Rejection – it’s not something anyone finds fun. And in the world of book publishing, there’s a lot of rejection to be had. Writers’ submissions are turned down by agents; agents’ submissions are turned down by publishers; books which do make it out into the market may get a frosty reception from reviewers and readers generally. . .
Every writer, every would-be author finds rejection difficult. Even the most experienced, battle-hardened and commercially successful authors hate it when they present their latest shiny new creation to the world, only to be told by their agent or their publisher or indeed their reading public that it’s not what they were hoping for.
Two things can really help when it comes to processing rejection– insight and realism. As someone who’s been working in the book business for nearly 30 years – as an in-house editor, an agent, a ghostwriter and even, in a small way, as a publisher – I’ve gained a lot of understanding of this quirky and in some ways archaic industry. Focusing for now on just one aspect of the industry – literary agenting – here are a few observations which might be useful if you’re struggling to navigate the first hurdle when it comes to getting published: finding an agent to take you on.
Being a literary agent is not for cissies (to borrow from Mae West’s famous pronouncement on ageing). I’m not looking for the sympathy vote here, just ‘being real’ as they say, in case there’s anyone still out there who buys into the old myth that all agents lead some kind of charmed, glamorous lifestyle, earning plenty of easy money through exploiting the talents of the poor writers they represent.
Most people working as publishing agents are doing it because they have a passion for the work – or at least that’s how they started out – and of course, reasonably enough, they hope to be able to make a living out of it too. And you need the passion, believe me, because often the job is a labour of love in which you’ll never be fully financially recompensed for all the time and energy you put in.
As an independent literary agent, you frequently have to put in months of (unpaid) work without any guarantee that it will lead anywhere, financially or otherwise. You’ll spend many hours refining a manuscript with your author, putting together a Proposal, setting up and travelling to book fair meetings and other sales appointments with publishers, and then waiting – and waiting – for responses. Meanwhile, you have to remain constantly upbeat for the author client, providing ongoing emotional support at all stages of the process – particularly if it’s unsuccessful. As a small agent, you can only take on a very limited number of projects per year, not just because you don’t have the manpower to handle more, but also quite frankly because you need to be doing other paid work alongside agenting to enable you to pay your bills and keep your business afloat.
So, if as an author you’re ever indignant when a literary agent is slow to respond or comes back to you to say that your project is not for them, but isn’t able to offer detailed feedback, take a few deep breaths and a step back and try to bear all of the above in mind. More often than not, if an agent (or a publisher) doesn’t offer to take you on, it doesn’t automatically signify that your writing is dreadful or your ideas are flawed or your story is as dull as ditchwater – or that the world in general has it in for you.
And here’s something else worth remembering: expecting anyone in your close circle (whether a friend or family member) to read your entire book and provide feedback is a huge ask and requires a substantial investment of time and energy on their part. But asking a professional who’s trying to make a living from what they do to spend hours of unpaid time reading your work and providing a critique is asking even more. Would you expect a plumber who’s told you he or she can’t fix your problem because they haven’t got the necessary expertise or equipment, to do a lengthy audit of all the waterpipes in your house and draw up a detailed report of how efficient your system is? Completely gratis?
It’s obvious from the above that, as with so many other situations in life, there are a wide range of factors which feed into the outcome of any submission scenario but aren’t immediately evident from the outside. All you can ever do, to borrow an expression from addiction therapy, is to ‘keep your side of the street clean’, by making sure that when you do submit something, it’s the best possible version of itself – and then let the chips fall where they may.
But believe me, I know it’s not easy. As a writer myself and an agent too, I’m not immune to how difficult repeated rejections from the publishing powers-that-be can feel. And I’m not saying I don’t sometimes rant and rave about it privately to myself or to those in my immediate vicinity. But whenever I calm down again and reflect on the bigger picture, it helps when I’m able to acknowledge that it’s not always or even often about what I’ve done or haven’t done, or the quality of my work. And if you’re dipping a toe into the world of publishing for the first time, this is where having an experienced insider in your corner – as your ghostwriter, book coach or freelance editor – will be a truly invaluable ally to have, not only terms of their expertise but also because of their realistic and in-depth knowledge of the industry. . .
So yes, as soon as I’ve put the finishing touches to the voodoo doll of that hotshot editor who keeps turning down projects I feel are tailor-made for them, I’ll be able to take stock, accept the disappointment and move onwards and upwards to the next challenge . . . Honestly, I will.