While digging through boxes recently I found some old rejections I received in response to queries about my short story collection, The Year of the Elm (TYOTE). In looking them over most seemed to confirm what I’ve been saying lately: the industry doesn’t care about the quality of your work, it cares about the marketability of your project. If you’re an unknown writer you’re probably out of luck regardless of your storytelling skills. If you’re a well-known celebrity and can’t spell your own name, you’re probably looking at a book deal.
The majority of rejections I received were photocopied form slips. (My favorite was the quarter-page slip that had been cut from a single sheet of four such notices. How much time had it taken to cut those pages into quarters, and how much money had it actually saved?) What seems abundantly clear in retrospect is that none of those agents made any sort of determination about the quality of my writing before saying no. They looked at the project only long enough to determine whether they could sell the collection, and since short story collections are death in the marketplace that determination took two seconds. Feedback about the quality of my work couldn’t be provided because those agents probably didn’t read far enough along to have an opinion.
Again, I understand all that in a business context. I don’t fault agents or editors for churning through submitted projects as quickly as possible, and I’m thankful to those who sent me any sort of reply. (Some couldn’t even be bothered to do that, despite the fact that I always included an SASE.)
Of the personalized responses I did receive, one simply said that TYOTE “doesn’t meet my needs”. Even now I remember the blunt honesty of that phrase landing like a punch in the face as it summarily defined my place in the publishing food chain. Up to that point I had romanticized fiction as a medium of true creative freedom, but the publishing industry was no different than Hollywood or the interactive marketplace. If you didn’t have what the money people wanted to buy, you weren’t going to sell. (And that’s the way it should be. I was the one who was being naive.)
This lesson was finally and irrevocably driven home when I received the following rejection. (TYOTE was originally titled Apple Pie, after the first story in the collection.)
Thank you for your inquiry about representation for your work Apple Pie. I can’t apologize enough for holding onto it as long as I have; it’s totally inexcusable.
This story of youth is told with great compassion and sensitivity, both huge assets to have as a writer. Despite my admiration for this project, however, I must admit that I don’t think I’m the right agent. I’m simply not confident that I have the kind of enthusiasm and vision that would make me its best advocate in the marketplace.
I suspect this might be a genuine case of “right book, wrong agent,” and I’m confident that another agent will feel differently.
If you’re a writer I can only hope that an agent or editor takes the time to send you a similar note someday. Here was an industry gatekeeper validating my work as art and craft, but questioning its commercial viability. What more could any writer ask for?*
That particular rejection letter changed everything for me and liberated me from the query process. It’s possible I would have found a publisher had I persevered, but fully coming to terms with what I was up against made that impossible for me. I cared about what I had written in the way I thought the literary world wanted me to, but that passion didn’t matter. What the industry wanted me to do was commit to finding a hypothetical needle in the publishing haystack, including potentially devoting years of my life to that process.
Another personalized reply I received explained how difficult it was to sell a short story collection, and suggested novelizing the stories to make them more marketable. For a while I seriously considered that option, and even sketched out how I might weave the stories into a coherent narrative. But all the while I knew doing so would violate the point of view of the main character, and necessarily bring the author to the forefront of the work, which I didn’t want to do. The structure of the collection fit the point of view of a young boy, and shackling the work with an overarching narrative would have betrayed that perspective.
In the end I decided to stay true to my vision, and I’ve never regretted that choice. That the internet and self-publishing came along and made it possible for me to find readers is wonderful happenstance. That I had to learn these same lessons all over again when I wrote a genre novel was frustrating, but I can’t say I was surprised. What I can say is that I’m looking forward to making that work available to readers as well.
* If agents and editors are niggardly at providing this kind of feedback, and in the aggregate they clearly are, I do understand the disparity. As noted above, it may only take a short glance to determine if a work fits an available marketing niche, while making a judgment about the quality of a writer’s skill requires dedicated reading. Most agents and editors are sifting vast numbers of projects for economic value, not artistic merit, so they aren’t going to read a hundred pages into a novel when the first five answer their question. All of which goes to the point of my previous post, which is that expecting the publishing industry to validate — let alone recognize — your skills is a big mistake. Still…wouldn’t it be useful to writers to know the basis of a rejection, and in particular whether any judgment had been rendered about their writing, over and above the economic viability of a project? Or would agents and editors be uncomfortable about making such declarations? “Hi, I’m passing on your novel because I don’t think it can make me any money. I also didn’t read enough of your work to be able to judge whether you can tell a story or not.”
— Mark Barrett