It took a long time to write a post about disappointment. It’s not a story I wanted to tell, but discouragement—and resilience—are part of a writer’s life. I hope that in sharing honestly my experience, I can shed light on an aspect of publishing that’s rarely spoken about and offer encouragement to my fellow writers.
In September, 2020, I got “the call.” A top-selling agent at a prestigious agency had offered to represent my debut novel. I was beyond thrilled, and blogged about it here.
After a round of revisions, my novel was sent out on submission in January of 2021. My agent sent the manuscript to almost thirty editors at once, explaining that this saved time and could be useful in negotiating if more than one editor was interested in the book.
I eagerly awaited news, only none came. No responses, not even rejections. I’d been on submission before, and I hadn’t experienced this. When I asked if my agent had heard anything, I was told it could take three months to hear back. Writer friends were skeptical of this answer, but my agent was smart and knowledgeable and knew the business far better than I. I had no reason not to trust him.
As weeks turned to months, and we only got four thoughtful rejections, my nagging worry rose to concern. I was told that because of the slowdown in publishing around the New Year, we should reset the clock and start the waiting all over again. I was desperate to believe in a happy outcome, but I could no longer avoid the reality that something was seriously awry. We’d gotten a lower response rate than I’d received cold querying agents. When I asked what might have gone wrong, my agent stopped responding to my emails.
I was confused and distressed, but I also wasn’t ready to give up so easily. Knowing I was taking a risk, I reached out to a few of the editors on the submission list myself and was surprised by their swift and generous responses. As I put the pieces together, I learned that my manuscript had been sent out in a batch with others, with little guidance about which might be a good fit for an editor’s list and almost no follow-up. It was easy to see how a manuscript could be overlooked with this throw-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of approach.
As I talked through what had happened with other writers, however, I realized that my experience, although unique in some ways, was not unusual in others. No agent can guarantee that a book will be sold, and although my submission process did not go the way I’d hoped, there are many factors that go into a book deal, and agents, also, have tough jobs.
I knew I needed to move on, but if I imagined going through a similar experience with my next book, I quickly lost heart. Luckily, I’d started writing my next novel during the waiting time, which I blogged about here. By the time my debut novel’s journey ended, I was already deep into my new book. Once again, as it had many other times in my life, my writing saved me.
I returned to my daily routines with a renewed sense of gratitude for the writing life I’d built over many years. The writer’s group I’d started had grown into a tight-knit community of talented, smart, generous friends. My students continued to inspire me with their creativity, courage and enthusiasm. My life was rich with the company of fellow writers, and through it all, the excitement of working on my current project sustained me.
I’m now eagerly writing the last chapters of my latest novel. I’ll soon be back to querying, and I have faith that there are good agents out there. But as rewarding as a traditional publishing deal might be, I also appreciate all that goes into a writing life, including the people who walk beside me on my journey and the pleasure of reading new work, of offering feedback to encourage and help a fellow writer develop their craft. Most of all, I cherish the freedom and joy, the rewards and challenges of creating entire worlds from sweat and stardust and the tap tap tap of keys on the keyboard. I’m more grateful than ever for the gift of bringing stories to life.
Thanks for sharing your experience! Over here in Southeast Asia, we don’t really have agents, so writers have to approach publishers on their own, and it’s pretty normal to have to wait months for a reply. I wonder if agented pitches are different. Anyway, thanks for sharing, Tania!
That’s interesting, Stuart, that you don’t have agents in Southeast Asia. I can see benefits of being able to approach publishers directly. On the other hand, a good agent can usher a manuscript into the right hands. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. It’s fascinating to learn how things are done on the other side of the globe!
Thanks for sharing your all-to-common pain and what you were able to rescue from it. After my first novel was rejected or ignored by several score of agents, I self-published it under my own imprint. Then I waited 8 months (too long!) before starting the sequel I knew I must write. After querying a few agents about it only to receive form rejections, the pain returned, and I went after indie publishers. Several month of that led to an acceptance in September 2021 for a small but distinguished publisher’s Fall 2024 list. Three years seems like a long time to wait, but maybe that’s common. Abiding, I’ve been honing it with your colleagues at Columbia Fiction Foundry (thank you for letting me in!) and enjoy the diverse feedback I’ve been receiving. Even though the manuscript was accepted, I knew it wasn’t finished, and am thankful for the time I’ve been granted to polish it. Now I’m shooting for a trilogy, but have neither hope nor desire for agent representation.
I’m glad, Geoff, that your perseverance paid off in finding a home for your novel. Good luck with the trilogy!