Thursday, March 31, 2011

Plan B: What's to be expected after getting rejected

As I'm sure you may already know, a lot of things in life don't work out the way you would like them to.  A lot of prospective authors throw their hat in the ring with high expectations, only to end up with a file full of rejection notices rather than a book deal.  It happens.  Frequently.

Some may think that as an agent I don't think about the books I reject daily, or the plight of their authors.  While it's true I don't have much sympathy for poorly written books, I'm not unsympathetic to authors (even the bad ones) who have put it all on the line only to come up with bupkis.  It is with this in mind that I'm blogging today for those who need a Plan B.

I like to joke sometimes that I'm a professional rejectionist.  I have a lot of experience rejecting things. I do it every day.  In addition to rejecting things, I'm also pretty expert at being rejected.  Getting rejected by editors is just part of the grind.  As someone who is constantly rejecting books, and having clients' books rejected by editors, there is a lot I can tell you about rejection, what it means, and what you should know.

The Dreaded Letter

Rejection letters can often be just plain unhelpful. Agents/editors don't often have a lot of time to compose these letters, and they don't have a lot of incentive to give you an exhaustive inventory of all the reasons why your book is not suitable for representation/publication.  To compound this problem, they often try to choose words carefully so as not to offend, rather than give you the straight dope on why your book doesn't work for them.  For these reasons, it is always good to look at rejection letters with a fair bit of suspicion.  Because they are incapable of telling the whole story, and the part they tell isn't always completely accurate, trying to discern your next course of action from them is often a fool's errand.  There are a few things, however, which you can reasonable assume.

If the letter is short that usually means that the agent/editor didn't consider your book for very long.  They either made a summary judgment, or something was immediately unappealing to them about your book.  Usually the shorter the rejection letter, the more is probably wrong with your book.  It could be spelling, grammar, failure to suspend disbelief, cliches, annoying characters, or just a simple matter of taste.  You will never be able to discern what you've done wrong from a rejection letter with only a few sentences or paragraphs, so I wouldn't recommend reading too much into any single rejection letter. I certainly wouldn't rewrite your book according to criticisms in any individual short rejection letter.  There simply isn't enough information to go on.

Now, taken cumulatively, several short rejection letters can give you an idea of where you may have gone awry.  If several agents/editors have the same or similar criticism of your book then you should probably consider revising according to that criticism, but only if that criticism is very specific (i.e. the dialog wasn't as good as it could have been, the ending was a bit predictable).  Editors/agents can often employ similar vague and unhelpful statements such as "I didn't connect with the main character/characters".  There's no way you can fix the fact that an agent/editor just didn't find the fundamental structural components of your book appealing.  If you get a lot of vague rejections like that, then there's probably several serious things wrong with your book, and you need to evaluate whether you should try to find what those things are and fix them, or move on to a better project.

If an editor/agent takes the time to write you a long rejection letter (more than two or three paragraphs with several long sentences each) and lets you know specifically what the dealbreakers were for them, take those criticisms to heart.  You may not realize it, because you were preoccupied with all the nasty and dismissive things they were saying about the work of art you painstakingly created, but that agent/editor just did you a huge favor.  They told you what it would take for them to like your book.  If you really want them to be your agent/editor, they've given you some guidelines on what can be done to fix your book.  Be aware, however, that those criticisms might not carry over to another agent/editor.  Some things they request, might be dealbreakers for someone else.  Also be aware that you take a risk by revising the book, because there's always the chance that they simply won't like your revisions.

No Response/Form Rejection

Eli Wiesel says that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.  People think rejection is bad, but getting no response, or a form response, is in many ways worse.  Don't mistake months of silence to mean careful consideration.  I would take any prolonged silence to mean that you've been rejected.  There are caveats to this, of course, which I will explain later.

A form rejection is only slightly better than not hearing anything.  A form rejection is a standard "no thanks" either on a postcard or an automatically generated response.  There's no way to tell, based on a form rejection, just how carefully your submission was considered.  The agent/editor may not have made it past the first paragraph of your query letter before giving up, they may have read your entire submission including sample chapters.  The form reject provides about as much insight into the decision to reject your submission as not receiving any notice at all.

If you have a box full of form rejections, or you get no response at all (after a matter of weeks or months) then I would seriously consider revising your query letter.  It may be that your bad query letter is selling your book short, and making a bad first impression.  If that doesn't help, then I would recommend scrapping your current project, and moving on to something different.  There's no use plugging away at a project which has been continually rejected.


Sometimes agents have a policy (as our agency does regarding email submissions) of not responding to queries/submissions unless they are interested.  Typically there's a time frame attached to this (ours is 2 weeks).  Emails come into the box, we read them (usually the day of) and if we don't like what we see, we delete them.  The volume of emails (hundreds a day) means that we hardly have time to read all the emails we get, much less respond to every one we're not interested in.  Two weeks is our best estimate of the maximum amount of time it would take us to mull whether to request a full manuscript for any email we save.  If you don't hear from us in two weeks, consider that a rejection. Paper submissions with an SASE we give a form rejection as a courtesy.

Sometimes, though, we get really busy.  Things can languish.  Things can be forgotten, only to be unearthed weeks later.  I have, in the past, requested manuscripts based on queries I received a month or two previously.  This, however, rarely happens.  It's not wise to hold out hope that you're the person whose submission was simply misplaced.  Likewise, if you're querying several agents at once, and you don't hear back from any of them, the chances that your query was simply misplaced by all of them is improbable.

In any case, waiting around several months for an agent to finally get back to you is a sucker's game.  You should be making productive use of that time to research new agents, make new submissions, or to revise, re-write, or write something new.

Now, if you're the impatient type, I want to be clear, don't abandon hope immediately.  For paper submissions the response time is usually slower.  Things are usually slower when the Post Office is involved.  Don't expect to hear back on a paper submission in under a month.  I would say give it two months.  Email submissions, give it two weeks (three if you're patient) if you don't hear back then move on.  If you receive no response to an unsolicited submission, don't bother to follow up.  You don't owe an agent who hasn't responded to your initial query any of your time.  If they miss out on the opportunity to represent you because they're disorganized, or slow to respond, that's their problem, not yours. If you have run out of options, and the only agent who hasn't rejected you is one that hasn't responded to your query in six months, don't bother following up. They probably won't respond, and even if they did, would you really want them to be your agent anyway?

Back to Square One

Okay, so you've been universally rejected by every agent/editor.  Are you a bad writer, or just unlucky?  It could be one, the other, or a mixture of both.  Some people just aren't cut out to be writers, some people just need practice, and some people are just plum unlucky.  I'll try to address each scenario.

Bad writers

It's time to pack it in.  You thought your book was equal parts J.K. Rowling and Dostoevsky, but it turns out your spelling is hit or miss, your grammar is atrocious, your plot is a bit hackneyed, and your characters are two dimensional.  Don't sweat it.  You're not the first person (and you certainly won't be the last) to have written a truly awful book.  You  may have pumped this jewel out during NaNoWriMo and done zero revising, or you may have painstakingly written, re-written and work-shopped your baby over the course of decades.  One thing is certain, however, you were probably the recipient of some bad advice.  I'm here to set the record straight.  Your book stinks.  It just stinks.  It's irredeemably bad.  There's no way to fix it, and there's little hope that you can ever write a better book.   No one in the publishing industry will tell you this outright, because they are afraid you'll get angry with them.  They are doing you a great disservice.  You need to seek out someone who can give you an honest assessment of your talent (or lack thereof).  Someone that you can be certain will unabashedly tell you that you suck and, in detail, why you suck.  You will know you have found this person when you receive your manuscript back covered in red ink, and full of criticisms that will make you want to curl up into the fetal position and cry for weeks.  If, after this assessment, you can find the strength to continue writing, you are either a true artist or you're delusional (at a certain point there's little distinction).

Bad books

Maybe you're not a bad writer, you've just produced a lemon, and now you need to fix it or let it go.  You had a great concept, but you flubbed the execution, or maybe you're decent craftsmen that built something nobody needs.  In either case, you're just slightly off the mark.  It's time to adjust your aim.

If you're brimming with great story ideas, but you're not so great at bringing them to fruition, then maybe you just need more practice, or a bit of education.  Writers workshops can be a good resource, but they can also be bastions of bad advice.  I'd recommend a three pronged approach.  1. Read more of the type of book you'd like to write, and think critically about how your favorite writers  make their books work. 2. Read a few books on writing and see if you can learn anything  3. Write more, and have that writing evaluated (as in a workshop).  Practice makes perfect, and the more you write the better you'll get.  Workshops can be helpful, if only to get a different perspective on your writing, and to get yourself thinking differently about your work.

If you're a decent writer but you find yourself the recipient of several complimentary rejects, maybe it's not your writing, but the subject matter you choose to write about.  If you choose topics most people find boring, or topics so far outside the zeitgeist that no one can sympathize with the characters, then maybe you're heading in the wrong direction.  While it's true that a really excellent writer could make a book about a family of head lice a compelling read, maybe you don't have that level of genius.  You should probably learn to recognize your own limitations, and realize that your book about the secret life of dung beetles, while comprised of all the necessary components, probably isn't going to net you a book deal.  You need to think about who your readers would be and try to find a story you both can appreciate, rather than explore your own more esoteric interests.

Bad Luck

I feel for you unlucky folks.  I really do.  You've written a great book, but alas the the universe conspires against you.  You've got everything that agents and editors say they want, but for some reason your rejects are piling up.  Agents and editors are all very complimentary, but none of them want to take you on.  WTF?!  There's a real simple answer to this: market conditions.  You may have just missed the tail end of a trend, you may have written a book for a smaller market and the publishers rosters are already full, you may have written a book that's too close in style and content to other major books that were acquired ahead of yours.  It's not your fault.  You did your job, and you did it well, but no one wants to take the risk that your book won't sell.  My suggestion is to just shake it off.  You've got independent verification that you can write well, now you just need to do some more writing.  Don't try to chase trends, because that can put you in the same sort of trouble you are in already.  Just write the best book you can possibly write.  You may end up in the same place again because--let's face it--you're unlucky, but the only way to beat bad luck is by working extra hard to keep ahead of it.  If you write consistently better books eventually you'll catch your break, luck be damned.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The Amanda Hocking phenomena has provided a bright ray of hope for authors who have felt stymied by their attempts at commercial publication. While I am pleased by her success, and hopeful for the future it hints at, I am concerned about the debate that's risen in light of her story's popularity. Many megabytes of tweets, blog comments, and facebook prognostications about the imminent demise of the publishing industry have followed this otherwise welcome news.

What I think is missing from this debate is a serious appraisal of just where we're at as authors, as readers, and as publishing professionals.  Publishing has been around for a long long time, and it has survived many pardigmatic shifts in the way the written word is delivered and consumed by readers.  It will survive this shift as well.  In fact, it might just come out the other end in better shape than it has been in a long time.  That is, if we can come together an prevent it from becoming a nightmare.

What has plagued publishing recently is not competition from self-publishers, or piracy, or the internet in general, but the increasing consolidation of publishers, distributors, and booksellers in the physical world.  Even before e-books were doubling their market share every year, print sales were down, independent bookstores were shuttering, and the publishing conglomerates were gobbling up imprints by the dozen. 

The problem that is created by consolidating interests, is that they produced one-size-fits-all products.  Independent bookstores used to cater the specialized needs of their customers, or they'd go out of business.  Big box stores were able to ignore this relationship because their real-estate afforded them the opportunity to draw in more customers, and they could float themselves on a handful of mega best-sellers while using that revenue to carry smaller stocks of a broader variety of other titles.  In the heyday of the nineties consumers had money to burn on entertainment, and books were a good value compared to music and movies. The success of big box stores drove many smaller bookstores out of business.

The dominance of the big box stores warped the priorities of the publishers, who prized better sellers for a general readership over better books for a smaller, more diverse, and more enduring readership. That paradigm couldn't have survived for long, as the readers willing to shell out money for a hardcover of the same sort of thriller they read last week (or more likely last year) become fewer and fewer, and as fewer people were being led to mid-list authors whose books just sat on the shelf in the back of a big box store.

That landscape has shifted through the oughts.  Consumer spending is still recovering and big box bookstores now compete with cheaper and more plentiful entertainment options (Netflix costs less than a trade paperback, and gives you unlimited movies for an entire month).  Some like Barnes and Noble have managed to do okay in adapting to these challenges, others like Borders have run aground.  The publishers that once benefited tremendously  from their relationships with the big box stores, now find themselves having to scale back on number of titles they publish.  Whole imprints have gone away, and further consolidation is only going to lead to a narrowing of potential opportunities for publishers to connect with readers.

No one doubts that the publishing industry is now at a crossroads. Where it goes from here will determine whether it becomes a utopia or dystopia.  In either scenario, the publishing industry is going to survive, because despite the claims of some e-book futurists, the market for print products isn't on the verge of disappearing any time soon.  What it looks like, however, depends not solely on the publishers, but on authors and readers as well.

Because I'm a big Pollyanna, I'm going to address the dystopic vision of publishing first.

In this version of publishing, the industry has become a veritable Pottersville.  It's a fully synergized vampiric horror that seeks to squeeze the last drops of life out of the author's already meager royalties while throwing its publicity weight behind a series of forgettable thrillers, and ghostwritten celebrity books that will molder the second they leave the bookstore.  Mid list authors are more or less ignored, while editors chase best-sellers whose diminishing returns set the bar lower and lower for what a best-seller means.  In the digital world, the publishing giants will simply dump backlists on their e-tailer partners and leave the responsibility for creative marketing in the hands of third-parties.

Meanwhile, the multitude of authors whose books were deemed not commercial enough for "mainstream" publishing will take their raw materials to the readers directly and build small, but loyal, followings selling e-books at pennies on the dollar.  This will work well for some, but for most it will prove disastrous to their careers, their nerves, and their writing. After all, it's hard to run an online media enterprise, while continuing to crank out a book every nine months.  Just ask Amanda Hocking.

The people who will suffer the most, however, will be the readers.  On the one hand they will have a overwhelming abundance of self-published e-books whose quality will range from lunatic ravings to fine literature with no way to differentiate between the two, on the other they will have a "mainstream" publisher who is trying to oversell an overpriced and overproduced version of a warmed-over concept from a decade ago.  In both instances the number of books available per year will shrink, as publishers cut back on the number of titles, and as authors become self-publishers that are too overwhelmed with doing all the other work of publicity and distribution to actually do the job of writing books.   

For those who still love brick-and-mortar bookstores, they will find that the independent bookstores are gone and that their big box store has become a magazine stand full of more knick-knacks, toys, and tie-in products, than books.  

All this version of the future requires is that we continue along the same path we're already on.  Publishers need only consolidate until they are a homogeneous paste, and readers and authors need only isolate themselves in their own fantasy of a digital marketplace that requires no guidance or organization.  The rest will work itself out on its own.

I think I have a better vision of how this whole thing plays out. It's a win win win situation for all parties involved, but it's going to take some work.

In this scenario, publishers realize the golden opportunity that the electronic market provides, and they make it work for them.  They curate lists of mid-list authors and keep backlists alive through creative packaging of online materials to serve more diverse niches in their readership.  They are able to better cross-promote using online media, and draw attention to their mid-list from their front-list and visa-versa.  They will effectively harness the energy of the web to build books in print, and will establish a long-tail model for backlist titles that will help raise revenues.  Those revenues will then be reinvested in finding and building new imprints, and creating a more diverse catalogue that serves the varied interests of many smaller readerships, rather than a singular focus on finding the next mega best-seller.  This growth will only beget more growth.

Parallel to their efforts, a community of online publishers and self-publishers springs up which is able to explore new and exciting frontiers. Without the burden of having their e-editions tied to a print product, these e-publishers will be able to start and establish trends in real time, and create viral successes online.  When a niche becomes popularized there will be a precedent for partnering with publishers to produce print products, which will enable them to build on their success offline as well.  In this way the self-publishing/e-only market will become the trying grounds for larger mainstream success, and will help keep the industry as a whole moving forward.

Bookstores will become the center of communities rather than cold book warehouses.  They will sell not just books, but culture in general, and will be home to events featuring local, national, and international authors, artists, and musicians.

This utopia requires everyone's participation, and a few sacrifices.

Publishers are going to have to step up their investment in online presence and marketing.  Sites like Suvudu, and eHarlequin are steps in the right direction, but publishers need to do better.  They need to market smarter, and they need to better utilize their e-tailer partners.

Publishers also need to be more fair with e-book royalties, or they'll risk losing the enormous revenues they can generate by making use of a long-tail model in backlist sales.  It's hardly worth taking a hard line on e-book royalties if the publisher's share is going to be zero as authors refuse to hand over e-rights for older titles, and revert rights to books that are out-of-print.  

Then there's the issue of pricing, which will require concessions both from publishers and readers.  

Readers will have to pay a premium, whether online or in hardcover, for early adoption.  That's just the way it is.  If you want the newest Apple gadget, you're willing to pay a premium, it's the same thing for books.  If you're buying it the second it's released, expect to pay the hardcover cost whether you're getting a download or the real deal at the bookstore.  Paying the premium price for early adoption will help publishers gain the revenue to build newer and better products, and to invest in the infrastructure that will allow them to offer consumers deals on backlist books.

On that note, publishers need to make concessions about price on the backlist side.  There comes a point when the digital product is no longer undercutting any potential print sale, and the only engine that will drive sales is a lower price.  Selling backlist e-books at $3.99 or lower will help drive backlist sales, and it will delight readers looking for a bargain.  Authors whose books have finished their life cycle in print, can be given new life online at a price point that encourages readers who are looking to explore different styles and genres.

Bookstores are going to have to invest in events planning, and creative marketing, to drive readers into the stores.  You can't just rely on foot-traffic, and a coffee bar.  You need people to find a reason to be there, and you need to connect with your local community in ways that are not simply commercial. 

Authors you're going to have to recognize that publishing is a team effort.  In print it requires the work of agents, editors, publicity departments, reviewers, distributors, bookstore buyers, and even bookstore clerks.  Online it is comprised of e-tailers, bloggers, and social networking sites. Just like Flaubert, you have to realize that books are not like children.  Sure it may take nine months to create one, but once it's written it's not yet a whole entity unto itself, magically imbued with a life of its own.  A finished manuscript is merely the plan for a monument, and it requires not just your effort, but the effort of thousands to erect.  You have to ditch the attitude that you can do this all yourself, and start building partnerships that will help get your book in the hands of readers.

As for me, what I will need to do in this new world?  As an agent, I will have a lot more work to do as the liaison between the parallel enterprises of self-publishers, e-publishers and "legacy" publishers.  It's going to be the agent's responsibility to hammer out the framework for turning an online only product into a print product in a way that doesn't upset the balance between the needs of the print publisher and the e-author/e-publisher.  In many ways the agency I work for has already taken the first steps in this process.  My agency has made reprint and anthology deals with Pocket on behalf of our client the online romance and erotica publisher Ellora's Cave, and helped John Scalzi take the Old Man's War series from his blog to the best-seller list.   My own client Coscom Entertainment has gone from selling thousands of print-on-demand products exclusively through e-tailers to having tens of thousands of books in bookstores through deals with Gallery and Sourcebooks. The results haven't always been great--some reprint deals haven't been the best vehicles for a e-book/print partnership--but we're making strides every day in creating the contractual basis for this utopia, and creating precedents that will help build better relationships between the print and digital worlds in the future.  I'm committed to making this utopia work for authors, publishers, and readers alike.  It's my sincere hope that we will continue to build a better publishing paradigm together.