Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stacey Glick on another time it paid not to give up

We’ve all heard the stories about big, bestselling authors being rejected by a gazillion houses before getting published. I have one of my own to share. Many years ago, I received a compelling and well-written query letter from a fellow Boston University graduate. A.J. Hartley was a Shakespeare professor who had received his Ph.D. from B.U. Our time there overlapped, but we never knew each other.

Andrew had been writing fiction for many years, and had even queried the agency long before my arrival. I requested his manuscript, and signed it up, then proceeded to shop it around to publishers with no success. That first book was charming and funny, but not quite what publishers were looking for at that time. His next novel, a quiet mystery set on a college campus, was also well done and engaging, but I faced resistance again from publishers, for different reasons this time. All the while, we were learning what A.J. needed to do to turn his talent into a saleable manuscript. Bigger and more commercial were two things that I felt his fiction needed to be, ambiguous as that can sound to an author, and eventually A.J. came back to me with a terrific thriller called The Mask of Atreus. This was around the time that Dan Brown had published The DaVinci Code, and though A.J. hadn’t read the book before he wrote Mask, there were some similarities in style and tone, and in pulling historical facts into contemporary fiction.

I had put a paragraph about the book into our agency newsletter before I submitted the manuscript, and it caught the eye of our subagent in Greece. Before long, we had a large offer from Livanis in Greece, well before I sold the rights here in the U.S. What followed was a series of quick sales internationally, eventually totaling over a dozen deals that took us well into the six figures, and then finally, a U.S. publisher came through. Berkley published The Mask of Atreus as a mass market paperback in April, 2006. The book hit the USA Today bestseller list. We went on to sell his next thriller, On the Fifth Day, which was published by Berkley this past July and hit the New York Times list. A.J. Hartley’s books have been praised by bestselling authors like Steve Berry, Kathy Reichs, James Rollins, and Douglas Preston. Publisher’s Weekly said about Mask: “This intricate and absorbing thriller augurs well for Hartley's career” and in reviewing On the Fifth Day, said “This slam-bang title is a very fun, surprisingly satisfying read.”

A.J. recently signed a 2-book deal with Tor for a new fantasy series which will come out in 2009 and 2010, and we are working on his next thriller now, which uses his Shakespearean background to weave an intriguing, commercial thriller.

Years after I’d signed A.J. up as a client, I found a query letter he’d sent to the agency back in the early 90s. There was a hand-written note on the bottom saying that he was a good writer but it wasn’t the right manuscript. I’m glad that I was able to discover A.J. again so many years later and work with him to develop the right project for him at the right time. A talented author getting the right kind of guidance can find success, even if it takes time, effort, and lots of rejection to get there.

19 comments:

  1. Any plans for those earlier manuscripts?

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  2. This post interests me, because I have been getting the same kinds of feedback from agents for years.

    They tell me my writing is great, my characters vivid, but that I need to write a different kind of story. As one put it I need to write a "big book."

    Unfortunately, I have never been able to get any further hints from that agent as to what a "big book" might be.

    I'd love to write a Big Book. I'm glad to know that a very successful agent seems to think it's something I could do. But in giving me that kind of advice, with no further direction, they seem to have missed the part about how it takes a year of work to write a novel and when they turn around after reading the new book and say, "No, that isn't what I meant", well, that's a year of my life down the drain!

    The fact that agents won't look at partials from unpublished novelists doesn't help.

    So for those of us who have been told we can tell a story but are telling the wrong ones, what do we need to understand?

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  3. Is that typical, an agency holding on to old query letters?

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  4. This is one of the most inspiring posts I've read on any agent's or agency's blog. Thank you for giving hope to close-but-no-cigar unagented authors (like me) as well as agented authors trying to get their first sale (like some of my friends).

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  5. Thanks for this blog, it is very encouraging to read about all the success stories. Yes, rejection is part of the process, but if you have an unwavering belief in yourself and your manuscript, then there is a contract waiting for you.

    Writing must come from the heart and be something you're passionate about. Storytelling is something else entirely and many great ideas founder when exposed to the harsh glare of publication. When I read my manuscript, I try to be impartial and react as if I'd never seen it before. If it still moves me, then I'm on to something and that's when I get excited.

    I love to write.

    Rose

    xo

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  8. thank you! I'm currently talking myself out of Being Despondent and this post helped.

    I'm also reminding myself that I'm Being Impatient and that ten rejections aren't so many...that maybe I just haven't found the right agent, and that really what I need to do is...

    KEEP WORKING!

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  9. Nice post. Writers also tend to forget how much rejection the agents receive, too.

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  10. Nice post. I really enjoyed reading this!

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  11. Thanks, I needed that. Agent rejection came in the mail today after she read a partial. Very cordial letter but again, "not passoniate" about the story and "I didn't fall in love with it."

    I'm desperate enough to spend several thousands with an "editor" to find the flaw in the story. Everyone says the writing is good.

    You've picked me up, dusted me off, and put me back in the game.

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  13. That's a wonderful story, and worth remembering. Thanks for sharing it. And now that he's learned what works for him and for the market, he can revisit the older manuscripts and make them work, too.

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  14. Stacey, what I find most encouraging about this story is the snowballing of deals, which can eventually happen even if the process starts off at an excruciatingly slow pace. Good for Greece for coming through first on AJ's novel!

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  15. Jenny, if you happen to see this: I understand your frustration. I recommend you pick up Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, which covers the elements of "big books." I would also recommend reading several "big books" and dissecting them.

    That said, not all books can be "big books." The agents who are giving you this feedback could be saying you need to raise the stakes for your protagonist, or maybe there aren't enough plot twists or danger. Are you involved in a critique group? Mine is priceless.

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  16. Chisem - Don't waste money on an editor. If your writing is already good, it may be that the story isn't marketable or that your voice will never be the right one to tell it.

    Start over. Write something entirely different, something that suits your voice and personality and writing style and perhaps is more commercial.

    Just my two bits, but bits based on experience.

    Good Luck.

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  17. It is very comforting to know how some of the best known writers were rejected many times before getting one agent / editor who felt they had promise. It is a question of one, just one, of them liking your work, so folks don't give up.

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