I’ve been asked many times, “Have you tried publishing? Don’t you want to publish? You keep writing, but you should really publish your stuff.” So here’s a fun little post to answer those questions, and show exactly how hard it is to get your foot in the door (a.k.a. land a contract with one of the elusive creatures known as literary agents).
(P.S. Of COURSE I want to publish. I’m a writer – it’s what I do.)
The basic problem is twofold: first, that the industry is completely over-saturated with people who don’t know how to write or follow the guidelines, so on the agent’s end, that means they have to sift through a lot of trash before finding the good stuff; second, on the writer’s end, the agents get so many query letters a day that, to get through them all in a reasonable time window, they have to make quick spur-of-the-moment decisions that may leave the next Harry Potter lying untouched, as well as choosing what manuscripts to represent based on very subjective – and sometimes eccentric! – reasons.
To publish with any big publisher (think Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Scholastic, etc.), you need a literary agent first, so the fact that the agents have trouble finding you in the slush pile and you have trouble being noticed in the slush pile makes this a very, very big mountain to climb. (Which, by the way, is a little bit discouraging as a young, unheard of writer trying to make it, but that’s true of half of the things I want to do, so. I guess I’ll have to just suck it up. I would add a winking emoji but it isn’t possible on WordPress that I know of.)
This gives you an idea of how I got some frame-worthy rejections from national agents – e.g. Erin Harris of Folio Literary. To give you a bit of background, Folio has represented bestselling classics such as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, both of which younger generations will recognize as the new HBO TV series. Erin Harris usually doesn’t write rejection letters to those she rejects – her policy is simply that if she doesn’t write back in a certain time period, you’re to interpret that as a rejection – and yet she took the time to write a stunningly complimentary rejection letter to me.
So, if they liked the book on the whole, why didn’t they take it? As you’ll see, agents often have very whimsical reasons for deciding to reject a book or query letter. They may not have had a spot on the list, or it just didn’t quite click enough for them, or one detail of the plot was a deal breaker for them personally. It really just depends on the person. Writers, have hope! Don’t feel like one agent is your only bet, and that one rejection means…well, death, misery, depression –
(By the way, it still stung. A lot. I was shocked Erin Harris wrote me back at all, and when I got the email I was absolutely smiling, and at the same time it felt like somebody had stabbed me in the chest. Probably the absolute hardest way to get rejected is hearing, “hey, I loved this so much I ALMOST took it and, wow, you’re really talented, but I’m still going to reject you anyway,” which is what she said, in so many words. And about three other established agents had the same level of response, and several others went so far as to request to see the full manuscript – not just a partial. And it doesn’t matter that some of them actually did like it, because, ugh, I STILL GOT REJECTED.)
Anyhow, back to business.
Literary agent Laura Zats of Red Sofa (co-host of PrintRun podcast) is currently running a twitter feed called #500queries, where she tweets on every query letter in her slush pile and why she rejected or requested to see more. I’ll showcase some of these tweets below, with commentary – first examples of manuscripts she passed on (red light), then ones she requested to see more of (green light, or more realistically yellow light, because at this stage of the game nothing counts as a green light).
She’s done over a hundred of these just in this single round of #500queries, so I picked out the most subjective ones to make a point. You’ll notice I’ve included many more passes than requests, for two reasons: 1. often the reasons for rejections are more subjective than the reasons for requesting, and 2. while I think this actually makes the ratio between request (good) and pass (bad) much smaller than it actually is, it does give you a fairly rough sense of the fact that, yes, it’s much more likely you’ll get rejected than even have an agent request a partial manuscript.
I also want to add that my comments are to a large degree tongue in cheek – I actually highly respect this agent and recommend that any writers follow along, because her tweets can actually provide a lot of insight into the process (these are actually the least insightful, but the most fun to look at).
Alright, I think that’s all – so buckle up and enjoy the ride!
“I really am not the right person for elves.” (keep in mind, NOWHERE does she forbid authors from querying MS’s featuring elves in them, and nowhere else has she indicated not to query a manuscript with elves.)
“Ugh. Demons.” (again, how are we as an author to know she happens to dislike demons?)
“Sounds good to read, but not a good fit for my list.” (so, basically she liked it, but it didn’t quite complement the other MS’s she’s currently repping. ouch…that’s the hardest way to get rejected.)
“YA adventure. I don’t know why, but I’m really not into the concept.” (translation: it’s good, but for some reason it’s just not clicking for her. and she doesn’t even know why. probably another agent will be fine repping this manuscript.)
“Techy SF is a hard sell for me. This one didn’t have a twist, so.” (subjective, subjective, subjective! this basically means she just didn’t happen to click with this manuscript.)
“Holy rhetorical questions, Batman!” (she literally rejects queries simply for containing a rhetorical question, even if the book itself is fine. she’s stated this before. it’s a personal peeve of hers and not one all literary agents have.)
“Out of all the F [fiction] based on dreaming, this is one of the best. Unfortunately, I’m tapped out.” (another heartbreaking but-I-was-so-close rejection.)
“This is a personal pet peeve, but I HATE rhetorical questions in my queries.” (see above.)
“Comped to 50 Shades. Nope!” (dang. I was totally hoping to write the next 50 Shades of Grey, you know. /sarcasm)
“If Brett Easton Ellis is your comp [comparison novel], I’m not your girl.” (and yet he’s successful, so this is obviously a very subjective reason to reject.)
“Eco-thrillers aren’t really my thing.” (again, she’s not saying it’s bad. it just isn’t what she happens to like reading.)
“Road trip books are a really hard sell for me. This one didn’t make it.” (again, holy subjectivity, Batman!)
“Sometimes I come across books in the slush that I would love to read, but don’t have a spot in my list. This is one of them.” (she thinks it’d be great published, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of what she reps.)
“I was 50/50 on this SF. I liked the comps and the ideas was interesting, but it’s a concept that NEEDS to be #ownvoices and I don’t think it is.” (she didn’t even actually check if it is, for sure, #ownvoices, so she easily could’ve passed up a great book.)
“MG, too sweet for me.” (fairly sure a lot of people would appreciate sweet Middle Grade, since it’s novels for middle schoolers.)
“I don’t do straight up adult histfic.” (again, a very specific no-no that only applies to this particular agent, and nowhere except in this tweet does said agent indicate that she isn’t interested in adult historical fiction.)
“I love the SF/literary crossover, but this wasn’t nearly SF enough.” (good for me, because I actually specialize in SF/literary crossovers. personal plug aside, this is another example of a very personal/subjective reason to reject. another agent might say the book had too much of an SF side and needed to sit more on the literary side while being set in an SF world. it all depends on the specific person.)
“This YA F [young adult fiction] is too short, but it reminds me of one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, so I’ll take a peek.” (many other literary agents would reject this MS simply on the merit of its being too short.)
“This romp of a space opera might not be a great fit for my list, but I still want to look at it.” (so even she is doubting that she could rep it, yet she’s spending time on it anyway, because temptation.)
“Good world, cool mythology. I want this YA F!” (after having turned down another MS for including Greek mythology.)
“Queer witches. Yep.” (is it me, or is this a very shallow reason for choosing to request a novel?)
“Comps are all wrong, but the pitch is really solid and the idea intriguing.” (ooookayyy this is usually something that can get you rejected easily – including accurate comps helps the agent know you understand where you belong in the market, and what you’re writing – but hey. this is the publishing industry, so it’s basically a free-for-all.)
“It’s 2018 and I’m really curious how YA narratives about deciding to keep toxic people in your life will play out.” (e.g. if you submitted this to her a couple years back, or to a different agent at the same time, you could easily be rejected.)
That’s all, folks! Tune in to my next blog post for some…well, I’m actually not sure what. I’ll figure that out later. Bedtime first!