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 Dawn Quyle Landau on March 7, 2013 at 12:00pm

Congratulations! Fantastic story, and very encouraging as I start out with my first novel. (Need some encouragement!) My 23 yr old daughter is living in Jerusalem and will be working with Palestinian refugees in Syria. I'll have to pass your book on to her. Looks like a good read! All the best on this journey! 

Comment by Kathleen Kern on March 6, 2013 at 7:40pm

Oh yeah, that was your original question.  No, currently in the U.S. on sabbatical finishing some writing projects. I rejoin Christian Peacemaker Teams in June.

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 6, 2013 at 7:15pm

Are you there now? Hoping against hope that I'll be able to visit Palestine some time next year! Enjoy the spring, it's so gorgeous there... It somehow happened that I've enjoyed seven autumns in Palestine and only one spring (in 2005). I really miss it.

Comment by Kathleen Kern on March 6, 2013 at 6:24pm

I worked in Hebron 1995-2002 when Israel denied me entry.  Then I married an Israeli citizen--not the reason I married him, but like health insurance, it was a side benefit, and I've been able to work in Hebron since 2007.

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 6, 2013 at 1:05pm

Thanks, Urenna! I called it "A Highlight Reel" because when people tell their stories about getting published, it usually is like the highlight reel of a football game. It doesn’t show the missed passes, the hard tackles away from the ball, the thousand minor but painful injuries, the Time Outs, or the false starts.

When I was in the thick of it, my path didn’t look at all neat or linear. I was stumbling in the dark with no idea what would be around each corner. So anyone who's there now, I know the feeling! I wish you all happiness and luck and enough quiet to hear your own inner voice...

Comment by Urenna Sander on March 6, 2013 at 12:59pm

You won through perseverence. Congratulations!

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 6, 2013 at 11:32am

Kathleen, I have visited Hebron, but not in quite a while (unfortunately). Are you there now? Awesome to meet another SheWriter who's spent time in beautiful Palestine!

Shaquez, thanks for the kind words. Best of luck on your journey, whatever it may be these days!

Comment by Kathleen Kern on March 6, 2013 at 11:16am

Pamela, did you ever come to our CPT apartment in Hebron?  You look familiar.

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 5, 2013 at 6:10pm

Thanks, Julie! It was a long road, but that seems to be the case with many of us!

I hope you'll enjoy the book. I've posted Chapter One for people to read as a preview, to see what the tone is like -- and also as a taste of the sheer awesomeness of the Middle East:

Comment by Julie Luek on March 5, 2013 at 4:08pm

Yay!! How exciting that your perseverance and belief in your book paid off. You are sharing great lessons and I absolutely love the sound of your book. It's right up my reading alley!


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