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  • JillianForsberg

How I Got My Publisher: A Querying Journey





If you're reading this, you likely know the news! I've signed with History Through Fiction to publish The Rhino Keeper. I am so, so excited to get this book to you, readers! But I can't pretend it's been easy...


The blog post many of you have been waiting for: How I got my publisher. A story of kismet, manifestation, and flowers on fences.


I started querying way too early - my lovely manuscript was 128k words. It was more than wordy, it was a wild jungle of backstory and side plots that were unnecessary, but I loved it. I still have it, buried in Google docs. I call it the “director’s cut” and joke that when Hollywood comes calling I’ll slide them that version.


But my first queries, sent in late January and early February, were dead in the water and I know that epic word count was to partly blame. My writing buddy who offered to read my query pointed this out to me. Kate Khavari said, you gotta get this under 120k.


So I did. Down to 106k. And my first full request came the next week, in March. It was my 9th query. I had just gotten rejected for the sixth time, and hopped on my spin bike to shake off my sadness. I thought - what would it be like to send a text to my mentor Jenna Blum that said: full request! I day-dreamed about it, visibly holding the text message I would send to her in my mind's eye.


I finished my workout and checked my phone. In my email from an agent:


“While this isn’t a fit for me, I’ve shared your query with my colleague and she’d like to take a look at the full manuscript.”


Excuse me?! I was THRILLED. It made me believe this story had merit, and I could really do this. I texted Jenna. I called my parents and my husband. I looked up the agent.


And I gasped. She was a HUGE agent - we’re talking NYT bestsellers, former presidents, big stuff. I was shaking. I hadn’t even queried her.


I sent off my manuscript and basically floated for nine days, until her assistant emailed me back, kindly passing.


Their reasoning was a hard sell in fiction, as the agent mostly did non-fiction. I was devastated.


My husband was so cute, telling me to email her back asking if she was sure. Ha! Instead, I thanked both the agent and her assistant for their time and got a little teary and moved on. It made me feel like I could totally do this. But it got hard, and my inbox filled with rejections.


My therapist told me I needed to reframe my thinking when I got rejections. They felt crippling. Back then, anxiety-adrenaline pumped through me, making me shaky and nauseous. I absolutely had to change my mindset.


So I went to a junk shop, trying to find something to use as a canvas. I had inspiration to do something creative when I got rejections. I found a section of white picket fence, and took it home where I painted a massive tulip on it.



From then on, every time I got a rejection, I painted another flower. I sent more queries. I got more rejections, both from the 128k manuscript queries and 106k manuscript queries I’d sent.


Then #RevPit happened. I wasn’t chosen. So I painted a bee. But the next day I got notified that my query was chosen for 10Queries. I messaged the editor right away, scheduling a time to talk to her about my first ten pages and my query letter.


At the end of that Zoom call with Maria Tureaud, I felt absolutely wonderful. My story had brought tears to her eyes, and I had a clear shot at improving my query and my pages.


I sent more out after that edit. And I got a surprise in May. On Twitter, an agent was doing a comps thread: tell me your comps, I’ll tell you my first impressions. So I commented. She replied back: you’re comping some of my favorites here. Query when ready.


I was jaw-dropped. I sent it the next day, and she replied almost immediately saying I’d hear back from her in two weeks or less. It was two days.


But it wasn’t exactly the news I wanted: it was a revise and resubmit. She wanted me to drop it to 95k words, add more tension, closer pov writing, and to change one of my timelines from first person to third.


It was a lot. However, I had nothing to lose. After no requests for two months, I dove in full force. I asked her for a deadline and she said August, giving me three months to work.


But I’m fast, yall. And hungry. I finished the edits by Memorial Day, completely rewriting and deepening a character, changing first person to third, and cutting 12k more words.


I now had a 94k word manuscript and entirely different vibe for the first pages. And then, the day after I made my last edits, I got another request. A partial, asking for 50 pages.


It was from a query sent over 60 days ago, when my book was still 106k words. But this agency didn’t ask for pages upon initial query, just a query letter, so they hadn’t read anything. In this case, it wasn’t a bad thing. I told them I’d made changes and dropped the word count.


I called my mom who’s been a copy editor for years, and we edited like crazy, making sure those first pages were as clean as can be. I sent it off the next morning and began cleaning up the rest of the manuscript, fifty pages at a time.


When you take out that many words, y’all, chasms exist. You have to sew it back together. So that’s what I did. And just in time. On a Monday, just a few weeks after the partial request, they asked for the full.


That week, I was scheduled to leave for my first writing conference. That Wednesday, I saw on Twitter that the same agent who upgraded my partial to a full was going to be at that conference.


It was shaping up to be a great week- full request, polished manuscript, writing conference! I met up with my friend Kate the first night and told her the agent with my manuscript would be there.


Not five minutes after we talked about it, the agent stepped off the elevator and into the lobby. I was flabbergasted. What should I do?! Go up to her?! What would I say?! So Kate calmed me down and we made a plan. I would introduce myself with no preconceived notions of what would happen.


I waited for a lull in her conversation and approached. I showed her my name badge and shook her hand… she gasped.


“Oh! The Rhino Keeper! I absolutely love it.”

I said internally: No way you’re kidding.

We spoke for 15 minutes or so, and I definitely blacked out for some of it, but the things she said to me were life changing.

“I can just see this book cover.”

“Of the thirty partials we requested, your full was the only one I personally wanted.”

“My husband said it was right up my alley.”

And the kicker:

“I make no promises.”


And I absorbed it all. She had questions, I answered them. She asked if I’d be willing to write about my full time job. She asked about my background and my research. And I told her I was open to revisions and changes, no matter how drastic.


I floated. We walked up to dinner together and said goodbye as she joined her colleagues. Kate said I looked like a teenage girl after a date.


The next day, I met two of the authors who are signed with this agent and asked them about their experiences. It was good stuff.


Then the foreign rights manager for the agency approached me and said she was introducing herself so I could put a name to a face. She said it might be awhile. I told her I was young and patient. I floated higher.


At the end of the conference, there was a book fair. Authors piled their works on the tables in front of them: NYT bestsellers, self-pubbed, small press, agented, unagented. I wandered around, taking every piece of material anyone would give, signing up for every newsletter I could. I asked every single author about their books. I spent over an hour there.


Wandering the crowd was a younger man I’d seen a few times during the conference - I knew he had connections as he was the mediator for a few panels, but I wasn’t sure of his role. He asked me what I wrote and listened earnestly. I told him about my book, and at the end of the conversation he revealed he was the owner of a small publishing company.


He asked me to submit to them in September when they opened for submissions. Wh…what? Submit directly to a publisher?? Heck yes! I had heard of this before. Small press is a published book, with a tighter focus and smaller readership. I took his information and practically skipped to my hotel room, hands full of materials from authors and a heart full of hope.


I went home in this surreal headspace that I met both an agent and publisher who loved my concept.


Then two weeks later, I got another full request.

And then a week after that, I got another. Every Monday for 5 weeks, I got a full request. Things were happening!

By August, I had 6 full requests pending.

The agents encompassed everything: 7-figure deal makers, new agents, heads of agencies, agents expanding their adult lists. Big ones, small ones. I still hadn’t heard back from the agent I met at the conference. The publisher was still closed to submissions.


And remember that agent who requested the revise and resubmit? It was time to send her my new version.


I emailed her in early August: “Hey, still interested? Done with your requested revisions, and I have multiple fulls out now.” She responded quickly asking for the revised version. And replied two days later.


Now, folks, this is where things get tough. You must, MUST develop thick skin during this process, or you will absolutely fail. At this point, I had 32 rejections and 6 fulls. Remember my flower fence? It was blooming. I was almost out of space.



The rejection from this agent on my R&R…I will absolutely admit to you that I cried. I won’t go into details, but let's just say that if agents read this, make sure your rejections are kind. It felt like I’d been struck with an axe.


I had worked my butt off, to make things how I thought she’d want them. It still wasn’t good enough. Would it EVER be good enough…for anyone?


That was early August. By the end of the month, none of the other agents had responded to my fulls. But September 1, the publisher opened. I took a deep breath and considered my options:


What was my end game? Big 5? Big agent? Big…anything? Reality is, I don’t want to quit my day job, which I love. But I do want to keep writing forever, and I want something to show for it. My end game is a published book, however that happens.


After the conference I looked into this publisher more. I admire their work and their presence online. I like the way they treat their readers and authors. I like the books they publish: the covers, the subjects, the variety, the quality.


So, I submitted the day they opened, and was sitting in my parent’s house the next afternoon (Labor Day weekend Saturday, no less) when I got the full request from them. I jumped off the couch with joy.


Full request number 8. A publisher! Could I skip the agent altogether? I didn’t ever think it was possible for me, but here I was, inching closer to a book in my hands. What were the odd that I would meet an interested agent and publisher both at the same conference...? Kismet.


The other fulls were pending - out of the 8, 3 had said no. 5 to go, publisher included. At this point, I wasn’t actively sending out queries. I just didn’t have it in me to add more to my rejections or fulls, and the agents I wanted to work with most were reading.


Then, first week of October was a full roller coaster:


On Monday evening, my beloved Sphynx cat Smeagol unexpectedly died in my arms.


On Tuesday, I was an absolute mess mourning my buddy, who’d been with me for 11 years and slept by my side every night. It was shattering.


On Wednesday, a form rejection on a full that was requested 100 days prior came in. I responded, as I alway do to rejections, in a kind way thanking them for reading even a single word. My characters, you see, live only through the minds of readers, and agents reading give them life, even if they reject. But I was still reeling, mourning. She replied to my response, to my surprise. She thanked me for being kind. Remarkable, that we are thanked for that in this industry.


On Thursday, I went to work and contemplated the future of my project. Will I continue to query if all of my pending fulls say no? I didn’t know. Some of my racing thoughts were from my fragile mental status about my cat, certainly. But some of my thoughts revolved around the fact that I had done everything asked of me, and I was still told it wasn’t good enough. Plus, my flower fence was almost full.


On Friday, an email popped into my inbox. It was the publisher.


“The Rhino Keeper is wonderful…”

I kept reading, expecting the “but”... bracing myself, numb to the words that always followed.


The “but” wasn’t there.


History Through Fiction would be honored to be its publisher.”


Wait…what!?


I wish I could tell you that I screamed or ran around the house or cried or laughed or something joyful.


But instead, after over 40 rejections, I felt absolute RELIEF. Now, I know that many writers have it way worse than me. I know of writers who have queried for years, received rejections in the hundreds. Believe me when I say I know I am lucky.


My Zoom call the following Monday was lovely. Having met the publisher before, I felt comfortable on the call, and when he talked about the changes he would make, I had several “DUH” moments. No one, not even my beta readers, other writers, mentors, agents, or editors, had given me such clarity on this work.


I left thecall feeling like I had a warm blanket wrapped around me. I saw a clear future, with a book in my hands.


But I still had 3 other fulls out. I nudged that night, giving the standard two-week notice.


Who was left? An agent with 7-figure deals, an agent with tons of authors and book deals, and the agent I met at the conference who told me she loved this concept.


The first two agents responded right away, congratulating me and saying they’d meet my 2 week deadline. The third did not respond. I was taken aback by this - mostly because she seemed so enthusiastic at the conference.


The agent with 7-figure deals responded 8 days later, kindly passing. 2 to go. The agent with tons of authors was overseas working, reading. The agent I met at the conference, who I’d been patiently waiting on, sure she’d sign me, still had not responded. The deadline loomed.


I nudged her again. No response. More days passed. Then I nudged a third time. Had she received my emails…? She finally responded on the Friday before my deadline, the longest and most specific rejection I received.


It was no lie that she loved it, emphasizing what she told me at the conference. She italicized the word “love” in her email. She apologized for the delay, saying it was mostly because she was truly on the fence. Her reasons for rejection were valid and I took them all in, not without sadness. Here's her flower, on the flipped side of the fence.




I truly thought, despite the four months that had passed, that she would be my agent. It was just a solid fact in my mind. To change that, to take a different road, felt strange. Almost abandoning a reality that I had held true, that had buoyed me through rejection after rejection. However, I was told to my face by an agent that she loved my book. That's a moment I will cherish forever, regardless of the outcome.


Her email opened saying she was stepping aside so I had a clear path with the publisher. The reasons she had for passing on the manuscript were the exact things that the publisher had vision on. Her passing meant I was one step closer to this book in my hands, regardless of how I got there.


Now, in hindsight, I’m extremely glad we had that conversation at the conference, regardless of how it turned out. She really liked it. Having one person, just one, tell you they like your book is like wearing a life jacket. I’m forever grateful for her.


The remaining agent passed the morning of my deadline, with grace and kindness.


I now had a completely clear path to publication. I could have a published book before the next conference where I'd met the publisher and agent.


I emailed the publisher.


The next day, I went to the rhino barn at the Sedgwick County Zoo where I signed my contract. I had another meeting with the publisher the day after, and once again felt that warm-blanket feeling.




Announcing that I signed with a publisher for THE RHINO KEEPER was one of the most joyous events in my life.


Will I abandon querying and seeking an agent forever? I don’t know. I have a list of many books waiting to be written. I have a companion novel to TRK almost done. But I have learned through this that if your goal is to get your book published, you have to be creative and seek out the lesser-known paths.


For now, it’s a huge relief to not refresh QueryTracker every day, and to think about the future with a book in my hands. Plus I have a really pretty fence and got a lot better at painting flowers.


I have no regrets, friends, and I cannot wait for you to read this book.


QUERY STATS:

Start date: 1/31/23

Offer date: 10/6/23

Sent: 64

Full Requests: 8, 12.5%

Partial Requests: 2

Partials Upgraded to Fulls: 2/2, 100%

Revise & Resubmits: 1

MoodPitch Agent Likes: 1

Form Rejections: 42, 66%

Personalized Rejections, queries: 4

Personalized Rejections, fulls: 6

Closed No Response: 18



318 views7 comments

7 Comments


Beth Cates
Beth Cates
Oct 29, 2023

Whoo hoo! What a glorious fence. 🙌 I can't wait to read it!

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Rachelle Kuehl
Rachelle Kuehl
Oct 29, 2023

Thank you for this amazing insight into the persistence it takes to become a published author, and congratulations on pressing through and finding the right publisher in the end! I love the flower fence and I can't wait to read The Rhino Keeper. Best of luck!!!

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JillianForsberg
Nov 17, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much Rachelle!

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beckibowman
Oct 28, 2023

You are a strong writer, Jillian. Reading about your process is inspiring. I love the work you've put into this, and more... that it paid off! I can't wait to order a copy of your book!

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JillianForsberg
Oct 28, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much, Becki. I must say my education has helped immensely with every part of this process and I’m very grateful for your influence and support!

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Olivia Sun
Olivia Sun
Oct 27, 2023

Hi Jillian! CONGRATS! Just read the article and was smiling the whole time. As a querying author, I hope to be as encouraging and warm and honest about the whole experience as you are when I get to the other side. Will be cheering you on, and hope that you're enjoying every bit of your success! You deserve it.

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JillianForsberg
Oct 27, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much Olivia! Feel free to reach out any time. I am happy to support you! Good luck - it WILL happen!

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