How I Got Published in the New York Times On My First Try (And What Happened Next)

Photo by Alexander Torrenegra
Photo by Alexander Torrenegra

Please welcome today’s guest, Karin Gillespie, a “Midwestern girl who is still trying to get the hang of being Southern.” Karin has an MFA in creative writing and is the author of five novels, including the Bottom Dollar series. Her latest novel, Girl Meet Class, will be released next year. She’s also a humor columnist for Augusta Magazine, and teaches composition at GRU. Her work as appeared in The Writer, Romantic Times and The Gray Lady.

You can learn more about Karin on her website and blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

How I Got Published in the New York Times On My First Try (And What Happened Next) 

One of my favorite movies is Julie and Julia. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of a young woman named Julie Powell who cooks Julia Child’s recipes and blogs about her experiences. Powell is eventually featured in the New York Times and after the paper comes out, she’s deluged with calls from agents and editors. And later, of course, Amy Adams plays her in a Nora Ephron movie. What more could a writer ask for?

Ever since I saw Julie and Julia I wanted to be in the New York Times. “Wanted” is the key word here; I didn’t lift a finger to make it happen. Instead, I filed it away with other impossible dreams like wanting to be a supermodel (I’m five foot two, middle-aged and a size eight) or winning the lottery (even though I never buy tickets). Meanwhile I’d written my sixth novel, and my literary agent was submitting it to editors. I’m a multi-published author with respectable sales, and I thought this new novel was my best ever. I was cautiously hoping for an auction, and if not an auction definitely a pre-empt. If not a pre-empt, a six-figure deal. Okay. I’d take five figures but that’s as low as I’d go. I have my standards.

Days passed… nothing. Weeks passed… a few rejections trickled in. Months passed… nada. It was as if my manuscript had been sucked into a black hole of indifference.

Was it my lack of platform?

I’d taken a break from publishing and gone back to graduate school to improve my writing chops. Likely the publishing world considered me a has-been, which meant I probably needed to increase my profile. But where to start? I Googled “author platform” and found an interview with a literary agent. She said one of the best ways to get the attention of editors was to be published in the New York Times. There it was again. But which section? (If you’ve ever seen my wardrobe and hairstyle you’d know “Style” wasn’t an option.)

I kept an eye out for timely topics and noticed MFA programs were trending. Lucky me! I’d recently graduated from an MFA program. Unfortunately so had thousands of other writers; I needed a unique approach. My published novels were Southern chick lit. Maybe that was my angle: Bridget Jones Meets Breadloaf. I wrote the essay, crafted a pitch, and submitted it to the Op-Ed section. The guidelines say that if you don’t hear back from the editor for three days, you can assume they’ve passed on your work. Guess what? Three days went by and no news.

But on the fourth day, there it was: An acceptance from the New York Times.

At first I thought it had to be a hallucination. I’m used to experiencing extreme suffering before something positive happens to me, and my suffering for this piece had been minimal. (I’d gotten a small paper cut after reading through my final draft.) I immediately emailed my agent and said, “Can we leverage this publicity?” What I really meant was, “Let the auction begin!” Meanwhile I was trying to think about who might play me in the movie of my life. (Amy Adams was too young. Maybe Nicole Kidman?)

“Masters in Chick Lit” appeared in the Sunday Times, taking up an entire page. Sadly it did not immediately generate dozens of calls from editors and film producers. Instead it entered the world with the fanfare of a newly hatched mealworm. On Monday I couldn’t even find it on the web site, and I assumed it was such failure that the Times had buried it and kicked dirt over it, hoping that no one would ever mention it again. On Tuesday morning my fortunes changed; my husband woke me up and said, “They’re featuring your piece on the front page of the web site.”

That’s when things finally started to take off.

I got oodles of comments, including one from Writers Unboxed’s own Donald Maass. The book editor at the Washington Post asked me if I’d do a review for him. Then author Anne Rice tweeted about it. (Yes! Maybe there’d be a movie after all.) I became obsessed with my computer, following the tweets, comments, and email. At some point in the day, Elizabeth Gilbert tweeted, blogged and Facebooked my piece saying, “I think this is just freaking great. Made me want to stand up and cheer.” This is only the beginning, I thought. Elizabeth Gilbert today… tomorrow the world.

As it turned out, the Elizabeth Gilbert shout-out was not the beginning, but the end of my five minutes of fame. The next day my piece disappeared from the front page of the web site. The tweets, emails, comments and Facebook posts slowed and eventually stopped completely. That’s okay, I thought. I’d console myself with the super-duper book deal that was obviously in my future. A few days passed and no excited phone calls from my agent. A couple more rejections came in, and then it was black hole time again. Karin Gillespie who?

It took me a couple of days to put my experience in perspective. As I said, my initial motivation for writing the piece was to increase my platform and thus become cat nip for Big-Five editors. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I heard from dozens of readers who passionately connected with my words. And, of course, that’s ultimately why I write. Not just to get a platform, but to reach people and possibly make them laugh, recognize themselves or slightly change their world view, even if it’s only for a day or two. So I didn’t get a Big-Five publishing deal, (what do you people want from me, my own reality show?) but I connected with thousands of readers, and in that regard, my Times piece was a wild success.

p.s. A couple of weeks later I signed a book deal but it had nothing to do with my essay. I was at a book festival and hooked up with an editor of Henery Press, a small but up-and-coming publisher. She read my novel in two days and offered on it.

Have you ever taken a big chance? Reached for the moon and snagged a piece of it? Tell us about it in comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    I love what you write and Congratulations. Wow, the New York Times!
    I have had a similar experience (not as big, of course!) and learnt similar lessons. I live in Sydney, Australia and The Sydney Morning Herald is the main newspaper here. My 1st book was published by Simon and Schuster, (before social media ‘took off’) on Westerners meeting Buddhist Teachers and finding meaning in their lives. It is now on Amazon etc, titled, “A Search for Meaning. Connecting with Buddhist teachers”. (I was an unknown author, and have worked as a Process Oriented therapist for most of my life, so it was truly amazing it was published!)
    Anyway I and my book ended up on a one page article in the Sydney Morning Herald sharing the page and photos with a well known Buddhist teacher who had just released a movie called ‘The Cup’.
    Recently, which is years later and out of the blue, the same paper contacted me again for 3 articles on love and relationships etc. and out of that, came radio interviews.
    I have realised though, that I write because I love writing. My 2nd book is a love story set in the Himalayas. Articles, radio and social media comes and goes and doesn’t necessarily give me paid work or actually many more book sales. As a ‘newbie,’ I struggle with the ‘marketing’ aspect. I write because if one reader enjoys or benefits in some way from my writing, I am happy.
    But in quiet moments, I have a little smile on my lips and contentment, because if I can do it, everyone else can too!

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  2. says

    Thanks for your comment, Sherry. That must have been extremely exciting and who knew it would pay off for so many years? And your’re right. Big publicity doesn’t always translate into book sales.

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  3. says

    I love the modern age – in two seconds flat I was reading “Masters in Chick Lit” – and chuckling along with your prose and insights.

    I’m old enough to remember when the idea would have gone on a piece of paper to ask the reference librarian on our next trip to the library – this is much better.

    Struggling to find the way you write consumes most of the first million words – and a lot of those are as they say of advertising: 50% of advertising is wasted, but you don’t know in advance WHICH 50%.

    Being funny is a huge gift – I get it in an occasional tiny witticism for one of my characters. Bringing laughter and smiles to the world is something you should be extremely proud of – even if your MFA friends turn up their collective noses.

    Laugh all the way to the bank – and you’ve ALREADY been in the NYT. No one can take that away from you.

    I’m literally green with you-know-what – but I’m sitting here smiling.

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  4. says

    Hi Alice,

    Thanks for your kind words! And I remember those trips to the library as well. I feel so lucky to be a writer in times when you can find what you need with a couple of clicks.

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  5. says

    This is a great post. I only dream of being published in the times one day. I’m an author of 5 novels that I have self-published. I’m not writing my 6th novel and I will be looking for an agent for that one. I want to see what it is like to belong to a traditional publisher. May I ask, what is your writing process? Do you feel that an author can get picked up from blogging or being a self-published author?

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    • says

      Hi Krystol,

      I write ever day and try to set a word count goal. And yes, definitely self-published authors and bloggers get agents all the time. Hugh Howey is a great example. You should check out his web site; it has a lot of great information there.

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  6. says

    What I love about this whole story, Karin, is that you went out there and took a chance. You did it! And while there’s no Karin and Karen movie in the works (yet!) you put yourself out there and thousands of people got a chance to experience your wonderful voice and take on the writing world.

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  7. says

    Congratulations, Karin. That’s quite an achievement. I’ve never been published in The New York Times, but when I self-published my first novel, I used my media savvy gained from 15 years as a newspaper reporter to convince several local media outlets to do a story on me. My local paper published it on page one with a nice photo of me. Guess how many sales these efforts generated? None. Writer Unboxed was kind enough to allow me to do a guest post. I didn’t do it to generate sales. I did it because I love this writing community and wanted to share my experiences. Again, it generated no sales. What I have found, though, is that these efforts are worth the time because the unknown author must create what Bob Mayer calls discoverability. Thank you for sharing your experiences and good luck with your new novel.

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    • says

      Hi CG,

      I agree that books sales don’t always increase as a result of big media hits. But you get name recognition and it’s a great way to building up your email list.

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  8. says

    Karin, as another Midwestern girl getting the hang of being Southern, or I should say Texan, which is a unique subset of Southern, I LOVED your post and your story. How can you be so sure that the NYT article didn’t influence your publisher? Just wondering…

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    • says

      Hi Mia,

      Thanks so much. I suppose it could have, but I didn’t get that impression. Regardless I’m very happy that I ran into the editor when I did.

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  9. says

    Terrific, Karin. I loved your “go get ’em” spirit + your honesty that it wasn’t the Hollywood ending you’d hoped for. Still, you did make a powerful connection with others, and that’s what matters most. Congrats!

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  10. says

    I can easily see why the Times picked your article up. When I read the title of this post, I cringed and peeked through my fingers as I read, waiting for the inevitable chest-puffing that was to follow. Your lighthearted, self-deprecating humor was such a nice surprise–and the dose of reality that came with it was much appreciated! (As you know, we writers have egos about as substantial as skim milk…)

    I won’t hesitate to say it–CONGRATS on your NYT article! I’m so happy to hear that you connected with thousands of readers. That’s what writing is all about, as you said! (And congrats on the ensuing, unconnected book deal–woot!)

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  11. says

    Congratulations on your deal with The Henery! The editor, Kendel Lynn, is a writer, too, and both she and her author LynDee Walker were nominated (along with me and two others) for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel; the five of us shared a panel together at the Malice Domestic Convention. Lots of fun. She’s smart and savvy, and I think you’ll love being part of the hen house!

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  12. says

    Karen Gillespie, I congratulate you too, getting published in The New York Times. That’s quite an achievement. You “Googled Author Platform,” smart and so cyber highway. Anyway, after reading your story I remembered a blog post I’d written back in 2006. I thought it was worth blogging about when I’d read how an author got noticed and increased sales of her book by being published in The New York Times.

    I loved what you wrote in Writer Unboxed–how the experience of being published in The New York Times “put my experience in perspective. …”readers who passionately connected with my words.”

    I connected with your words too reading the first chapter of “Girl in Deep,” on your web site. Bravo!

    Here’s an Excerpt of my Blog Post:

    This post goes back to 2006, but it’s worth an up-date. Here’s the scoop. Katha Pollitt, a published author wanted to get noticed in the New York Times. 

    On Wednesday, July 12, 2006, Katha Pollitt sent her bad reviewed book, “Virginia or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time,” to the New York Times. I read her story and so did many other readers; but if you haven’t read her story, let me tell you it’s a great way to get your book noticed. She gained a higher ranking scale at Amazon.com. 

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  13. says

    Hi Nanette,

    Sounds like you’ve been blogging almost as long as I have. And thanks for your compliments and visiting the web site. I will check out the entire blog post.

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  14. says

    Congrats, Karin, on your accomplishments!

    I enjoyed reading this post (and especially the witty parts in parentheses) and think that all dreams can come true if you want them badly enough.

    Write on!

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  15. says

    I enjoyed reading this article! It gives me hope, not of one day being published in the New York Times (although that would be great), but of one day connecting with readers who are passionate about my words. Also, the end of your story is inspiring, as it shows that things happen (like book deals) when they are supposed to happen. Thank you!

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  16. says

    Although my experience is not at this level, I can SO relate. I am a military spouse, and while we were stationed in Germany, I took an essay I had written on marriage and sent it out to several newspapers just for the hell of it. Well, I got a call from an uncle in DC because he was reading my essay on the Metro page in the Washington Post. It was not a literary feature like your NYT piece — rather a “dispatch” from the public — but I was thrilled nonetheless. My article was on WashPo’s most emailed list all week, and I got great comments on the website. I thought this feather in my cap would help me launch a newspaper columnist and/or freelance writing career, but really, it had very little effect. Five years later, I have self-syndicated my column to 17 military newspapers who are unable to pay freelancers due to strict military regulations. I have one low paying civilian daily newspaper, and I contribute to various magazines and publications. Nothing came easy – it took hours of writing and loads of hard work at the computer contacting editors and figuring out the industry. The well-paid “career” I thought I’d have has not materialized; however, without the push of the WashPo piece, I may have never taken on the challenge. At the very least, I know I will have a compilation book full of personal essays to hand down to my children one day, so I am thankful for that. Thanks for this posting!

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  17. says

    Hi Karin,

    I remember reading that piece in the NYT when it came out. It left quite an impression on me, because as soon as I began reading the WU post, I knew exactly what you were talking about.

    What I love about learning about other writers is that there are so many paths to take. It may not have gained you a deal, but I think the NYT piece probably resonated with a lot of people out there whose work doesn’t fit the profile of what some would consider typical of an MFA program. I know I appreciated it!

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  18. says

    Oops. I switched order of replies. This is for Lisa. It does take a lot of work, I agree! I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for this gig two decades ago.

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  19. says

    Karin,

    You know how sometimes people say ‘I know exactly how you feel’ but in the back of your head you think: ‘no, you really don’t’. Well I actually know exactly how you feel. I had my first piece of published writing ever about three weeks ago in the NYT Style section (oddly enough, since my ‘wardrobe’ and hairstyle–I shave my head– are as unlikely as yours) It was a column for Modern Love called ‘In a small bag, she packed all our hopes. It was also adapted as a short by a great artist Freddy Arenas. While I received enormous response and all of it positive, as far as business goes…a big fat nothing.
    However, one really memorable thing happened. In the run up to print I had a short email conversation with the copy editor and she was really generous in her praise. Now that was something.
    Anyways, good luck down the road.

    Best,
    Tim

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  20. says

    Loved the NYT piece and I was one of the many tweeting and posting it on FB. Love this honest follow up, too.

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  21. says

    I remember reading your essay and loving it, Karin! Thanks for sharing a behind-the-scenes look at it. I think anything NYTimes related usually has so much mystique surrounding it, so it’s nice to get a glimpse (and some perspective, more importantly).

    HUGE congrats on your book deal!!!

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  22. says

    We are all chasing dreams with our pens and with our fingers either flying or slogging across our keyboards. My first novel, Sisters of the Dream, was published in 1989, my third, 29, comes out this August – 2014. Generous-hearted editors have taught me much in the years between. There was a time when a good writer could build her/his “career”: write and submit to small magazines, literary journals and writing competitions; begin to build a track record; hunt for an agent who valued track records… It is different now. I began teaching writing fifteen years ago to support myself. In those years, I’ve learned and taught a way to keep chasing dreams with our writing. Please check out my website: http://breakthroughwriting.net and Breakthrough’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/marysojournerbreakthrough?ref=hl I post free weekly writing tips, exercises and games. They will help keep your dreams alive. Brava, Karin for adding to the dreams.

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  23. Renee MacKenzie says

    Hi Karin, what a great post. As always your blog is fun and inspiring. I often feel like a “newly-hatched mealworm,” so I can relate to that part. Best of luck with the new book. I can’t wait for it to come out.

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  24. says

    Such an inspiration! Writing as you mentioned is something fills you from within and if it makes other people happy – there is nothing like it! My 2 page bucket is growing each day with “Newyork times” being somewhere in the list, probably along with swimming with dolphins!
    Here’s to our dreams and hopes!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Cheers,
    best of wishes.
    Zinnia

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