From Self-Published to Published: A Highlight Reel

It’s possible I got published because I liked somebody’s hat.

Let me back up a little.

I was 23 when I unexpectedly found myself in Palestine. Two years later, when I returned to the US, I was desperate to write about my experiences. But every time I thought about sitting down to write a book, I felt like I was standing at the base of Mt. Everest staring up into the the vastness. And the task was not to scale the mountain but to eat it.

Two years later I was at an impasse. I had quit a job I hated and failed to get the job I wanted instead. I felt like I had run off a cliff. There was no more road ahead. I had no idea what to do.

A helpful friend asked, “What would you do if you had a billion dollars?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “I’d drop everything and write this book.”

So that was my answer, billion dollars or no (ha).

I was lucky enough to find an agent in my second round of queries in early 2008. She helped me develop the proposal and three chapters, which we sent off to twenty publishers. We had some hopeful nibbles. I even spoke with a Big Six editor who seemed interested. Then the financial crisis hit, and all bets were off. My book was dead in the water.

I moved to New York in 2010 to network, finish the book, and figure out a way to publish it despite the long odds now stacked against it. I spoke with several more agents, but they all bowed out as soon as they learned the book had already been rejected by two dozen publishers.

I was eventually offered a publishing contract by a small publisher, but they said the book didn’t need much editing, they’d have to charge about $20 per paperback, and they had relatively little reach into media or bookstores. It didn’t seem worth it to accept a typically small royalty under those conditions. So, with a heady feeling of both freedom and terror, I took the plunge into self-publishing.

Much like writing the book, there was far more to publishing (and marketing) than I could have imagined. But it was also fascinating, and through the process of publicizing the book, going on a couple of self-funded tours, speaking at conferences, and getting kind notes from appreciative readers, my contacts multiplied at an exponential rate.

The paperback came out just in time for Book Expo America in 2011, which I attended with a tote bag full of POD paperbacks. While standing in line for wine at a Book Bloggers’ reception, I met a lovely author named M. L. Malcolm who was wearing an old-fashioned hat with a wide and dramatic brim. If I remember correctly, it was made of dark blue crushed velvet. I commented on it, and we began chatting about our projects. She said she wouldn’t mind taking a look at my book, and if she liked it she might pass it on to her agent.

A few weeks later her agent offered to represent me. I expected her to back away slowly like the others had done as soon as I told her about the stack of rejections. But she said that was three years ago, the publishing world changes rapidly, editors come and go, tastes change, and I had a full manuscript now, not just three chapters. Plus the finished book had sold a couple thousand copies and racked up some terrific reviews on Amazon. Our chances would be much better this time around.

She was right. Four months later she forwarded me an offer of publication from Seal Press. She expected me to jump for joy, but I felt oddly wary. After four long years, with so many hopes raised and dashed, it didn’t seem real. I expected someone to pull the rug out from under me at any moment. It wasn’t until I signed the contract and dropped it in the mail that I was able to relax and celebrate.

A whirlwind of design and editing followed, and although it was a shock to suddenly be sharing control of the raising of my “baby,” it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The book is being rolled out as we speak, and my book tour will begin next week.

Since I was able to get decent book tour gigs when the book was self-published, I figured it would be that much easier now that I’m published... and I went a little overboard. I’ll be on tour from March 14 until May 16, in twelve states and more than two dozen cities.

And did I mention I’m getting married in June?

And did I mention I’m insane?

Next week I’ll write about how I’m putting the book tour together. Here’s a partial schedule, to give you an idea. If you’re on the west or east coast, or in Colorado or Oklahoma, I’d love to see you along the way!

How about you -- have you ever massively over-extended yourself doing things you love and are excited about? Did it all work out, or was making yourself crazy simply... crazy? How were you able to find a sense of equanimity along the way (if at all)?

GIVEAWAY DETAILS: My publisher will send a free copy of my book Fast Times in Palestine to three commenters chosen at random at the end of this three-part series of posts on March 18. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions!

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland, a gripping coming-of-age memoir full of beauty, suspense, cruelty, star-crossed romance, and dark humor that aims to bring the realities in Palestine to mainstream American audiences. It was named one of the top ten travel books of the year by Publishers Weekly.

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Comment by Pamela Olson on March 10, 2013 at 8:30pm

Thanks, Lacey and Sonia, and good luck, Shannon -- been there. Just eat that mountain one bite at a time. The only way to do it... And try to remember to enjoy the process. A good day of writing is a reward in itself.

I'm working on two books now (a non-fiction sequel and a novel), or rather not working on them, because this book touring and launching and publicity is taking all my time. Can't wait for some good writing time this summer, inshallah!

Comment by sonia K on March 10, 2013 at 7:44pm

First off Congrats to you Pamela for your tenancity.  You took the initiative and foraged into the unknown, providing yet another road for future authors who are sometimes enclosed in the "room of no". 


As far as you load, its better to have a plan than to miss out on the experience!  I also like the fact that you went to Book Expo with copies-shows your determination and future promise.  You have actually set the stage for your next book!


Comment by Lacey Louwagie on March 10, 2013 at 6:00pm

What a beautiful book! Congratulations! 

Comment by S. Vest on March 10, 2013 at 11:32am

Thank you for sharing your story. I am currently overwhelmed by the task of completing my first novel...Mount Everest indeed! It's so wonderful to hear of your success. Fast Times in Palestine sounds intriguing and enlightening.

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 8, 2013 at 10:55am

I'm surprised how many of you have spent time in Palestine -- it's fantastic to hear!  I think more and more Americans are learning about this little-understood part of the world.  I hope the book can inspire more to do so, and even better, to visit.  Everyone I know who's visited Palestine has had an amazing time.  It'd one of the world's most intriguing combinations of accessible, charming, and totally insane (the situation, I mean).

Comment by Marie-Therese Hernon on March 8, 2013 at 10:14am

Thanks for sharing your publishing story with us, Pamela. Your book sounds great. I had the good fortune to spend a little time in Palestine (just the touristy bits, though) in 2010 and would love to get back there. In the meantime, I have to get my hands on a copy of Fast Times in Palestine!

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 7, 2013 at 9:16pm

Oh wow, thanks so much for getting the book! I'm jealous you're heading back to the Middle East soon... a big part of me wishes I was there experiencing it instead of here talking about it. Enjoy your time!

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on March 7, 2013 at 9:06pm

Pamela, I just got "Fast Times" last week and can't wait to read it as I prepare to return to the Middle East this Aug -- to Baghdad!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 7, 2013 at 8:49pm

Kathryn, holy cow -- I can't even fathom that amount of work in two years!! You must not have slept much! Rewriting can be fun, especially years later, but... wow, that's a lot. Glad you're having fun with it despite the load.

Thanks, Maureen, Darlene, Linda, and Jagoda! It can be a long, dark, slippery road to whatever project the universe (apparently) wants you to create (or at least bugs you about creating it until you can't stand not doing it anymore). I just wish I had enjoyed the process itself more. I did enjoy it, but I also spent some time stressing about the future when I should have been focusing on exactly where I was and what I was doing. It was hard for me to believe before I was published, but... the writing itself is actually the greatest reward. Followed closely by hearing kind words from thoughtful readers. :)

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 7, 2013 at 8:39pm



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