“Prepare the Standard Rich and Famous Contract.”
by Joan Frances Turner
Of all the landmarks in a writer’s life, nothing ever matches the first time someone tells you your work makes them want to vomit. For me it happened twenty minutes after I sent Dust, my first novel, as an e-query to the first of the long list of names I’d collected from the Agent Query website; I pressed the “send” button, my hand shaking with nerves, expecting to wait weeks or months to hear a word. Instead, a immediate terse reply: My sample chapters were “nauseating,” but they knew a tiny independent horror press who might like them. (The tiny horror press was indefinitely closed to submissions. Occasionally, I think the agent knew this in advance.)
This was an excellent introduction to the query process, because it showed me there’s no point taking rejection to heart: It was simply a rather colorful way of saying, “It’s not you, babe, it’s me.” Fine, maybe I’m some other agent’s Ms. Write. I get sad reading about aspiring writers querying a half-dozen agents and then giving up in frustration; ninety-four rejections and one acceptance later, I can attest to a few truths about the process. Namely:
1. It isn’t who you know. No, seriously, unless you’re already a known literary or media superstar, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t know any agents, editors or publishers, I didn’t blog or know any writing bloggers, I hadn’t taken any workshops or gone to publishing cons, I knew nobody. The gatekeeper myth is just that.
2. It is about money. When I got personalized rejection letters (I usually didn’t), one comment recurred: “I like this, but I can’t sell it.” Agents will often step outside their comfort zones–mine did–but publishing is a business and business wants profits, period. That’s as much outside the agent’s control as yours.
3. Your “sure bet” agents aren’t. My horror-fantasy novel with YA market potential sold to an agent who specializes in…literary and “women’s” fiction, because she liked my writing style and thought it was just commercial enough to sell. Meanwhile all the agents who specialized in genre and YA rejected me, flat out. Again, it’s all about being one person’s Mr. or Ms. Write.
4. Feelings aren’t relevant. Never mind form rejections, you need to prepare for your work being called “nauseating,” or “disgusting,” or–I still wince about this–getting your own query letter back with “NO” scrawled across it in huge ballpoint letters. Even without those personal touches, dozens of rejections take a toll. This is not about a “thick skin”–mine is frankly tissue paper–but about realizing backing down only hurts more.
5. IT ISN’T WHO YOU KNOW. It’s affinity, and luck. That’s not any fairer, honestly, but it gives unknowns like my aspiring self a chance.
The giant ballpoint “NO” of doom is painful for five seconds and then, it’s over. One “yes” out of ninety-five is long odds, but not astronomical. Keep playing them. And when the phone finally rings–and it will–congratulations. You’ve already won.