I recently found myself waiting on the sidewalk for a friend of mine when I was approached by an acquaintance who was dragging someone along. “Hi Jim,” he said. “This is Sarah. Sarah, this is Jim. He’s a literary agent.” My back went ramrod straight, and I tensed up as Sarah’s eyes went wide. This could only mean one of two things: Sarah was looking for an agent, or she had a bone to pick with agents in general. I hoped she was in the first camp. It seems every writer both wants an agent and wants to kill an agent. We’re in the business of selling books (yay), but such a big part of the process is rejecting other material (boo). Rejection will always be part of the business, unfortunate as that is.
See, as agents, we see a lot of material. A whole lot. Hundreds of query letters pour into our office every week, filling our Outlook inboxes and landing on our desks, which are already invisible under our piles of reading, contracts, catalogs and correspondence from editors, clients, etc. We do read every single query we get in the hope of finding the next big thing. We want to find material that we fall in love with. That’s why we do what we do. But an agent can only represent so many projects, and so we pick and choose, sometimes going on knowledge of the market, sometimes depending on a gut level response. Particularly with fiction, our decisions are very subjective.
About once a day, I get an e-mail from someone who is not taking rejection sitting down. They often tell me that I’ve made a terrible decision. Many point out that I’ve passed on the next Da Vinci Code. And that may be true. I don’t know anyone in this business who hasn’t regretted a rejection letter they’ve sent. I vividly remember seeing a project I had turned down displayed in a publisher’s catalog for the first time. I had a hunch when I first read it that there might be something there, but I eventually passed thinking it wouldn’t play. Oops!
Rejection is a major part of this business. Every author has been turned down by someone somewhere. And people do make mistakes in their decisions. I have a belief, though, optimistic as it may be, that the cream does eventually rise to the top, that good writing will find its way into print and that deserving books do get published. It takes a thick skin and a whole lot of patience and determination, but it can happen.
One of my most prolific clients is someone I turned down on the first go-round. I read her novel, saw the promise, but ultimately wasn’t convinced that she pulled off what she was trying for. I wrote an encouraging letter and told her that I wasn’t sure I could place it but would be happy to take a look at a revision or anything else she considered writing. Just a week later, I had a new manuscript in my inbox. Terrified that she had done a haphazard polish of the original manuscript and fired it back to me, I wasn’t particularly excited about picking it up again. But lo and behold, she had done a major rewrite. And it was good. Very good! Since then, I’ve sold eight books by this author.
Ultimately, what I want to get across is that we do know how difficult this process is. We try to make it as painless as possible, but getting a rejection hurts no matter what happens. Just keep in mind when you’re next in a bookstore that they all got turned down—the bestsellers and the prize winners alike. So try to be patient, try not to let your feelings get hurt, and keep on keeping on.