I wrote my first novel in 1994, when self-publishing was like substance abuse: whispered about in dark corners, the afflicted looked upon with pity-filled glances. If I wanted to see this puppy in print I had two viable options: large press or small press, but both involved a thumbs-up from a gatekeeper.
I chose the large press route. For that, you needed a literary agent. Because that was The Way It Was Done Back Then. (And maybe still is, but I haven’t been in that burg for a while.) If you weren’t Clive Cussler’s nephew’s babysitter, you needed a literary agent or you went into the slush pile with the other wannabes. Blind determination netted me 138 rejections from literary agencies from New York to Los Angeles. As I move toward my third published book, and second self-published one, I’ve been thinking about the lessons learned from that dogged (if misguided) persistence.
1. I was overeager and rushed to market before I was ready. Even though I’d written several drafts and shared them with my critique team, the book had not been professionally edited. I thought my own eye—weary after staring at the thing, draft after draft—was enough. Several agent rejection letters suggested the manuscript could benefit from a trip to a wood chipper book doctor (as “content editors” were once called, probably to make them sound less scary to newbies), but I was too full of myself to consider the idea.
2. I was still an “apprentice” writer, but was too blinded by ambition to realize it. For many writers, it can take years to find and develop your voice and your chops, in a kind of informal “apprenticeship.” This was my first attempt to write something longer than a five-page short story. I thought that because I’d written a novel and my writing group gave me frequent praise, the world simply had to pay attention. I was wrong. The world had better things to do.
3. I didn’t have confidence enough to trust my “inner voice.” Some of the feedback I received conflicted. I didn’t trust my instincts enough to know what to take and what to put aside. I wanted to please everyone. And you know what happens then.
4. I took rejection personally. Literary agenting is a business. An agent wants something they feel they can sell to a publisher. Or as one wrote, “You write well, but I fear this will have a tough time in the marketplace.” Meaning, “You’re not going to make me bupkes, so hit the road.”
5. The sizzle didn’t match the steak. I have a background in marketing and advertising. I pored over tons of books and articles on how to create a winning query letter and a pitch that would get an agent’s attention. My query letters, sent alone, received requests for more, usually a full synopsis and the first three chapters. Once agents got that info, my rejection rate rose substantially. Wrote another, “Now that I’ve had a chance to review [your sucky first novel], I regret I do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic to want to take it on for representation.” Essentially, my “steak” was tofurky.
6. I didn’t understand the market. Genres didn’t blend as easily back then. We didn’t have the Amazonian taxonomy with edgy-Christian-dystopian-romances and paranormal-pirate-cookbooks that you kids have today. Agents wanted to know what bookstore shelf to place me on. Stephen King or Jackie Collins? Robert Ludlum or Nora Roberts? Was I the next Tama Janowitz, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Jadie Smith, or Douglas Coupland? As close as I could pin it down, I’d written a coming-of-age, darkly comic romantic thriller. Or, as many agents called it, “a tough sell.” And at the time, I didn’t have the sales record or writing talent to stick that landing
I don’t remember what final blow made me shove the manuscript and its 138 rejection letters in the closet and start another project. My overall takeaway from the experience, however, was not that I needed to lower my expectations; I needed to up my game and down a heaping dose of humility.
What are you learning from your publishing experiences?