn’t have either. Of course, there are exceptions if the book’s concept is of sufficiently broad interest.

After a few dozen agent rejections, I again decided to try my luck with small press publishers. Small presses typically publish for a niche. Since they’re not necessarily trying to appeal to a more general audience, they have some flexibility to take chances on lesser-known authors.

As soon as I started looking into small presses, I regretted not researching them sooner. There was a press that specialized entirely in memoirs, and there was another that focused entirely on stories of the Asian diaspora. Yet another focused on stories of California history, particularly related to ethnic minorities.

I tried the press focused on memoirs first and got the kindest, most detailed rejection letter, which at the same time also contained alarming news. The editor wrote that she thought the story was well written and worthy but that throughout the pandemic, she had been deluged as never before with manuscripts by writers like me stuck at home with time to finish, polish, and submit work. She had become far choosier and was now rejecting manuscripts that she would have accepted in the past.

Was I too late?

Seizing the Sword

By December 2021, I had been querying for six months, and I was so tired of pitching my story. I wrote an affirmation: “2022 is the year I publish my book.” And with that, I signed up for a self-publishing course that would begin in January. I wasn’t going to wait anymore for an agent or publisher to make my dream a reality.

Ironically, it was not until now that I decided to query a small press that my first publisher had highly recommended, Balestier Press of London and Singapore. I had put off this query because I preferred an American publisher for what I felt was an American story. Balestier specializes in “world literature,” focusing on Asian and Pacific stories. World literature is simply literature that tends to circulate beyond its country of origin.

And so, I submitted my 42nd (!) query on December 10, 2021. Mid-January 2022, I attended my first self-publishing class. I felt overwhelmed with all the technical information about formatting and cover design, getting an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), etc. My heart sank.

Two days later, I received an email from Balestier’s acquisitions editor, Marketa. She said she thought my manuscript was a perfect fit for their portfolio. She felt that its illustration of history through one family’s deeply moving transpacific story would appeal to international readers. Wow!

After meeting with the editor and publisher and writing to some of Balestier’s authors to inquire about their experiences, I accepted the offer. I contacted the organizers of the self-publishing seminar. After explaining what happened, they kindly refunded my tuition.

Having my manuscript published in London means Balestier will submit my book to the British Library, the libraries at Cambridge and Oxford, and other significant libraries of Great Britain. How fun would it be to visit Cambridge and Oxford and find my book in their magnificent edifices?

The Journey Continues

Signing the contract is a significant milestone but not the journey’s end. I am working with Balestier to develop a marketing plan that will undoubtedly present its own ordeals. And I pray nothing happens to derail the publishing as happened before.  

But I am hopeful. My mother is no longer here, but she read a draft manuscript before she passed and appreciated that I valued her stories. I dream of putting copies of the published book into the hands of my father, sister, and aunties, who all play important roles.

My marketing mentor advises publishing a weekly blog post or YouTube video related to topics of interest to the book’s audience, so I can develop a “platform” for the book — something I suppose I should have been doing all along.

An Invitation

That is how 42 become my lucky number. I look forward to immersing myself in Asian American adventures and history and sharing those stories here. If you would like to come along for the ride and hear more book publishing news, I cordially invite you to subscribe.

And may the road rise up to meet you on your own journey!

[i] In Douglas Adams iconic novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a race of advanced beings asks its supercomputer “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? The computer answers, “42.” 

8 thoughts on “How I Survived My Debut Book Publishing Journey at 55 Years Old

  1. What a journey! I’ve had some similar experiences so it’s nice to know there IS a light at the end of the tunnel! Congratulations! Looking forward to reading your book!

  2. Pingback: Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month With The Strength of Water

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