It happened during dinner. My husband and I were celebrating his birthday in a quiet corner of the Japanese-Peruvian restaurant everyone was talking about at the time. We had devoured an enormous platter of buttery sashimi and oysters we cheered like tequila shots. He stepped out to the men’s room, and I couldn’t resist. I had to check my inbox. And that’s when I saw it, a sentence I’d been waiting for so long to read that I thought I might have been hallucinating from the shellfish: “I would like to take a look at the entire manuscript.”
An agent wanted to read my book. A real live literary agent, from the center of the publishing universe, New York freaking City, typed those words out for me because she liked my sample pages enough that she wanted more. After several months of learning how to get a book published, writing and rewriting my query letter, researching agents, querying agents, teetering between optimism and surrender, and refreshing my inbox with a thumb that twitched like an overly caffeinated pigeon, those words on the screen of my phone were a lighthouse in a sea of silent rejections.
I was giddy when my husband returned to the table. We ordered more wine and toasted this milestone, but I was eager to get home to prepare my manuscript. After rereading my response several times and triple-checking to be sure the correct version was attached, I hit send. Then I waited.
I was used to waiting by then. I’d heard so often that it was as essential a part of publishing as paper. I felt less patient than usual, though, so I continued to query agents. That request to read my manuscript was a buoy of reassurance. I felt reinvigorated, now hopeful that my queries weren’t just lying unread in a junk folder. This could actually work.
A few weeks later I got another request for the full manuscript. A third agent reached out to me two days after that. My imagination was abuzz with agency contracts and book deals. I told my friends I was content with knowing that professional literary agents were reading my work, but that was a lie — I wanted to be signed. I wanted them to love me, to duel over representing me. I wanted, and needed, someone to be my champion.
The following week I got the email. I saw the sender’s name and probably stopped breathing: Jessica Faust, president of BookEnds Literary Agency, who sat at the top of my agent wish list. I opened the email to read: “I was hoping we could set up some time to talk.”
We discussed my book over the phone, and I could tell she just got it. I tried to be cool, but it wasn’t possible. I felt like a child talking to Santa Claus. Jessica explained how she liked to work with her clients and her style when it came to submissions, eventually making an offer of representation. “You can take some time to think about it,” she said. Not necessary. That forty-minute conversation told me everything I needed to know. She was the agent for me.
The days that followed were a marvelous blur. I signed the contract, worked with Jessica to perfect my manuscript, and told everybody I knew that I was a giant leap closer to becoming a published novelist. I notified the other agents I had queried that I was off the market. Jessica provided insightful feedback on how to strengthen my book, and we collaborated on revisions. I didn’t always agree with her comments, but she was open to my thoughts. In the end we were both happy with the finished product, polished and gleaming like a pearl.
It was then time to submit. Jessica pitched a handful of editors, and they all sounded enthusiastic about the premise. I researched each of these publishing houses in depth — their history, their authors, their #bookstagram posts — convinced that one of them would be the home of my debut. Only a few months earlier I was doubtful anyone was even reading my queries, and now I was certain I’d have a book deal within a month, destined to be the next Yann Martel or Dave Eggers. I think about that starry-eyed version of myself, just one year younger, and chuckle sympathetically. Such innocence.
What I should have realized then was that another wave of rejection was heading my way, and this time it would be a tsunami. Querying agents was a maddening process filled with silence, but being on submission was like swimming to shore only to be pulled out to sea again by the undertow. I knew exactly when an editor passed (the nicest word for rejected), because Jessica would forward me their response. They were always lovely, filled with descriptions of what they liked and their reasons for stepping aside. Either they didn’t connect with the voice, or they already represented a book with too many similarities, or they simply weren’t obsessed with it.
That’s when I learned an important truth — like agents, an editor must be obsessed with a book to be the right person to champion it into the market. As one editor mentioned, it really had to be a “head-over-heels situation” to take on something new, perhaps especially from a debut author.
I also came to understand the fierceness of this industry’s subjectivity. One editor would love the voice but find the characters unconvincing, while another editor would love the characters but not connect with the voice. Editors and agents are also readers. They have their preferences and tastes. There’s no science behind how a story speaks to someone on a deeper level. It’s mysterious and ineffable.
Every single publisher from that first round of submissions, who showed such initial enthusiasm, ended up passing for one reason or another. My confidence went from the summit of Everest to Mariana’s Trench, but hope was still alive. I had a wonderful agent who knew how to drum up interest with editors, and she showed no sign of stopping.
Jessica gave me some good advice: “Start writing your next book.” Being an author on submission is a helpless, powerless position. I was confident in my agent’s abilities, so no amount of worrying or inbox-refreshing or stress-eating on my part was going to get me any closer to being published. I had to focus my energy on something I had control over — my writing.
I pitched a concept for my next novel to Jessica, and she very clearly yet sensitively talked me out of it. There were too many problematic elements, and she was uncertain about how it’d be received by editors. I felt defeated at the time, but now I realize the importance of that feedback. My agent isn’t just my business partner. She’s an industry maven with experience and instincts I simply do not possess.
I began writing as soon as we agreed on a concept. Suddenly, I was so immersed in this new story, getting acquainted with these new characters, I didn’t have time to worry about the submission process. The thoughtful passes continued to come, and there were some narrow misses that were difficult to swallow, but I was having too much fun writing to get worked up about them.
Eventually, the call did come. The call that I’d dreamt about for years. “We got an offer!” Jessica squealed. Then I squealed louder. After reading the acquiring editor’s reactions to the manuscript by email, I knew we had found the right home. Everything she loved about the story and how it made her feel was exactly what I had intended. She just got it, like Jessica did.
After Elias will be published fall 2020 by Dundurn Press. My follow-up novel, the one that kept me from going mad during the submission process, will be released the following year.
My journey to publication has been wild so far, and I’m grateful to have learned a few lessons I can now share with other writers who might feel adrift:
- Focus your energy on what you can control. Agents, publishers, readers, and the industry are fickle and unpredictable. Only you can write the way you do, so create the best work you can, then make it even better.
- Querying works, so don’t give up no matter how futile it might seem. There are mountains of info online on how to do it right. If one thing doesn’t seem to be working, try it a different way.
- Being published isn’t everything. Fall in love with the process of creating.
- Find the right people to advocate your work, who believe in it as much as you do. Find the people who get it.
Rejection is inevitable. It doesn’t stop when you sign with an agent, and it’s not likely to stop after a book deal. Don’t let that slow you down. Keep creating and improving. When you feel like you’re lost in the middle of the sea, hold onto whatever you can find to stay afloat. Celebrate each little victory. Let every rejection make you stronger. Be immune to the word “no,” because it only takes one yes.
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About the Series:
Now What? is a series dedicated to navigating post-query life and the agent-author relationship. Authors from every stage of their writing career have come together to tell their stories. They understand the struggles of querying and moving forward with an agent and are here to help.
New posts go live every Friday!
Previous Posts in this Series:
How to Discover Editors
Inside an Offer Call