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Publishing by the Numbers by Nita Sweeney

It took me decades to become an “overnight sensation.”

Sometimes people get “discovered.” The young daughter of a friend, for example, wound up modeling in New York after a talent scout saw her in a Newark, Ohio shopping mall.

That was not my experience.

In 2015, I told a writer friend over the phone, "I just want my name on the cover of a book."

She guffawed so loudly, I heard it all the way across the country.

“If that's what you wanted, you would have self-published years ago!” My clenched stomach agreed with her.

I began to write my first book-length work in 1994, shortly after I stopped practicing law. I was thirty-three. From then until that phone call, I participated in numerous National Novel Writing Months, took countless writing workshops, and completed an MFA program in creative writing.

As I talked to my friend on the phone, I made a mental list of the books I’d previously written. Nine books. Zero published. But now, after many revisions, I had a book I felt was worth pitching, a memoir about how running with my dog improved my mental health.

Nita Sweeney’s new favorite sport is signing books. She’s shown here with “Kelley from the book” at the launch of  Depression Hates a Moving Target.

Nita Sweeney’s new favorite sport is signing books. She’s shown here with “Kelley from the book” at the launch of Depression Hates a Moving Target.

My friend and I hatched a three-part plan.

A) Pitch to agents.
B) Pitch to publishers who don’t require an agent.
C) Self-publish.

Before I launched in, I took a book marketing class to prepare the requisite materials for pitching. These included a query letter, author bio, synopsis, and sample chapters. The class discussed book proposals, but I secretly hoped I wouldn’t need one since publishers tend to judge memoir more by the writing and the story, but I knew that might be a delusion.

Armed with my pitch materials, I began!

Part A:

I used Querytracker.net to search for agents interested in books like mine. Querytracker links to each agent profile, includes a list of their known clients, and their agency website. If an agent looked promising, I went to the website to find that agent’s specific submission guidelines.

On May 14, 2016, I sent my first query to an agent. Over the next year, I pitched 108 agents and received fifty rejections including two requests for pages. The rest of the queries remain unanswered.

Part B:

Four months into that year, I grew antsy from the rejections. While continuing to query agents, I began to look for publishers who accept unagented submissions. Querytracker helped me make a short list, but I also used New Pages and Submittable, and suggestions from writer friends. Once I had a list, I separated it into two groups: publishers who requested proposals and those who did not.

On September 26, 2016, I queried the first publisher while continuing to pitch agents. Despite my hope, I soon exhausted the list of publishers who didn’t want proposals. At that point, I let go of the idea of getting an agent and fully jumped into “Part B.” I took a course in how to write a book proposal, wrote one, then began pitching those publishers.

By August of 2018, I had sent 134 pitches to publishers. Before I was through, I would receive 77 rejections and 12 positive replies including several requests for revisions. Forty-five publishers didn’t respond at all.

Since many presses hold contests with publication as the prize, I also entered thirty contests. The book made the “short list” of one contest, a “finalist” honor I cherish.

Still, the rejections stung. Some were laughable form letters. Others, the harshest ones, I unintentionally memorized. I saved them all. My husband and friends listened as I cried, yelled, and moped. I took the dog for runs or long, slow walks. I ate more than I should.

And, I continued to pitch the book.

Inches from Part C:

NitaSweeneyScreen Shot 2019-08-20 at 9.16.39 AM.png

As the days passed and rejections continued to roll in, I contacted friends and companies about self-publishing. Prices ranged from $100 to $10,000. My head spun with the options. It would be its own marathon.

And, I continued to pitch the book.

Finally, after a false start (a lost email) and two frantic weeks of scampering to improve my social media numbers, on August 23, 2018, more than two years after I implemented the plan, I was “discovered.” 

Brenda Knight, Associate Editor of Mango Publishing, sent the magic email:

"We want to move forward and publish your book."

 Book number ten.

I was 56.

Why do I tell you these numbers? To prepare you for what publishing might require

Of course, it might not. You might find an agent the first week you send queries. You might get an offer from the second publisher you pitch. You might win the third contest you enter. Or, you might decide to self-publish and bypass parts A & B altogether. But I want you to know what it might look like. 

I also share my statistics to encourage you to please, never give up. I was 33 when I wrote my first book-length work and 56 when I received Mango’s offer.

Twenty-three years.
108 Agents
134 Editors
30 Contests
One book.

It's never too late to chase your dreams!


Nita Sweeney is a writing coach, marathoner, mental health advocate, and the author of the memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. She lives in central Ohio with her husband and best friend, Ed, and their yellow Labrador retriever, Scarlet, the #ninetyninepercentgooddog. For more information, visit her website.