What does it take to get published?

It’s an uphill battle.

In a writing workshop, the instructor wrote on the board the three things a writer needs to get published: a good book; a good agent; and, luck.

A Good Book

Let’s assume you have a good book. The plot is interesting and unique, the main character is compelling, and the writing is great. You’re now ready to look for an agent to represent you and find a publisher. Oh, and by the way, you have an author platform; website, Twitter, Facebook with a bunch of followers cheering you on.

A Good Agent

You research and focus on agents that could best suit your needs and theirs. The querying process is what gets the agent interested in your work. You meet the submission guidelines where you may be asked to send a query letter, synopsis, sample pages or any combination of each. But after reading the query letter or by the time agents gets to read actual sample pages, they have already decided to go to the next step or reject it. 99% of the time an agent will stop reading a partial before reaching page 10 or the query letter just didn’t cut it for them.

This is frustrating for a writer. Everyone, including the agent, knows that it’s impossible to judge the quality and merit of a book by reading only a few pages. As a result, thousands of books don’t get represented or published.

Agents receive thousands of queries a year and they don’t have time to read all of them because their first priority is to service their existing clients. The “slush pile” of queries, sample chapters and even full manuscript submissions don’t get attention until the end of the day. We all know what it’s like after a long day’s work. Do you really want to do more work?

 But that’s what a reader does. Should the agent really do the same? After all, their judgment of a story will have greater significance to the publication of a highly successful book than merely deciding what to read next.

If your first 10 pages introduces us to a compelling character, the prose has some great writing, and dialogue is authentic, then why does it still get rejected? Agents will tell you that there wasn’t enough to want them to keep going. Yet, how many of us have picked up a book, read the first 10, 50 pages or the entire book and asked ourselves, “How did this ever get published?” And think about the books that were initially rejected and later, by luck, divine intervention or whatever the case, it landed on the best seller list.

The list below is a sampling of some authors and their works that all have one thing in common: a persistence to never give up on their dream. They also have something else in common. Every one of them was initially rejected by literary agents and publishers alike. After seeing the list, it makes one wonder if the same errors in judgement still pervade the publishing industry today.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Carrie by Stephen King.

Rejections provide the authors with the impetus to persevere. They don’t normally provide valuable insight or feedback that would help the writer improve their craft. Here’s one of my favourite rejections that I received from an agent: “Not for me.” That’s it! Three words. Needless to say, this agent would not be for me either. The lack of professionalism suggests how she would represent a client. Aside from the “Not for me” rejection, most agents that turn down queries, respond by telling the writer something like this (another one of my rejections).

“Thank you for sending me your query. I’m sorry not to request the full manuscript or offer to represent you, but this doesn’t seem like a good fit for my list. Publishing is very subjective, and other agents may well feel differently. I wish you all success finding it a home.”

Speaking with other debut authors and from my own experience, the common thread in rejections is that the publishing industry is indeed very subjective. Often agents will say that what is not a fit for one agent may be a fit for another. Subjectivity can certainly hinder a writer’s chances in representation and ultimate publication of their work. The long list of initially rejected works attests to that.

Objectivity refers to something which exists, or is true, independent of anyone’s opinion. Subjectivity refers to an individual’s experience or opinion of something. Whether that something is objective or not is irrelevant.

For example, if a book falls on your head, we can say that gravity had a role in it. We can say this “objectively” because it can be objectively calculated and will have the same value. However, the pain you experience is “subjective”. You may have a sensitive head and feel extreme pain, or you may be wearing a hard hat and feel no pain, or you may be intoxicated and get an entirely different feeling. The results show that subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination led you to feel what you did when the book fell on your head.

A query letter or sample chapters will do the same thing: evoke a stimulus for an emotional response. The agent will then judge the submission based on their perception, emotions, or imagination. The stimulus, based on subjectivity, has its roots in an agent’s life experiences, education, biases, etc. Furthermore, what an agent is looking for in publication of a story, is also rooted in the same subjectivity.

For example, if you’re a woman, raised and worked on a farm, and experienced the challenges of getting up early, doing chores, then going to school, doing more chores after school, and finally doing your homework, you will have quite a different outlook on life than a woman who has lived in a big city all her life. Needless to say, the same holds true for men. The point is that experiences shape our thoughts and subjectivity-infused thoughts affects our decisions.

Let me further highlight this by using women’s fiction as an example. During the past few years women’s fiction genre has grown. Whether spawned by the “Me Too” movement or as a natural progression from the “chick lit” genre that was popular a decade ago, is not the focus here. In fact, with writers taking greater risks and reaching a larger audience, women’s fictions is having a larger appeal. The only fear is if the market becomes saturated with the genre or it’s a “flavour of the month”. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Women’s fiction is here to stay and rightly so.

And so, books about girls/women have been in the spotlight for some time. Female-driven thrillers are flying off the bookshelves and being adapted into blockbusters and stories centered on women are still in demand. Just look at the list of books published in the past few years in the women’s fiction category.

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
  • Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes.
  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen.
  • The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow.

… and there have been many more.

So, what’s causing this great influx of women’s fiction; market demands or an agent’s wish list?

To try to understand what may be influencing this, again using women’s fiction as an example, I did my own research and analysis of agents looking for new writers published in two different issues of Writer’s Digest and a guide from the Historical Novel Society that identified agents who sell historical fiction. Some may question that this is not a representative sampling of the hundreds of agents out there, yet the observations may leave food for thought.  Here’s what caught my eye.

  • Total number of agents looking for new writers: 93
  • Number of female agents: 73 (78.5%)
  • Number of male agents: 20 (21.5%)
  • Number of female agents specifically looking for women’s fiction: 36 (39%)
  • Number of male agents looking for women’s fiction: 1 (1%)

So, does the agent’s wish list affect the decision? Does the subjectivity factor play a part where an agent’s life experience evokes a stimulus for an emotional response and rejects a manuscript in favour of gravitating towards a story about a strong female protagonist?

When asked about their decision-making process in accepting or rejecting a story based on a query, one agent said, “The writing has to speak to me in some way for me to take it on, so if the writing isn’t quite there, I won’t likely offer rep, even if it has a great premise.” Another agent said, “It is more about my personal connection to the story and writing.”

Is subjectivity not creeping into making a decision? An agent confirms this saying, “I’m not passing on a project because it’s bad. It just didn’t sing to me, as it were.”

Publishers look at it a little differently. CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, Brad Martin said, “I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.” Yikes! What are my chances now in publishing my book? No doubt it’s about money. A publisher, like any other commercial venture, is in business to make money. Incidentally the merger of publishing houses during the past few years has drastically transformed the publishing industry. Publishers have come and gone. Those that have survived are now closed to work not represented by an agent, and only the dwindling number of small presses still accept submissions directly from a new author.

And then there’s the decision whether to self-publish or attempt traditional publishing. Essayist, journalist, and literary critic Anjali Enjeti writes in “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years” (The Atlantic): “After 16 years of writing books and 10 years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. […]” On the subject of self-publishing Enjeti says: “… can be a popular and accessible option for writers who wish to bypass the traditional route altogether. But while there are some wild success stories in self-publishing […] I’ve yet to meet an author who felt their self-published literary novel or memoir generated enough sales to make up for the amount of time and money spent marketing them.”

So that makes literary agents the gate keepers of the publishing world. The good agents work hard to get their clients the best publishing deals with the best publishers that they can. The bad agents … well, you can image how they operate.

What do writers think about agents as gatekeepers? Here’s one thought stemming from a Writer’s Digest article, “How to Find a Literary Agent: Finding Agents Appropriate for Your Writing”.

“Literary Agents gatekeepers of the publishing world? Seriously? I’ve known Literary Agents to take two years, TWO YEARS, to respond to a query. Some have no knowledge of good grammar, let alone people skills. Sorry. Your chance of landing a decent deal using a Literary Agent is slim to none. This industry needs an overhaul and it can start with Literary Agents. With the industry the way it has morphed over the past decade or two, writers are far better off going it alone. Not a soul cares more about your writing than you. There are far better ways to get your work into the laps of your readers.”

But gatekeepers aren’t necessarily risk takers. It seems agents want the sure thing, the book that will get published. They don’t expect perfection in a manuscript submission, but it has to be close enough that publication is almost a certainty. How many agents take a risk and represent someone that may be just a little outside their comfort zone?

Perhaps the system is indeed broken when it comes to how stories are chosen to be represented and published. Perhaps an overhaul is needed but who will take on the challenge and how will it be accomplished?

Luck

A bit of luck goes a long way in obtaining representation. We’ve all heard the stories before.

  • “I met her [the agent] on the train to a writer’s festival …”
  • “I was reading a section of my novel at a Goldsmiths literary evening for grad students and [Agent X] – who is now my agent – was in the audience.”
  • “One of my teachers […] passed my novel on to her agent […] who in turn passed the manuscript within […]”
  • “I found my agent […] through another agent named […]. My friend knows someone who went to school with [this agent], and because of her, the book ended up in his hands. He referred me to […].

And then there’s a different kind of luck. Author Delia Owens, now 70 years-old, had never written a novel before. Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon helped rocket Owen’s book, “Where the Crawdads Sing” after Witherspoon selected it for her Hello Sunshine book club pick.

Being at the right place at the right time can work wonders. But for most of us aspiring authors we leave luck to land wherever it chooses and continue to persevere and never give up on our dreams. We’ll continue to query, as best we can, to literary agents and publishers regardless if the system is broken or not. We’ll continue to receive rejection after rejection, regardless of the subjectivity that influenced the decision. Most importantly, we’ll continue to write, no matter what lies around the corner because our passion is in writing not querying.

Until next time!

Vince

If you’re interested in seeing a more comprehensive list of books initially rejected and the story behind the rejections, click here.

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

History Is A Mere Backdrop To A Story

You have a story idea and you like history. Now you have to put the two together.

Writing historical fiction has its challenges. The story may be about a period in time that some readers know very little about or they may know more than the writer. Regardless, the historical facts of the story need to be researched and then used to help tell the story.

Photo by Adam Bichler on Unsplash

A writer considers the facts and then utilizes all five senses and weaves them into a story to make both facts and senses real. And don’t forget, a fiction writer takes “creative liberties” with their story. Does that mean the facts are distorted or changed? No. There are limits to how a writer wants to relay the facts to readers.

A writer might consider historical accounts and, based on other lesser-known facts, use them to conceptualize an event or situation. The purpose is to make the story readable, believable, or spark thought-provoking alternatives to traditionally known facts.

For example, in the novel A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles mixes both fact and fiction. Towles spent more than 20 years in the investment business before becoming an author. He tells the story of a Russian aristocrat living under house arrest in a luxury hotel for more than 30 years.

Towles admits he is not an historian and his book is not a book of history. “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t,” says Towles. He sees the task of a novelist differently. He describes it as using “the backdrop of history to tell a story.”

When I was researching for my story, The Final Crossing which is set in the Ancient World (Egypt and Mesopotamia), I was intrigued by the history of biblical events or phenomena. In my research I discovered that manna, the so-called “bread from heaven”, was a unique substance that grew on desert shrubs. After they fell to the ground, they were collected, ground and pounded into cakes and then baked. Bible passages tell the story of the Israelites eating manna, sent by their god, during their trek across the desert. In my story the protagonist learns about this mann es-sama from Bedouins living in the desert. I try to show that even what many believed to be a miracle from above can be explained in Nature.

It’s important to remember that a writer is not writing a history book, yet care must be taken so that all those interesting pieces of information, unearthed in research, do not end up as “info-dump” in the story but rather become an integral part of the story that keeps the momentum moving. They can be sprinkled into the story, invoking a picture for the reader of the scene or story as a whole.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another way to look at it, in a simplistic sort of way. A painter prepares his canvas and may choose to paint the backdrop first. Strokes of colours, accents in shades – all to help bring the painting to life. Then the painter adds what he or she wants to depict – the focus of the painting. We look at the finished work, perhaps of a man, his face wrinkled like old leather, his eyes staring in determination. In the background, grey clouds overlook a farmer’s corn field ready for harvest. The painting is about the man. The backdrop tells us something about the man and his world.

It’s the same with historical fiction. The history is a backdrop to what the story is about – the protagonist and his quest. The backdrop helps create an accurate representation of the protagonist – his world and the events that propel him towards his goal.

So, is history a mere backdrop to a story? It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s the canvas, carefully prepared to help bring characters and settings to life.

How do you see history in historical fiction novels? I’d like to hear from you.

Until next time.

Vince

© 2019 Vince Santoro