If you have been on the agent querying treadmill long enough to receive a request for a full manuscript, then you know the feeling: the simultaneous swell of pride and the utter fear of not measuring up. Your query letter worked, hooray! An actual expert from the publishing industry, with a slush pile as high as you are tall, thinks YOUR writing is worth her time!
But what if your book doesn’t live up to the promise you painted in those little e-mailed paragraphs? What if the story you just pitched so confidently turns out to be not as great as you made it seem? I know the nail-biting, hair-tearing, skin-gouging feeling of waiting for judgment on your full, because I went through it fifteen times while querying my novel, The Hope and Anchor. And for fourteen on them, sooner or later, I got rejected.
Now, this is nothing new to any serious writer. If you haven’t been rejected, then you clearly haven’t been submitting. But what if, after convincing yourself you’re going to have a thick skin, be open-minded, and take constructive criticism onboard, there’s actually no criticism to take in your rejection letter?
“I just didn’t love it enough,” and variations on that heartbreaking theme, were the most common response I received on The Hope and Anchor. And they devastated me. In fact, I almost wished the agents could have told me they felt I had some deficiency of skill, because then I would at least have something concrete to work on improving. After all, you can strengthen your skills, but you can’t force anybody to fall in love.
So what’s behind these non-committal, non-constructive messages? While I usually advise against trying to read too much into somebody else’s words, in publishing it is justified. “I just didn’t love it enough” could mean lots of things. You could take it at face value and realize that love (whether on the page or in real life) involves a massive emotional and time commitment, and while it may be pleasant enough to spend some time with a book or person you like well enough, you’re perfectly justified not wanting to live and breathe them 24/7.
But I’ve found that within “I just didn’t love it enough” lie plenty of insights about the publishing business that are useful for writers at any stage. Here are my tips for dealing with this puzzling scenario – and keeping your sanity:
The first lesson, and the one I can’t stress highly enough, is: Don’t take it personally. It is a huge world with millions of books in it, and you are but one of many trying to break out of obscurity and into the big time. Maybe an agent didn’t love your book, but that doesn’t mean you yourself are the unlovable one.
It’s not a judgment of your character or your worth as a human being if somebody decides to not back your book. As writers, we pour our heart and soul into our pages, so it is easy to lose perspective and interpret rejection of our books and rejection of ourselves. Remember that every time you walk into a book shop, you yourself reject nearly every title on the shelf, not because those books are worthless, but because you simply aren’t going to like everything. Your attention span and money are limited, so you pick a select few to read.
Without naming names, there are plenty of acclaimed literary fiction authors whose work I’ve never felt the desire to read. There’s obviously nothing deficient about their skills – I’m just not interested in their books. Other people gush over them, and they rack up awards, but there are simply other books I’d rather explore.
Remind yourself, it’s just business. It’s easy to get lost in the romanticism of writing, but unfortunately it rarely matches reality. The publishing business is, more than anything else, a cold, hard business. Above all, publishers need to generate a profit in an increasingly difficult market.
Are you a complete unknown writing literary fiction? Your chances of selling tens of thousands of copies with your minimal platform are slim at best. An agent’s financial success depends on your sales, and quite frankly, if you have an exquisitely-written book that, for whatever reason, is unlikely to sell in bucketloads, then you’re not the best investment.
Agents don’t get paid until you get paid, and in a time where advances often break down to less than minimum wage after you factor in all the hours you spent toiling over your manuscript, you must realize that agents also have rent to pay. And mostly in New York City, at that.
Your writing may be beautiful, but you can’t eat beauty or put it in the bank, and a landlord won’t accept it in lieu of cash. Think of all the times you’ve seen something absolutely gorgeous in a shop, but backed away because the price tag was unjustifiable for your budget. Same idea: an agent’s time is money, and if they know that due to market forces they’re not going to get much back for all the work they have to put into selling a book, then it’s a shame, but they just have to let you go.
Finally, stop ruminating and move on. By all means, allow yourself to be angry and bitter about rejection…for one day. Then do whatever you need to do to push it aside and stop wasting your precious time. Trust me, the agent who rejected you is not spending hours wondering if you’re the one who got away, so don’t grant them your mental real estate when you could be continuing to write, edit, and revise. Give yourself permission to think, “Your loss! I’ll find someone else; I don’t need you,” if that’s what makes you feel better. But then go out and prove them wrong by continuing to pursue the deal you want.
The caveat to my story is that I never signed with an agent. When an acceptance finally came my way from the fifteenth agent to request my full, it happened on the same day that I was offered a contract with Unbound, a London-based publisher that mitigates the risk of signing unknown literary fiction authors like myself through crowd-funding.
Why did I pick Unbound over the agent path that, for years, I thought was what I wanted? Because not only was I averse to another ride on the rejection roller-coaster (this time with publishers), but I could tell that Unbound loved my book enough, and I felt confident in them, too.
But now it was my turn to do the rejecting, and I realized how unpleasant it was to tell someone who had come to me with so many compliments about my manuscript that no, I wouldn’t be choosing them in the end. It felt utterly horrible, no matter how professionally I couched my words.
And now I get it. All of us – writers, agents, publishers – are in this game, with all its heartbreaks and uncertainties, because we love the written word, we love a good story. We’re not here to ruin anybody’s dreams or pop anybody’s balloons. We’re here to do business, and business doesn’t always feel pleasant. But if one pathway isn’t working out, don’t be afraid to innovate and try something different. There’s true love out there for everybody.
Julia Kite is the author of The Hope and Anchor, an atmospheric debut novel of love and loss in West London, now funding on Unbound.
She lives in New York City, where she directs policy and research for a transportation advocacy organization.
Facebook author page @JuliaKiteWriter.
Website is juliakite.com
Category: How To and Tips