I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and has the reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.


If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

75-BookStory HPCR-1

So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.


Me in Obfelden

Martha Kennedy

Why do you have a typo in the title of your novel? Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe?

There’s no typo. There is a path through the forest that is very important to the story, and its name is The Brothers. The novel takes its name from the path. The Brothers Path.

Switzerland is far away. Why don’t you write about your own country?

The events in The Brothers Path were the opening shots that led to many Swiss leaving Switzerland 200 years later. The Reformation was the beginning.

Several hundred thousand Swiss have emigrated to America over the centuries. Some of the earliest settlers were Amish and Mennonite Swiss who came here so they could freely practice their religion. That’s where The Brothers Path might touch home for many Americans and stimulate curiosity about their own ancestry.

The family that populates The Brothers Path is based on my own family, people I didn’t even know about until four or five years ago. Two of the brothers named in this story are mentioned in Swiss historical records as having been in these places at these times. I don’t want to say more and spoil the story.

The sixteenth century was a long time ago.

True, but America was already being settled by then. The Protestant Reformation — which seems like it was long, long ago and far, far away — would actually be the force that led to mass colonization during the 18th century. After 200 years of persecution all over Europe, a lot of those people were willing to risk their lives to get out of there.

Are there historical figures in the novel?

Yes. There are leaders of the Swiss Reformation, predominately Huldrych Zwingli, and early leaders of Anabaptism, Felix Manz and Pilgram Marpeck.

How come I never heard of them?

The history we learn in the US is very England-centered even though England was only one country in which all this chaos was going on and only one of the countries from which people were emigrating. My research led to one shocking, eye-opening revelation after another.

You write about Christianity. Are you a Christian?

I was raised Baptist. My grandmother — the one with the Swiss ancestry — was probably raised Mennonite. Other than that, I believe (and my belief has been intensified by the research I’ve done for my novels) ones religion is about as personal as anything can get. Like my Anabaptist ancestors, I believe that religion and government should be separate, that taking up arms against another is wrong, and that an individual’s faith is between that person and God.

Who has influenced your writing?

Truman Capote has had the biggest influence on my writing style; in fact, he is the force that awakened me to the idea of style. I learned so much from reading Capote’s stories and from his discussions about writing. I write about some heavy topics and because

  1. I don’t want to tell my readers what to think, and
  2. I want my characters to live their own lives in the world that is between the covers of my book, I believe a minimalist style that is heavy on dialogue makes that happen best. I don’t want to come between my readers and the story.

What’s your process as a writer?

I sit down and write. That’s pretty much it. Sometimes I start from a scene that is particularly vivid in my imagination. The Brothers Path began with a scene in the middle of the book when Thomann and Andreas are in Zürich, and Felix Manz is about to be executed.


The story radiated from that moment. I like it best when I know how a story will end. Then I can write toward the ending. The most difficult part of a story is the beginning. It can’t just “begin.” It has to hook the reader and that is something beyond just “starting” a story.

The Brothers Path has a lot of characters with difficult, German names. Weren’t you worried that readers would be confused?

I respect the intelligence of my readers. I think they can handle the names of six brothers in one family. The brothers were real people and the names they have in The Brothers Path are their real names and they each have very distinct personalities. I also organized the chapters with a brother’s name and the year of the events as a chapter title to help people follow the story more easily.

How many revisions did you do for The Brothers Path?

I have no idea. The fact is, I revise constantly. The novel is a kind of organic life form that crawls toward a uniform finished state. I like revision, however. For me, revision is the REAL writing. That’s where an author can go in and make the words, the sentences, the dialogue, the description what they really WANT it to be. It’s my favorite part.

Proofreading, though, is difficult for me because I’m dyslexic. When I think I have a finished story, I usually share it with a couple of friends for comments. Then I revise. Then I hire a professional editor, Beth Bruno, with whom I’ve worked on two novels. We work well together. Professional editing is a critically important step in the process for me, and it’s another revision.

72-The Bros Path Cover PromoThe world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.

martha-at-the-jungfraujochMartha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.

Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression by going on Crusade. Her newest novel, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same family three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.

Kennedy has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly. 

Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language.

For many years she lived in the San Diego area, most recently in Descanso, a small town in the Cuyamaca Mountains. She has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley with her three dogs.

You may also enjoy these articles by Martha Kennedy:






the thinker


When I agreed to write a weekly blog for Serendipity I thought it would be easy. I read lots of ‘news’ articles, thousands of thoughts go through my mind every day; I talk to people about a wide variety of topics. How hard could it be to come up with just one bloggable idea a week? The answer is ‘very hard.’

The key word, if it is a word at all, is ‘bloggable’. Most ideas cannot be turned into a blog. Correction – a readable blog. The idea first has to be something that other people might remotely be interested in. My obsessive analysis of why my dog barks so much is out.

Second, the idea has to be expandable into a piece of a reasonable length. Most of my thoughts don’t seem to have expandability.

My average thought may be worth a few sentences, but rarely more. For example, every day I wonder why some people (my husband) can’t talk about what they might want to eat for dinner until it is almost dinnertime and they are actually hungry.

Lack of imagination? Inability to plan ahead? Short of commissioning a major psychological study, I don’t have much else to say except that I find it frustrating to live with someone like this since I like to plan dinner right after breakfast if I haven’t already done it the night before.

Bulb-Light idea

A good blog also has to have an angle, a point of view, an interesting perspective. Most topics have already been written about in some format. But you can add to the existing literature if you have a different way of looking at the subject. I read lots of interesting articles but I have nothing to add to what has already been said. In that case, I share the article on Facebook and continue my search for a good blog idea.

Sometimes something I read really gets to me and I write about it even if my insights are not new and illuminating. The theory here is that with some issues, it’s important just to expose them to as many people as possible, as often as possible.

I’m not complaining. I love writing blogs. Maybe people would be interested in why my dog barks so much. Blog readers with dogs who are hair-trigger barkers like mine might be fascinated. Probably I’m overthinking the process. Maybe I should just have a cup of tea. Relax. Wait for another idea to just come to me.

They always do.


A beautifully written story about writers, writing, getting published … and why we do it even though we may not get the prize we hoped for.

How to make a living as a writer #amwriting

I was speaking to a friend this morning, a woman whose writing often glows with lyric beauty, yet who has stopped writing because she could not sell her manuscript and will not self-publish.

As a writer, and much as I would like to, I don’t make a living from my work. Like most authors, and especially Indie authors, that is a dream about as realistic as winning the Pulitzer Prize. For many, the literary Holy Grail appears in the nebulous form of an Agent or a Contract… but even for those who attain it, making a living will almost always involve a day job as well as the untold hours tapping away at a keyboard. It is only a few who will go on to live the dream.


There are moments when you might wonder whether it is worth it; when you think of all the other things you could be doing with your time and all the things you might be missing while you are chasing unicorns across a page of dreams.

For many disillusion sets in and the pen is laid down, their stories are left untold and their ideas, once forgotten, return to that great sea of inspiration from whence they arose.

For some, though, the dreams come true and remind us why we should never give up…

Read the entire original post: How to make a living as a writer #amwriting


A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

This is an evergreen post for me. I’ve modified a bit with each iteration, but it says something that’s fundamentally true about the creative process and certainly about my personal creative process. Writing (and also photography) are my version of sports. They really have always been, throughout my  life. With a little bit of luck, they always will be. So here it is again because sometimes, I need to remind myself of things I already know.

I feel I should point out that writing isn’t only an art. “Real writing” can also be a craft, or “non-fiction.” Books about science or technology are no less “real writing” than a novel. I know we who toil as wordsmiths who tell others how things work or how to accomplish tasks, rarely win prizes or make a best-seller list. Nonetheless, we do not need to hang our heads because we aren’t don’t create characters and plots. I doubt most fiction writers would be good at technical or science writing. Or, for that matter, news writing. It’s not something less, just something different.

If one kind of writing doesn’t work for you, try something else. If you are good with words, somewhere, there’s a place for you in the big world of writing and writers.

One last point. “Professional” means you get paid to do it. If you’d like to get paid, but haven’t yet, you aren’t a professional. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good, just that you don’t (yet) earn a living at it. It’s not a judgement; it’s a distinction.

We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. For me, writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I strangle on words never used. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how. They want me to tell them how. That they asked the question makes me reasonably sure they aren’t writers.

If you are a writer, you write. You will write and will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.


I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a reading primer. It was as if a switch had been thrown in my brain. Words felt like home.

Writing was (is) exactly the same as speaking, but takes longer. I have never minded spending the extra time. I love crafting sentences until they are just right. I love that I can go back and fix written words, that unlike words you say, you can take them back.

Raison d’être? I write because I’m a writer. Writing is how I express myself, how I interact with the world. It’s my window, my doorway, my handshake, my dreams.

If you are going to be a writer, you probably already know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand the techniques you need to build a plot and create books that publishers will buy — but writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it — and most of us know it pretty young.

computer gargoyle

Writers have words. They collect in your mind, waiting to be written. We have heads full of words, sentences, pronouns, adjectives, and dependent clauses.

My advice to everyone who aspires to be a writer is to write. Don’t talk about it. Do it. Whatever medium works for you. Blogging, novels, short stories, poetry. Whatever. I’d also advise you to not talk about your work until you’ve done a significant amount of writing. I can’t count the number of great ideas left on barroom floors, talked away until there was nothing left but a vague memory and a lot of empty wine glasses. Save your words to a better purpose.

Write a lot even if it’s mostly not very good. Sooner or later, you’ll find your thing. If you don’t write, it is your personal loss, but maybe it’s the world’s loss, too.

You will never know how good you can be if you don’t try.



Me in ObfeldenIs today Saturday? No, it’s Sunday. This should have appeared yesterday. Right here. Except — I thought yesterday was still Friday, but woke up very early this morning with the distinct feeling of having missed a deadline. In more than 40 years of working as a professional writer and editor — this is my first missed deadline. I suppose it was bound to happen someday, but I’m very sorry anyhow.

And so … a day late, but not too late … is the third of three posts by Martha Kennedy on getting a novel into print.

This one hits close to home for me. It’s the same process I went through. Many of us have self-published, and even more, will do so eventually. With traditional publishers thin on the ground, we find ourselves facing a choice: self-publish or keep trying to get a publisher to pay attention. At what point do you decide to stop waiting and move ahead on your own?

Self-Publishing – The Other Way to Do It

By Martha Kennedy

Some people have broken into “the big time” of commercial publication through self-publishing.

Most don’t.

There are manifestos now stating that self-published work is every bit as good as conventionally published work. That is not necessarily false, but is it necessarily true?

Lots of bad writing is published commercially. Still, I believe more bad writing is published by individuals using free, self-publishing platforms such as Lulu, Createspace, or IngramSpark.

The wonderfulness of “Indie” publishing is that anyone can publish a book, but being able to publish a book doesn’t mean the author can write. Which is why a stigma still lingers around self- or Indie-publishing. It is frequently a valid issue.

72-The Bros Path Cover PromoIn response to the problem, organizations are emerging that seek to find and reward good writing in self-published books. Since I only write historical fiction, I’m not familiar with all of the organizations but I know one.

IndieBRAG is a group of volunteers who read books that have been submitted to the organization. The books are rated on a very fine, proprietary “score card” which includes the physical presentation. If the book earns a certain average score or above, it is awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion.

Fewer than 10% of the books submitted (all genres) win this award. IndieBRAG then posts reviews everywhere relevant (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads), stating, “We are proud to announce that TITLE by AUTHOR is a B.R.A.G.Medallion Honoree. This informs readers that the book is worth their investment of time and money!”

In my own area, the Historical Novel Society publishes a review several times a year. One of the reviews is Indie Novels. Such novels are submitted to them, then undergo a rigorous test before they can be awarded an Editors Choice or short-listed for the annual Indie Book Award.

The dark side of this trend is you will find companies online who will take your money in exchange for an award or a positive review.

None of these groups – good or bad — existed when I published my first “Indie” novel, Martin of Gfenn in 2011. I paid attention, though. As soon as I learned of new opportunities for my novel, I submitted it. Martin of Gfenn has won both an Editors Choice from the Historical Novel Society and an IndieBRAG Medallion. My second novel, Savior, is also an IndieBRAG Medallion honoree.

Nonetheless, self- or Indie Publishing — whatever you want to call it – has a long way to go before they will be as well-regarded and sought after as commercially (traditionally) published books. Beyond the “stigma,” lies another hard reality: people who publish their own books are (typically) writers, not marketers. Bookstores, especially chains like Barnes & Noble, don’t stock Indie books, though they will sell them by special order.

It does not mean you shouldn’t self-publish. It does mean you should be aware of the challenges involved.

It’s Easier Than You Think

For anyone whose ability to use common software is slightly above average, self-publishing is easy. For those who do not have the skills, every platform offers expert services plus many post-publishing services, among them, marketing. For me, the offers are great, but far out of my price range. Nor am I sure how effective they are … and I have no way to find out.

There are also many independent, free-lance, people who have made a business of editing, formatting, cover design — pretty much every service a self-published author needs to make a good-looking, readable book. These free-lancers are often more competitively priced than the same services offered via the publishing platforms.

I enjoy designing book and their covers. I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. I didn’t even attempt to publish Martin of Gfenn before I’d gone through the entire process with a small test book of essays. I do invest in a good editor with whom I work well.

When The Brothers Path experienced such maltreatment at the hands of agents and publishers, I decided to fight, to bust my ass marketing this novel and the other two, as well.

These days, I get up every morning, and “go to work” marketing my fiction. I have accepted advice from everyone who has offered it. I’ve also done a lot of online research. I’ve spent $300 on a virtual book tour and $100 for an advertisement on Goodreads.  I have set up giveaways (which not free for authors) and have made a book trailer for The Brothers Path. I have a webpage (marthakennedy.co) that tells everyone about all my novels and links back to each novel’s webpage.

I’ve sought reviews, issued a new edition of my second novel so it conforms more to the third because they are, loosely, prequel and sequel — both about the same family, though nine generations apart. I’m going at it as if I this was a paid job — because it is the only way I will get paid to do it.

Internally (hopefully not eternally), I’m contending with shyness and dislike of being with groups of strangers who expect something of me. I’m beginning to accept that I need to go out into the world to make connections rather than friends. I’m trying to manage a launch of my book that isn’t just me and my pals sharing a pizza.

But … I would rather write.

Why Write?

With all the obstacles to a book getting published, it’s not unreasonable to ask the question.

The experience of trying and failing to conventionally publish a novel turns many people away from writing. Maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think anyone should write if they have another route to happiness.

Not being published does not have to mean not writing. Give that idea a little while to sink in. For anyone who genuinely loves writing and who has stories to tell, writing is a pleasure. All by itself. The reason I’m not (currently) satisfied with simply writing (although, in principle, I am completely satisfied with it), is because of the people who have read my books.

I write serious literature. It’s readable and friendly. The characters are likable, but you don’t write about leprosy, God, depression, death, religious war, bad parenting, adolescent confusion, torture and call it “light reading while you’re waiting for the airport shuttle.” I don’t write that stuff. I don’t know why I don’t write it. I just don’t.

Our writing reflects our lives, ourselves. I know things about my life that my readers probably will not guess at which I do not completely understand. But I’m willing to follow inspiration through the labyrinth toward a good story. I’m honored by the gift.

My novels have affected people. Many readers have left reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or written directly to me, or spoken to me, telling me what a story meant to them.

A few weeks ago some friends and I were driving to Great Sand Dune National Park. This amazing place is in my neighborhood. Both neighbors have read — and loved — my books. They understand what I’m trying to do now. Their understanding means a lot to me. We got on the subject of why I write, in passing, light conversation, and I said, “This might sound arrogant, but my books are what I have to share with others.”

My friend said, “That’s not arrogant at all.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to marthakennedy.co. Her daily blog can be found at http://marthakennedy.wordpress.com/

THE BROTHERS PATH, by Martha Kennedy

The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

Use this link for: The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.

If you haven’t read part I, you will find it here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART I 

You can find part II here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART II 


Me in Obfelden

Welcome back!

Today’s post is the second of three parts by the Martha Kennedy as she struggles with the ever-changing requirements of marketing a novel.

Many of us have trod this path. More will tread it soon. Each of us has one or more stories to share about the perils of publishing in a market that is constantly reinventing itself.

This is for all of us who have written books, are thinking about writing a book, or are attempting to market a book in a world where none of the old rules apply.

by Martha Kennedy

I once heard an agent speak to a group of writers. She said, “You have no idea how difficult our jobs are. We have to read all your manuscripts on our own time. We stay up late at night to get through all that.” Seriously. She said that.

This was at a well-known writer’s conference. I was listening to what had been billed as a presentation on, “Finding the Right Agent.” Hearing her, I thought, “Listen, Sweetcheeks. Your income comes from our work. If you don’t like your job, quit, but don’t insult the goose — geese — who lay your golden eggs, your Manhattan apartment, your travel allowance, and keep you in Manolo Blahnik shoes.”

At that same writer’s conference, I made appointments to pitch a novel that had once had an agent. That agent had not performed, so I had fired her and moved on. I knew the book was a very good book (it’s since won two awards). I signed up to talk to three agents during that conference at $40 a pop. My novel is about a man with leprosy. It’s set in the 13th century. The protagonist is an artist. Each agent had confirmed our pitch session and asked for a synopsis and a chapter or two so they would be prepared.

Here’s how that panned out.

One agent was sick of being an agent and sick of talking to authors, so I never got to give a pitch. She talked to me about the problems she was having with her teenaged son, then asked me to send the manuscript and never responded.

The next listened to my pitch and asked, “Have you done any research? Lots of you historical fiction people just make things up.” She asked for the manuscript and a list of sources.

The third listened to my pitch and at the end said, “So what happens to this guy? Does he get married and have kids? Or what?” (This story is about a leper, remember?)

I’m sure there are other kinds of agents. I just have not (yet) met one. Agents are the gate-keepers. To get access to major publishers, you must be an agented writer. There are almost no publishers available who will even consider a manuscript that is not submitted via an agent … and that means the agent must see your work as a future money-maker.


The advice you will get is inevitably “keep trying.” With rejection, you often get a note which says something along the lines of: “We accept new clients based solely upon the current needs and interests of this agency and we simply didn’t see a good match. Given that the publishing industry is admittedly subjective, no doubt another publisher will feel differently.”

“No mea culpa” it says. Not our fault. Annoying as that is to hear, it’s also true.

It means, “The market has little or no interest in this thing you’re trying to persuade us to represent. If it did, you can bet we’d be on it like piranhas on steak.” The only lie is that the publishing industry is “subjective.” It really isn’t. You can be sure they do good market research. While some publishers do not publish, say, “self-help” another publisher might. That’s the limit to the “subjectivity.”

That rejection, by the way, came from a small press who, the year before, had wanted to publish that very book.

When I got into this game there was no Internet. We had to use paper and envelopes and send everything with a(n) SASE. I actually found one of those in my file drawers last week with a hugely expensive return stamp on it and an address for where I lived fifteen years ago. “A relic,” I thought, “of forgotten times.” Though, truth be told (and why not?) a few agents will only accept paper queries. Hassle, yes, but they are possibly more likely to read your pitch for REAL. Here’s why…

My favorite rejection (and I can’t find it now that I want to quote it) was being told that when a particular agency ran my project through their computerized manuscript screening system, the algorithm responded that my work did not have the qualities deemed necessary to be a publishing success. I laughed at first, having been rejected by an algorithm, then I realized that with online submissions, a writer’s work is likely to be evaluated by a computer program designed to measure its probable marketability.

Which isn’t to say “don’t try.” Just know the cards are absolutely, certainly, 100% stacked against you unless you are keyed into the market; you are Dan Brown ahead of Dan Brown, so to speak. The downside to success (and it might not appear to be much of a downside) is that it’s very difficult for J. K. Rowling to write anything but Harry Potter. She wants to; she has a nom de plume under which she writes other things — none of them have had much success.

When you’re work is accepted by a publisher, you can get screwed in new and amazing ways. Many are the stories. Here’s mine. Last year I did the work of submitting my latest novel, The Brothers Path, to the available pantheon of agents and publishers who might be interested. I kept a spread sheet that helped me stay on top of the progress of the queries I’d sent.

The great day and jubilation came, and my novel, The Brothers Path, was accepted by two small publishers. I had to choose. My editor said it was an “embarrassment of riches,” but I didn’t feel that way because I had no crystal ball. Most other things being equal, one was closer and offered an earlier publication date, so I chose them, but with mixed feelings.

I was sent a good contract, signed it, prepared to move forward, still with my mixed feelings and the knowledge I’d have to talk to this publisher about one thing in particular …

You see, when I looked at their list of publications I saw Richard Wagner’s face on the cover of a book about Victorian England. I love Wagner. I figured “A book about Wagner!” and I checked the book out on Amazon. The story had nothing to do with Wagner.

Summoning my courage (after all the great big publisher was doing me the honor of publishing my book, right?) I told the publisher I was worried about the cover of my novel because, well, Wagner. He said he hadn’t known it was Wagner. He’d looked for free images of faces of 19th century men, and there was Wagner. He then let me know that he had since bought face recognition software (an algorithm?) so that wouldn’t happen again.

“And really,” he said, “how many American readers would recognize it?”

To myself, said, “I did.”

Things moved along fine until he went out of business. At the time, I was crushed. He sent me the formatted manuscript (a real boon to someone who knows she will be self-publishing). I set it up on Lulu and Createspace. Ordered some copies. Got them back and saw that this idiot had changed some of the words in my novel so that one or two important passages no longer made sense. I know I should have checked earlier, but…

If he’d read my book, he hadn’t understood it. He changed the word “fall” to “autumn” when it was used in a conversation between two clerics who are discussing the Garden of Eden and the discovery of human sexuality:

“Tell me, Brother. How many men and women come to you with stories of carnal desires and sin? And how many of those are members of your own order?”

Hannes answered honestly. “Everyone does. Everyone.”

“It is our nature. The Bible tells us to go into the Earth and be fruitful and multiply.”

“After the Fall Autumn, Brother Leo.”

He had changed “After the Fall” to “After the Autumn,” thus rendering the passage to mean that people couldn’t have sex until after December 21.

Since then there has not been a day I have not felt grateful to the fates for the way things turned out. “More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones.” St. Teresa of Avila, but hey. I read that in Truman Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Jonny Geller is a literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown, the world’s oldest Literary and Talent agency, based in London looks at what lies behind some of the most successful books of recent years. He explores the patterns and trends underlying their popularity and describes what a literary agent looks for in a writer.

72-The Bros Path Cover PromoThe world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.

If you haven’t read part I, you will find it here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART I

Come back next Saturday for part III of “So you want to be a writer.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to Historical Fiction by Martha Kennedy. Her daily blog is Where’s the Windmill?