I've been struggling to find a literary agent for one of my two fiction novels for more than a year now. I've pitched the story at conferences and via email, and received a steady trickle of rejections. Mostly formulaic responses, some nicer than others, one or two with encouraging words, but all the same rejection in the end.
People tell me to take heart. Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times before finding someone to accept her debut novel, The Help.
Others tell me to self-publish. After all, the greatest thing about the Internet and the print-on-demand technology is that I don't have to rely on someone else to "give me permission" to publish my novel. I can do it myself.
But since I was a girl, I wanted to be an author, and I thought authors needed agents and publishers. And to be honest, I don't want to sort out ISBN numbers and e-book formats and cover art. I want to write.
However, the truth is that I cannot get a foothold in the publishing business. I've tried to figure out the rules of what makes an agent accept your work. I've been told all of these things:
- It's all about the writing. If the writing is good, we'll consider it.
- Target agents based on their interests and other clients.
- Format your manuscripts properly and be professional.
- No typos!
- Make me fall in love with your characters.
- I've got to be hooked on the first page.
- Create a narrative voice I haven't heard before.
- Create a world that I want to learn more about.
- Develop a platform and fan base first.
- It's a subjective business.
I've worked in business long enough to know that following the rules only gets you so far, and by this, I mean that you can follow rules to a "T" but still get rejected for just not being the right fit. Which has led me to the recent conclusion that most of those tips are noise, because number 10 seems to trump them all.
Case in point: take a look at just a handful of the rejection emails (form letters) I've received.
- I'm sorry. This is not for me.
- You have an interesting idea for a book and there's a lot to like about your approach. But in the end I'm afraid I didn't come away from this quite fully convinced this was something I think I'd be able to represent successfully. (I've gotten this exact same email for both of my novels.)
- I’m afraid your book isn’t a good match for my list.
- Having considered it carefully, we have decided that we are not the right fit for your project, and so we are going to pass at this time.
- As interesting as your novel sounds, I don't believe I would be the best agent to represent your work.
The world of book publishing has changed. I may need to admit that despite persistence and hard work, I may not find a traditional book deal waiting for me. And that I should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by self-publishing to reach readers directly.
I'll just wait until the latest batch of rejections finishes trickling in, to be certain.