RTB article re-posted

Note: This was posted on Friday on Romancing the Blog, which I participate in with a once-per-month posting. I know there a few cross-over readers, but here it is again behind the cut for those of you who aren’t currently virtually traveling by…

Title: Not Right For Us At This Time…

As you may have guessed from the title, I’m going to talk about rejection. But I want to put a bit of a twist on it and discuss it from the agent’s point of view, and even twistier, not in the way that tends to come automatically to mind. I’m not thinking about when I write the rejections, but when I receive them. Let me build you a picture…

Imagine the life of a literary agent. Day after day of exquisitely written manuscripts. Dozens of lunches a month at the best restaurants in New York with the most prestigious editors of the most sought after publishing houses. An army of minions asking “how high?” Everything she touches comes up roses. Her clients dominate the New York Times best-seller list and the critics adore them all. Not a single one of her authors ever has a complaint, a missed deadline, an unfortunate cover….

And then someone drops a pile of mail on her desk and she wakes up.

She spends the next couple hours, reading and sorting through various submissions. Many of them are competently written but just don’t have that something special that will make them stand out from the crowd. Some of them, frankly, make her wonder if she lives in the same universe as the writer’s mother who has declared the book the best magnum opus ever written. And then she opens a package, glances at the first page, reads a bit further, and discovers that she’s fallen in love all over again. This is what she was looking for. This is the manuscript that will restore her faith in author-kind. This is the best thing she’s read, well, since the last manuscript that had her taking on a new client. She reads it on the way home, she stays up until 3am, and she calls the author the very next morning to offer representation.

Fast forward…. she and the author have agreed to work together. Any input that has been offered and accepted has been incorporated and the story is as strong as the author can possibly make it. The first blush of the honeymoon hasn’t had a chance to wear off as they discuss their marketing strategy, the audience for the novel, and plans for the future. Their hopes are high. The agent’s heart pounds as she calls editors and pitches the book and someone agrees to read it. She agonizes over the cover letter and makes sure everything is packaged just right before the little one is sent out into the world.

And then she waits. And hopes the author is as patient as she is. She stares at the phone, checks her email, and hopes the author is more patient than she is.

The first rejection comes in. It’s crushing. The editor obviously doesn’t see what she saw. She reads their letter several times, hoping for some insight she can pass on to her client. But there just isn’t really anything substantial to it. She ends up re-reading the first couple chapters as she works to revise her pitch and her cover letter for the next mark. There is no question in her mind. She loves this story. These characters come to life on the page. How could someone not care about them? Surely, the next editor will be The One. Resolutely, she submits the book elsewhere.

And then she waits. Weeks pass and her calls to the editor during that time reveal that the editor has read the beginning and loves it, but will need to read the rest and discuss it with her managing editor. Then a couple calls go unanswered. The agent fears the worst, but continues to hope for the best. The phone rings, and the editor sadly informs the agent that she will be leaving the company and is returning the manuscript. The other acquiring editor for the imprint has indicated they won’t be pursuing it at this time because their plate is too full. But she is free to approach them again later if she is still looking for a home for the little darling. The agent hangs up, and she sighs. It’s disheartening, especially when she felt as if the editor was the right one for this book. Not to mention how the editor must feel, being let go. They would have worked so well together. How could this happen? It’s so unfair!

She stares determinedly at the phone. Next target. Her re-revised cover letter is absolutely perfect. And the call comes a couple weeks later that the line she submitted it to is being merged with another. The editor has been let go. They’ll be reducing the number of books they publish per month and so are returning this manuscript because they now have so many books under contract and in inventory that they won’t be able to buy anything new for some time. But, if she’s still looking down the road, they’d love to hear about this author again. What is going on here? Is this manuscript under a curse? How can things like this keep happening to her, and to a book so deserving of publication?

She continues submitting and time passes. Someone makes an off-handed comment about how difficult it is to launch first-time authors. She has a crisis of faith. Why doesn’t anyone want this book? Surely, if they wanted it badly enough they would find a place for it. Is she the only one who loves it? Worse yet – could she be wrong? She goes back and reads the rejection letters, of which there are now several. They are painful to behold. Do they question her ability to perceive good story? Maybe she’s just not cut out for this agenting gig after all. Her anguish brings her back to the manuscript. Perhaps there is something she missed; something she might now see that she’s more experienced. She can find it if only she tries hard enough and then a sale will be certain. She sits and reads, and the hours pass as she is reunited with characters that reach out and touch her — that’s how real they are. If only she owned her own publishing company. Then she would show them all how wrong they are about this book.

Firming her resolve, she makes another call and pitches the book — this time to an editor who had seen it before and made some suggestions on a much earlier version. A version that pre-dates the agent’s involvement. That editor has since changed houses and has a higher position and more leverage. The editor agrees to read it, so the agent sends it over right away.

And she waits. A week passes. Two weeks. A month. The end of the second month is bearing down. Even though she keeps herself in motion working on all the stories she loves, this one preys on her mind along with the rest. The phone rings and the editor wants to buy it. A three book deal? Wonderful! The agent calls the author — and they whoop together over the phone lines before calming down to discuss the terms. Their patience and their faith are rewarded. They live happily ever after and publish many books together.

This is a true story.

22 responses to “RTB article re-posted

  1. A wonderful entry, and sadly something I figured out a while ago. Having an agent isn’t a guarantee of future sales, simply a promise of careful representation and an encouraging sign of faith.

  2. Very nice of you to share that perspective. I can’t imagine submitting things to publishers for a living. Quiver. I wouldn’t last a day.
    You sure 15% is enough? 😉

    • I’ve actually heard there’s a pretty high turnover in agents at the two-year mark or so. I think you have to really have a passion for it to stay in the game.

      • Turnover rate for agents is about two years, yeah, based on my observations.
        Turnover rate for editors is six months when they start as assistants. If they last past the six month point, the next break-point is six years.
        In both instances, if they last past ten years, they’re usually considered Lifers. Historically, anyway. In Corporate Today, all bets are off.

      • …you forgot to mention doing this during depressed economic states, with high gas prices, wars on foreign soils — when booksales are down (…yet public library use goes up) — and still able to make sales for clients.
        I’m not shocked to see a turnover of two years. In fact, relating literary agents to the rest of small business America, I wouldn’t be shocked if most agents don’t make it past the first year.
        I’m pretty sure I could do it (maybe not from Hawaii), survived selling the intangible product (Navy Recruiting), my skin is pretty thick to rejection. I think though it would require at least weekly viewings of Glengarry Glen Ross 😉
        -=Jeff=-

  3. :sighs: I love a good HEA…
    And, interesting too — I, at least, never thought about the rejection process once an agent is introduced into the mix and how they feel about it. One doesn’t think of an agent being affected all that much, but, it makes absolute sense that they do (or should be.)
    Thanks for a good post,
    Teri

    • I actually had the idea for writing this because of something I saw somewhere (no idea where at this point) on the agents-as-adversary theme, and that gave me the impression there are a lot of writers out there who view agents as part of the obstacle and not necessarily potentially as part of the solution. And more than once I’ve seen articles that also sort of de-personify agents to tools of the trade, not as people and partners too.
      Of course, your mileage will vary. And I might not take the rejection *quite* as personally as the writer. But I also put a lot of energy and investment into this, and it’s my name on the stationery too. I have a stake in it, after all.

      • I actually had a friend cringe when I told him I was searching for an agent. I think many of the adversarial stories that circulate come from authors who’ve bumped up against the army of scammers out there. I still consider myself fairly new at the business side of writing, but I’ve already seen how critical it is to do your homework. 99% of editors and agents I’ve met or corresponded with were professional and friendly. As for the 1%, anyone who loves books enough to be in the business, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and go with the theory that they were having a bad day.

      • Agent as *adversary*? Wow. I thought agents were more like fairy godparents, or a sort of loyal Sancho Panza, picking the authors up and handing them fresh lances to tackle those publishing windmills with.
        I may lose this starry-eyed view someday when an agent has to start hassling me about a deadline (or rejects me as a potential customer). But if these people think that somebody who does all that godawful market research and selling me to publishers stuff *for me* for a pittance (which I don’t even have to pay up front) is an adversary, then any adversarial relationships in their fiction must be pretty weak.

  4. I’m so glad I just added you.
    Getting this insight into your part in the literary world is very englightening, thank you. 🙂

  5. Thank you for your perspective on that part of the publishing business!

  6. I love reading about the agenting process from your point of view, Jenn. It makes me feel all sniffly and happy that I have an agent as emotionally involved in what she does as *I* am.
    And, for what it’s worth, *I* find it a lot easier to hear, “They’ve passed on it,” from you than from a rejection letter I receive myself. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten a bit inured to rejection letters, or if it’s because I know there’s somebody all dismayed about it along with me.
    Actually, I think there’s definetely some of the latter in there. Getting a note from you saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but…” makes me feel like I’m not the only one going I can’t BELIEVE they PASSED on it after ALL THAT TIME! Or whatever. 🙂
    Anyway, we love ya for it. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the insight into a side of the industry most of us writer types will probably never see. It’s good to have one more compass point by which to set our reality navagation markers. 🙂

  8. That’s a great story.

  9. Love this story. Thank you for sharing it.

  10. (here via somebody, pbray, I think)
    Your story reminds me of what happened to my sister. The editor at one of the biggest houses loved her book. Her boss loved it. The whole editorial department loved it. They communicated with my sister throughout the process, and she was encouraged.
    And then marketing took a look at it and decided they could not market it. End of story. End of book, because unfortunately, she got discouraged and went with print on demand, which is a horror story that I should probably put into my own blog some time soon.
    They tell you that you can’t write a good story if you try to write what you think will sell, but in the end writing books is an art but selling them is a business.

  11. Sounds about right to me. From the writing side of the fence, I’ve been lucky – I know too many good agents (including my own!)

  12. wow, thank you.
    I just got an agent, and we’re both very excited about the manuscript, but seeing the realities of his world spelled out spelled out like that makes me relax a whole lot about this process.
    I’m such a newbie to this fiction thing.
    I’m from journalism, where turnaround time on a piece can be as little as four hours. My most recent job was a wire service where I had two deadlines a day and a call from the editor in London at exactly 9am my time! So when it takes several weeks to hear from him, I start chewing off my arm and imagining the worst!!!!

  13. I hope you don’t mind – I linked to this post in my blog.
    Thanks for writing this.

  14. And I always thought the -writer- had it rough. :> I raise my glass to agents everywhere!

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