Friday, July 17, 2009

The search for a literary agent

Writing a novel is fun. Getting an agent to represent it to publishers is not. I guess they're both difficult endeavors, but one has more control over the former than the latter. I had long been procrastinating about sending query letters to agents, perhaps thinking that so long as I don't offer it up for rejection it would not be found rejectable. As a social late bloomer, I realize I basically did that to myself in high school. Better to not ask a question than risk getting the answer you didn't want to hear, I thought.

Well, so anyway, I finally did it. I sent query letters and manuscript samples to seven literary agents. Within days, I got three rejections, all form letters of course. All stating that even though it was a form letter, they really did read and consider my work. I was just a little dejected about being rejected because, after all, I expected I would have collected a few of these red badges of literary courage along the way to being published. Also, as an occasional buyer of MegaMillions tickets, I am accustomed to disappointment. And, of course, it was my hero, Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote, "I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

So I responded to the three rejections by sending out three more query letters. This made me feel I was still in the lead. Shortly thereafter, I got another rejection, one from the first bunch. Today, I got my first rejection from the second bunch. But it was NOT a form letter! In fact, it was so nicely worded that I want to cherish and share it:
Dear Jason,
... There is much to admire in your work. It’s an incredibly intriguing premise to base a novel on an 17th century English folk song. We both loved how you follow the poem's lyrics but also make colorful embellishments of your own. The descriptions of life at the Barnard estate, spring festivals in Lancashire County, and background history developed for each main character are all rich and add important substance to the novel. Unfortunately, however, I’m sorry to say that THE GRAVE AND THE GAY did not garner the unanimous support we require when taking on a new client. We are forced to be particularly cautious about representation given the intense competition in today’s marketplace, and there were concerns that there was a bit more “tell” than “show” here in the novel. Additionally, while characters based on a folk song are potentially fascinating, we did not connect with them quite as much as we would have liked.

Fiction is such a tough sell these days and we must be incredibly selective about the few projects we take on, but do know that opinions differ greatly in this industry. We could certainly imagine another agent being quite enthusiastic about this. We wish you the very best of luck and hope to see your name on a bookshelf soon.

You know, this letter started out so nice that I knew a BUT was coming. Still, if only the girls in my high school were as gentle at saying no as this person was....

So according to my scorecard, I think I'm 0 yeses, five nos, and five haven't heards. That still gives me some cushion for failure. My plan is to send out more letters in the next week, but at the same time I'm going to put my second manuscript (32,000 words to date) on hold while I continue to work on the first one because, to my way of thinking, as nice as this latest response was, I'd rather a tepid acceptance over an enthusiastic rejection.

Fingers crossed.


Fran said...

I so felt for you, reading your posting.

I received my umpteenth email response after some 33 queries - another warm rejection I figured - back on June 20. After reading the brilliant personal intro and, like you, waiting for the 'but', I then read on and saw that they wanted to represent me. It happened!

So I wanted you to know that it does happen. If books like The Pillars of the Earth can be bestsellers, I have no doubt that yours will do even better. How could it not?

Relax and enjoy the ride. Unless you're 95, you aren't going anywhere yet, are you?

Jason M. Rubin said...

Definitely not going anywhere yet! Thanks for the inspiring comment, and congratulations!