Monday, March 02, 2009

Jim McCarthy thinks about what he has rejected

Let’s say you flip open the latest catalog from Random House or Simon & Schuster and staring back at you is a novel that you rejected. Maybe about five years ago in a moment of complete stupidity you thought, “Is there really an audience for werewolf books?” and passed on Carrie Vaughn’s fabulous KITTY AND THE MIDNIGHT HOUR. If you had, you’ve probably spent much time since then feeling sharp pangs of regret every time Vaughn published the next book in that great series.

I mean…hypothetically.

So doubts starts to creep in, and you think awful, traumatic thoughts like, “Please tell me I never rejected TWILIGHT. Pleeeeeeease…”

But it doesn’t make sense to spend too much time looking back at what might have been when instead you can focus on what is and what has been. I’m thrilled with the stable of fabulous authors I’ve had the chance to work with. Which doesn’t completely quash the occasional panic that I might have just turned down something unbelievable (sorry, Ms. Vaughn) but is immensely reassuring.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what we pass on, what we sign up, and how those choices are made because of a mind-blowing novel I read over the weekend.

Michael Muhammad Knight’s THE TAQWACORES is, according to its back cover copy, “a manifesto for Muslim punk rockers and a ‘Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims.’” It is a brilliant coming-of-age story about a college kid who bears witness to the wild scene around him in a Muslim punk house in Buffalo--I couldn’t wrap my head around it until I read the book either.

A challenging read for someone with embarrassingly little understanding of Islam or Arabic, it was still the sort of fiction that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. It informed my knowledge of Islam, shook my comprehension of faith, and vibrated with the power of fiction that (even if imperfect) is raw, real, and truthful. The characters were revelations, and the climactic scene at a punk concert was one of the most exciting things I’ve read recently.

So if it came across my desk, would I have signed on THE TAQWACORES? Probably not. It’s tough to admit, but it’s true. “Is there really an audience for Muslim punk rock novels?” I would have thought. And then…maybe…I would have passed.

In response to a rejection letter I recently sent that cited some market concerns, someone e-mailed me recently asking, “Don’t you ever sign up something just because you love it?” Of course, in that case, the logic didn’t bear out because I totally didn’t love that novel. I wrote back, truthfully, that I do. There have been times in the past when I signed up projects and told the author, “Look, it’s a long shot. I have no idea if I can sell this. But I’ll give it a shot.” One, in particular, that was one of the very first things I worked on as an agent, still sticks with me to this day, and I have a hard copy of the manuscript at home, even though I didn’t manage to sell it. Other of those situations have worked out more happily.

It’s a large investment, though, in terms of time, energy, and emotion to take on a project that you suspect is an intensely difficult sell. THE TAQWACORES would have been that. Indeed, it only recently was published by Soft Skull, a small independent publisher in Brooklyn, four years after its author began photocopying it and distributing it on his own. Even having gained a large audience and much notoriety (and having been the subject of a great NY Times article), the book has apparently sold just about 1,000 copies since it came out.

Sometimes we bear with things because we can’t imagine giving them up. And sometimes we look at a tough marketplace and accept that we need to sign up just those things that we love AND we think we can sell. It’s a tricky thing. No one’s perfect at it. But we all try to be.

Now excuse me while I go pick up Carrie Vaughn’s sixth Kitty Norville novel.


  1. We've shipped about 5000 actually. Sell-thru, on what is perceived by the market as a backlist book, is rarely instant..

  2. I don't think I'll ever get enough of "should I pass or pick up?" stories. My mind melts when I think of all the agents who must have wanted to jump out of a window when they realized they passed on Harry Potter. But if some other agent had said yes for another set of reasons, ("The market is desperate for British boy wizards!"), would the series have been nearly as successful? Who knows...

    Of course the writer needs to be skilled, as does the agent. But at the end of the day, it's all about chemistry, serendipity and timing. I guess...right? Who knows. Crazy.

    Thanks for getting this all down,

  3. You can't second guess difficult decisions. Once they're made you move on. In any case, you reinforce my belief that I would never make an agent. :)


  4. Thanks for this post. It was so honest and reassuring in a strange way...

  5. As an emerging writer just beginning the search for an agent, I'm encouraged by this post. All I can ask for is to be thoughtfully considered. Will a thoughtful no be less of a disappointment than a hasty or harsh one? I'll have to see.

  6. The rule is don't look back.

  7. I liked this post too, but I LOVE the sound of THE TAQWACORES.

    I always liked Miss Snark's last post about the famous violinist who consented to play on the street for spare change. So many people who'd have shelled out plenty for one of his concerts just passed him by. All of us rejectees like to think we're that violinist. It's so comforting.

  8. Thanks for dropping in, Richard, and for clarifying. I wish you and the author all the best on the novel, which I sincerely loved.

    And Mary, you bring up one of my favorite stories of the past few years. I can't find the Miss Snark post about it, but here's the article for anyone who doesn't know the story:

    The take-away, for me, is that there are rewards to paying attention to the richness around you. Possibly trite, but definitely true.


  9. Good post Jim, one that hit close to home.

    I'm currently shopping a novel around myself, and you were the very first agent I queried. You sent me a form rejection, which I printed out and put in a folder as a keepsake.

    Relax -- this isn't a "revenge" type comment at all. I'm sure your plate is full and I really wouldn't want to be looking at query e-mails from others right now either, given the dour economy and whatnot.

    However, I did trash my query letter and write a new one. I mean, a form rejection? Eek! Something in my query e-mail must of really stunk ;)

  10. Interesting stories. The one about the hard copy that never made it to publication is really sad, though, since it was obviously a worthwhile manuscript. Ah, the vagaries of publishing! I hope that author self-published at some point.

  11. I'm so glad I found this blog, I am looking for an agent also, and it is a jungle out there. I have written a fictional/fantasy novel and I need representation. can anyone help?

  12. I am an African-American writing a brief memoir based on religion, spirituality and what I've learned told in an inspirational story.