Thursday, March 02, 2006

A little introspection.

(Long Post Warning!)

“Writers have to be thick-skinned.”
“Learn to deal with rejection — you’re going to get plenty of it!”
“It ain’t personal, it’s business.”

These are quotes I see often in articles, books, blogs, and so on, about rejection. Well, that last one was also a famous line from “The Godfather,” but it still applies.

And I would agree that they are good advice, with a caveat or two. If you’re a writer or a wannabe like me, you understand this whole query business. If you’re not (and I know that quite a number of my regular readers are NOT writers OR wannabes) here’s my take on the process, known by some as “riding the query-go-round.”

1. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who have written their version of The Great American Novel, and want to pitch it on Oprah and see it fly off the shelves of Borders, Waldenbooks, and others, and make millions. (Me too.)

2. Most of those books are NOT as good as the author thinks, and even if sold and published would never sell enough copies to earn the publisher any profit at all. (Not mine, of course, but most of the others.)

3. and 4. Publishers don’t want to pay a large staff to filter through all the slush to find the occasional hidden gem that WILL earn them a profit. AND, writers generally don’t know beans about negotiating and foreign rights and movie rights and audio book rights, and lots more.

A solution to both 3 and 4? Literary agents! They can filter through the slush FOR the publisher and present only the books that have true commercial possibility (for free — they’re paid by the author after the sale!). And, they are knowledgeable about the business of negotiating and rights and more, and thus can help the author navigate those hazardous waters.

A good, elegant solution, right? Authors find an agent who likes their work, and the agent helps them sell it and brokers the best possible deal, because the agent gets 15%. Win-win. And a good agent does his job very well for all parties. Many publishers like the arrangement so much they refuse to accept an un-agented submission.

Q: But how does an author “find” this agent? A: Through the query letter.
Q: What is the agent looking for? A: A book that will sell.
Q: How can the agent tell? A: Ah, there’s the rub. He CAN’T!

Oh, he (I’m using the male pronoun for simplicity, and NO, I’m NOT implying that all men are simple! Only MOST of us.) does his best to keep up with what the public is buying, and what publishers are buying, but that could change next week. And it does. Example: for several years “Chick Lit” was hot, but just last month one agent posted in her blog that the Chick Lit market is in the toilet right now.

Agents don’t get paid until they sell something, and they also don’t want to hire a large staff to read through all of the pile of submissions, so they browse through HUNDREDS of query letters each week, spending as little as a second or two (if there are obvious typos in the first line) up to a minute judging from the letter if they really want to look at a sample of this author’s writing. In the majority of cases, the agent decides he does NOT. So he sends out his form-letter rejection notice.

How about an email query? Oooo. Loaded question!

On Agent Kristin’s blog, she tells readers that she wants email queries because they are easier for her to read, file, and respond to. If you send her an actual letter on paper, she and her reading group will read it aloud to each other and laugh at anything that strikes them as amusing (including your book’s title, the names of your characters, your premise, any typos, God forbid, etc.) Okay. I have no problem with that now that I know. I’ll send her an email.

Ah, but Miss Snark, on her wonderful Q & A blog, tells readers that email queries sent to her will get a cursory glance and not much more. She prefers a letter. Wonderful! Now that I know, I’ll send her a letter.

My point? Querying is not as simple as making a list of agents from some good directory and sending them a letter and a synopsis and maybe a first chapter or two. You have to go to their web site (if they have one — many don’t) or to details of their “listing” in this directory, and find out what they want. Find out what genres they DO and do NOT represent. Try to learn if they are currently accepting new clients or not.

And believe it or not, I’m okay with ALL of that. It’s a lot of work, but you gotta do it or waste a lot of postage and time.

So I send the letter.
It’s polite and professional (business-like).
It’s grammatical.
It has no typos or spelling errors. It DOES have the required SASE (since I’d like a response!)
It contains just what has been asked for, including two short paragraphs describing the book.

A month or two later I get back a form letter (which often contains an apology for the fact that it IS a form letter, but states that due to the volume of queries received the agent has no choice, blah blah blah) of rejection.

What, exactly, has been rejected? Me? No, that agent doesn’t know me. My book? No, no one has seen even a portion of the book. My letter, premise, genre, etc.? Maybe.

Maybe that same letter to that same agent a week or two sooner or later might have piqued some interest. Today was just a bad day. Hey, that happens! These folks are human!

But in about one or two minutes (max), that agent has formed an opinion. It may be based on his take on the current market, his current volume of work, his “vibes” from the letter itself and the description of the book, the phase of the moon, or which side of the bed his significant other got up on that morning. Or all of the above, and a lot more.

That’s not what I call “rejection.” In fact, I REJECT the notion that it’s “rejection.” Even if every agent in this hemisphere says “No” to my request for representation, it STILL doesn’t mean my novel couldn’t be enjoyed by thousands of people and make a profit for a publisher if it were printed and marketed. There IS no magic formula for a letter which will get me represented or published.

So, I’ll keep you informed of the tally on the ratio of queries to negative answers. If the percentage remains at 100% I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll know that I’ve STILL got a good book that some many most of you would enjoy. (I WOULD say "all", but there's always ONE dummy out there who wouldn't!)

Reject ME!? HA!

As Jessica Andrews sings:

Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy,
But I’ve got friends that love me,
And they know just where I stand.
It’s all a part of me.
And that’s who I am.


Anonymous said...

I love your optimism, John. I've given up trying to get published because I found it to be too much hit-or-miss. So I write for blogs and for myself, and leave it at that. (Not that I'd turn down an offer from Oprah, but you get my point.)

Best of luck. I'm rootin' for ya hard...

Anonymous said...

It'll happen.

Shesawriter said...

I recieved a couple this week. Both for different reasons. I stopped trying to figure it out. It'll drive you insane if you let it.


Anonymous said...

Ever thought about just publishing it yourself ?

Candace said...

John, I think the fact that you have song lyrics in your MS is the drawback for them. I was once in an online writing group, as you may remember. I still see some of the posts in their "general" category. There was a thread going on getting permission to use lyrics. Bottom line, they were saying fuggetaboutit. WAY too expensive, way too time-consuming. I realize that your whole MS must have those lyrics, however. I don't know how to fix that problem, but I just think that it IS a problem for an agent to take that on.

Second, I haven't seen your query letter, but I think you said once that one version is more than one page. That may be a problem, too. They get so many queries that they would not be thrilled about having to wade through more than a couple of paragraphs.

I hope you find the right agent, John. Maybe if you could offer some sort of solution to the copyright problem (such as doing some of the legwork for them if they would tell you WHAT to do), and maybe if you got that query letter down to one page, it might help. Can't hurt.

Duke_of_Earle said...

Thanks, all, for the positive thoughts!

Candace, a quick response to your VERY good points:
Yes, without question the use of song lyrics and incumbent copyright issues and permissions fees are a turn-off. But I've pared the songs to a minimum, and they are an important part of the story. The title song "Cherish" actually IS the climax, or turning point. So I'm stuck with that handicap.

My query letter can vary in length, and if agent guidelines specify no more than a one-page letter, that's what they get. (Yeah, I'm wordy by nature, but I CAN be succinct when pressed, lol!)In the longer version I add a brief explanation of the legwork I've already done in researching copyright owners and pricing permissions (to ease the negative effect of that handicap!)

I'll be writing more about this "query-go-round" process in future posts.


Nic said...

Good luck my friend. I know how this stuff goes. I'll be crossing my fingers for you.

BTW, Thanks for the link correction! I forgot the "http://" part so it gave a broken link.

kenju said...

Good luck, John.

Anonymous said...

I think your perspective here is a brilliant one, and you are quite lucky to own it. What seems a cruel world really is as you've laid it out here. It's NOT personal. But dang if it isn't hard to remember that sometimes.

Keep the faith, man. Your attitude is golden.

Anonymous said...

Here's the way I look at it - I dated a lot (don't read into it), but I didn't marry all of them. I married ONE. It's the same with an agent, a publisher, etc. It's not just their rejection, but what about yours? What if they say yes they want you, but you don't feel the fit? Reverse your thinking on it, and it feels better.
GOOD LUCK from a big fan.

Nankin said...

John, I once had an agent critique my query letter with big slash marks and cryptic dialog. Talk about a snap judgement.