The Breaking Point

I’m getting ready for a new stage of the writing journey. I have come to accept that I will probably never be able to get my book traditionally published and so I am preparing to enter the terrifying waters of self-publishing, an endeavor I feel even less equipped for than writing. But it may be my only option. I’ve been querying for several months and not a single agent has expressed the slightest interest in my manuscript.

People tell me I’ve barely scratched the surface, that I should keep at it. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A dozen agents rejected my query; the next dozen will too. And I can’t afford to keep burning my bridges. Once an agent rejects you, you can never, ever, query her again. Perhaps you were still getting the hang of it, and had a weak query, or a lousy writing sample. It doesn’t matter. Once she says no, it’s permanent, and even if you have greatly improved your submission, she will not give you a second chance. When the door is closed, it’s closed forever. I’ve already had over a dozen doors close.

I’m not really blaming the agents. It’s now become possible for anybody to hack out a book and send it off. Agents have to sort through thousands of queries a week, where in years past they might only get a handful of submissions, and would be able to take the time to read between the lines. They would be more inclined to take a chance and ask to see more. But as it is, they have to make snap judgments; if you don’t have them in the first sentence of the query, you never will. Even worse, chances are you never made it to the agent, and your query is being judged by overworked, underpaid interns who lack the experience to see subtle potential.

Add to this the reality that agency is a business. For all that agents say they want to nurture talented writers in whom they see great potential, that’s not the case. They don’t work for the writers; rather they are talent-scouts who get paid by publishers to bring them stuff that will sell. We writers are merely a commodity, and rather than nurturing us to greatness, they would prefer we come to them fully-formed and ready to bring in the big bucks. It’s about making money. And money is made, not by great books, but by mediocre books that can get turned into big-budget, special-effects-filled popcorn movies. That’s what the agents are looking for. They keep saying they’re tired of dystopia and paranormal. Yet they keep repping and publishing it. Because it sells. It’s easy to pitch to publishers. They want a straightforward, simple story with high stakes and two-dimensional characters. They want a story that can be easily expressed in a 250-word query.

Okay, if you can’t do that, they say, then there’s a problem. But great literature isn’t so easily reduced. The things that make it great, the nuances, the subtleties, can’t be laid out simply. So how to explain when literary fiction does get picked up and published. In those cases it’s not the query, but rather the author’s bio that closed the deal. One former colleague submitted a literary novel with what has to be the worst, most amateurish query I’ve ever seen. But he also teaches creative writing and has an academic publishing background. As a result, his novel is out and doing very well. For those of us without the bona fides, it’s another story. Literally.

Agents who try to be “helpful” and “encouraging” will offer advice and activities on their websites and social media. One common one is the fun exercise of taking a classic, beloved book, and trying to create a query. I suppose this is a way to illustrate the mechanics, but I notice the agents never finish the experiment. I have to wonder how it would go if someone created queries of, say, Old Yeller or To Kill a Mockingbird and sent them off to agents. I’m curious if they’d get a bite. Can you even imagine how they would react to Catcher in the Rye, a book wherein the protagonist skips school to wander around a museum, all the while complaining about how lousy everything is? That’s all that happens. What are the “stakes”? Where’s the action? We need a romance!

But there’s still some value in considering these issues. What is harder to justify is the way some agents post examples of the worst queries they receive. Granted, some are real head-scratchers, full of grammatical errors and such. But then, the time they spent compiling these is time they didn’t spend taking a closer look at my story. And decent writers don’t make these kinds of mistakes. The agents don’t post them for education, but rather amusement. A good laugh.

Even worse are the other “bad” examples agents post. In addition to the poorly written ones, or the ones addressed to “Whomever,” there are the ones that start with something like, “Dear Clueless Idiot,” or “I know you’ll reject me, but here it is anyway.” These are actual things that agents have posted on their sites. Again, the message is, “Can you believe this?”

Actually, yes, I can believe it. Only I’m not laughing. It’s not funny. It’s tragic. Unlike the poor speller, or the one who couldn’t be bothered to look up the agent’s name, the person who sends an angry query didn’t start that way. That angry tone is the sound of a completely broken spirit. They started hopeful, optimistic, and probably naïve. They did everything they were supposed to, but it all came to nothing. Maybe their book wasn’t really that good. Maybe, like mine, it was just thirty years too late, written for a readership that no longer exists. Or maybe they were just one of the 98% of would-be authors who never get published, despite being at least as good as the ones who do.

Constant rejection takes a toll on the human heart. I know because that’s where I am now. After two months of querying without a single positive response, I’m angry and bitter and discouraged, to the point where it’s become unpleasant to write, and everything I try to write these days is bleak and violent and everything I hate about contemporary fiction. And now I understand why so much of it is that way; the writers’ spirits have all been crushed. By the publishing industry.

Agents say they care, but in increasing numbers they are refraining from sending personal rejections, or even responding at all. I get it, that would take more time than they probably have. But many openly admit that they aren’t responding simply because they don’t want to deal with the nasty replies that they all too often get from writers who have reached the breaking point. They don’t want to be reminded that behind every single one of the thousands of queries they have to get through is a real human being who has poured his or her heart and soul into that book, only to see their dreams crushed again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Eventually some just give up in despair. Others sell out their ideals. Others still become so desperate, so reflexively needing somebody – anybody – to please look at their submission, they become easy prey for unscrupulous agents and publishers. The industry is already horrifically stacked against the author (another reason more and more of us are turning to self-publishing), but the constant rejections turn us into our own worst enemies, unable to stand up for our best interests. I have little doubt that’s happened to me and I can no longer tell if my actions are self-destructive. I’d love to keep trying, but it takes time that I am quite simply running out of. Frankly, I am amazed that there are people out there concurrently writing and revising multiple books, sending off and tracking queries by the hundred, reading several books a week, and all this while holding down full-time employment. They do it by being half my age and still having the health and energy I lost years ago. And knowing that they have many, many years ahead of them to keep at it makes it much easier for them to keep up their sprits.

I do know people have warned me that I am screwing my chances by writing this sort of thing, that my negative attitude toward the publishing industry will get me “blacklisted” by agents. If that’s true, it simply proves my point. An agent who rejects a submitter merely because that person is cracking under the strain of the process the agents themselves have created isn’t full of the milk of human kindness.

But it’s not the agent’s fault; personal considerations and compassion are a luxury they can no longer afford. I suspect those automatic form rejections sent by the interns are a pretty good insulation from the pain they cause, whether they intend to or not. But it would be nice if they could at least try to care. A good start might be to stop making fun of their supplicants by posting their desperate pleas for all to laugh at.

The least you can do is to feel bad when you stab someone in the heart.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Breaking Point

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been feeling so discouraged. There is probably no unknown writer who’s ever sought publication who doesn’t know exactly how you feel. We’re told we have to have thick skins, that when we dare to venture into the world of the dreaded slush-pile we are facing massive odds, that we must expect multiple rejections. But that prior knowledge does not make it any easier.

    The lack of personalised feedback doesn’t help. Last year I submitted BASIC Boy to ten agents and received nine rejections and one non-response; of the rejections, a couple looked vaguely personalised but told me nothing of the specific reasons for the decision. The rest were clearly standard form e-mails. I understand that agencies have to deal with huge numbers of submissions and that it’s quite simply impossible to give personalised feedback on any but a tiny fraction of them. But understanding that does not help a great deal.

    Making these submissions is very time-consuming, not helped by the fact that some agencies continue to insist on paper-based, mailed submissions, with all the extra time and cost involved. (Though, thankfully, an increasing number do now accept electronic submissions.) And if, at the end of it all, you have nothing but a pile of rejections with no guidance as to how close or far you were from success, or how to improve, it seems a virtually pointless exercise. I mean, did BASIC Boy get rejected after one paragraph? One page? Did it in fact survive the first cut and reach the last 10% or so, then fall? Bearing in mind that something much less than 1% (probably more like 0.1%) will succeed, you’re still a long way off even if you reach the last 10% – probably far short enough to get just the standard rejection with no feedback. Or so I assume.

    And even if you succeed in attracting an agent’s attention, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve hit the jackpot. The agent still has to find a publisher. And most debuts fail to even sell out their advance. Publishers don’t generally have the Midas touch.

    Forgive me, I may have succeeded in making you feel even more depressed! But I believe there are still good reasons for hope. First, I don’t think you’re necessarily correct when you say that you cannot approach an agent again when they’ve rejected you once. As you say, I doubt many submission get anywhere near a real agent anyway. At least one agency I contacted stated that they don’t track submissions in any comprehensive way. If I re-submitted BASIC Boy I doubt they’d remember it from the last time (and if anyone did, that’s probably a good sign, right?)

    The second and more important reason for optimism is the change in the publishing landscape. Increasingly, the ‘conventional’ and ‘self-publishing’ options are not mutually exclusive. Success in the former does not preclude dabbling in the latter, nor does pursuing the latter mean you’ll never get a conventional publishing deal. Huge barriers and problems remain, of course, and achieving any kind of success in self-publishing is very hard. The sheer quantity and variable quality of self-published titles is a massive issue. But I believe that, with persistence, hard work and a little innovation, there must be a way.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You haven’t made me feel worse. It turns out in one case I was wrong: the agent to whom I was referred had responded, with a full request, but the email got shuffled into the wrong place by an over-zealous filtering system. I didn’t find it until nearly three weeks later when I was looking for something else. In retrospect it’s almost a good thing, because I had recently completely reworked my opening and as a result given more POV time to one of the characters, greatly improving part one of the book (I think, and my main crit partner agrees). The lesson, boys and girls, is to be scrupulous in checking your email.

      But I also realize that she is looking at my ms as much out of consideration to her client who referred me (a friend from grad school) as from any actual interest. She doesn’t normally rep either YA of S/F, but, as my book defies most of the YA conventions, that might actually be a good thing, since she won’t be looking at it with all the biases and preconceptions agents who are immersed in the genre have. Still, I’m realistic enough not to expect this to lead to great things. Right now my main hope is some notes attached to the rejection. Generally I don’t put much weight on that, because what turns off one agent might be exactly what another agent loves. But this would be my first real response from a pro so it will be worth a lot. That said, I almost would prefer she critique my query and synopsis rather than the ms itself, because that’s what would be getting me in the door elsewhere.

      I’m also intrigued that I’m finding more and more people deeper into this world than I am saying the same things I have been, for which I had been severely criticised in the past. For instance, more people are calling BS on all these agents saying they are looking for something new and daring and groundbreaking, but then not actually taking any of it on; it’s just too much of a gamble when they could go with more of the same old same old because they know they can sell it. Some friends have suggested I skip agents and go straight to publishers, but that has its own challenges.

      As for self-publishing, I continue having a very hard time accepting it as an option, even though it may be my only one, simply because of the sheer volume of stuff out there, which fully proves (Ted) Sturgeon’s Law: 98% of everything is crap. There are millions of self-published books out there that are just awful. I don’t want my book lost among all that. Yeah, I know, that’s an arrogant attitude and I am sure that every writer considers their own book to be a masterpiece. The bottom line is that this whole endeavor is so loaded and emotionally devastating, with such long odds against, that if I were to become a famous author and were invited to give a talk to aspiring writers, instead of the standard “hang in there, never give up on your dreams” boilerplate, I would very likely look straight at them and say, “Don’t do this. Go find something else to do before you’re in too deep. This is probabaly going to destroy you, and it’s not worth it.” Yeah, there isn’t a day when I wish I had never started in the first place, but I’ve reached the point where I can’t let go. I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy.

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