I need to place a huge caveat on this post. Big. Massive. Perhaps an even corpulent caveat. I need you to understand that everything I am about to say comes from having gone through more than a decade in pursuit of publication. This isn’t some quickly scrawled screed about how unfair agents or editors or [insert faceless publishing icon here.]
Up until recently my primary exposure to the publishing world has been predominately in the writing side. I make with the fancy words, crumple them up into little balls, and then send them by carrier pigeon off to Hogwarts Random House. Or something. But recently I was given a gift.
I know, writers are usually only given pens, journals, quills for some reason, or new books. And we love all of those, by the way, but this gift wasn’t any of them. This gift came in the form of an agent allowing me to read some of their queries and then give my opinions. For their sake and the sake of the authors I have reviewed, I will not disclose the agent, agency, nor any particular details. But I can say that trying to see how authors look from the other side of the fence has been enlightening.
And, to some degree, the greatest piece of this puzzle has been understanding the industry from a business perspective, not a taste one. What do I mean? Authors often get very upset with agents and editors and even their own readers. Why? The reasons are as numerous as there are sub-genres of paranormal teen romance. But one of the bigger factors that comes into play is that writers are often putting their whole sense of self-worth and personhood into their work. The sum of who they are as people they associate with the time and effort and energy it took to produce their work. To them, the months and sometimes years of this process mean that it has become a part of who they are, a part of their life story, even if it’s about rabid marmots defending the earth from alien shiitake mushrooms (not an actual story I reviewed).
So for the sake of metaphors (I love a good metaphor), imagine that the process is a cake. This cake has taken anywhere from three months to one year to make. There was the procuring of ingredients, the research of recipes, the measuring of all the ingredients to exact specifications, the timed mixing of all the ingredients, the preparing of pans, the agony of waiting as it bakes, the even longer agony of waiting for it to cool, and then finally the decoration which might take as long as all the prior steps combined. All of that work and then you go and ask 30-40 perfect strangers to come and taste it. You, hopefully, knew what these strangers wanted when you asked them, but maybe you could only guess.
Stranger 1: Walks forward. Looks down at the cake you made and says, “No.” Nothing else. Just the word no.
Stranger 2: Takes a deep whiff of the room and then turns around and leaves without saying anything.
Stranger 3-17: Follows in Stranger 2’s whiff then leaves without saying something.
Stranger 18: Takes a bite and then spits it out on the floor and walks out.
Stranger 19: Takes a bite, swallows, shrugs, and then walks out.
Stranger 20-30: Takes a bite, doesn’t shrug, doesn’t do anything, just leaves.
Stranger 31: Takes a bite, swallows, gives you a tentative look and then asks for a second bite. Stranger 31 then goes off to one corner, muttering to themselves and you can’t hear what they say.
Stranger 32-38: All of them were right there, just a second ago, and now they are gone.
Stranger 39: Takes a bite, stares blankly at you, then says, “This is not the cake I like, but it’s not bad cake.” Before you can get too excited, they turn around and leave.
Stranger 40: Takes a bite, smiles at you, and then sort of winces and says, “I can’t do anything with this cake, do you have any other cakes?”
Stranger 31: Is no longer in the corner muttering to themselves and came back to say it wasn’t really their thing after that second bite.
For most writers this process is infuriating. You did all that work and now it has been judged so randomly that you want to pull your hair out (advantage goes to us bald guys). But instead of seeing it in that direction, spin it around and imagine that you’re in the shoes of these Strangers. That you, in order to pay your mortgage and buy your kids food every month, represent 10,000 cake connoisseurs. Your livelihood depends on you tasting and then selling the cakes to restaurants all over the world. Someone you don’t know then came and asked you to taste their cake.
The process they went through can’t mean the same thing to you as it did to them. If it did, you would never ever sell a cake. If you were so personally invested in each cake you would just fail, all the time. Your mortgage would not be paid and your kids would be hungry.
But for the author, they can only see what the process has cost them. They can only view their work and the seemingly unlimited potential it has. So anger boils over at the Strangers, these agents and editors, because they don’t feel the same way about your cake as you do.
I once heard a piece of advice from an agent on what to do if you have exhausted your querying. Specifically, should you go the self-publishing route if you can’t get an agent? Their reply has haunted me: “Go write a better book first.” Having read the queries these agents receive, I see at least a glimpse of it, now. I understand why the word subjective has been in so many of my rejection letters. I get it. Or, at least, I am beginning to get it. And I don’t feel the same anger I used to.
So each and every day, in my writing, I make my motto, “Write a better book.”