An Observation Concerning… A “Subjective” Industry

“And everyone would know, they’d know it’s our world.”
-I Hate Kate, “Story I Can’t Write”

I watched Jane The Virgin.

First, I have a wife so that explains a little. Second, I didn’t watch the series finale, but I did hear what happened. Third, there’s a reason behind referencing the show: Jane was a romance writer vetting for discovery. By some miracle, she received a $500,000 deal on her debut novel, and obtained an agent after just three rejections.

Talk about fiction.

It’s hard to be envious of a character, but it’s easy to get annoyed. Jane’s whining after her third rejection from a top agent was extravagant, as was her claim to quit until that marvelous phone call happened at the most desperate of times. Okay, okay; the program was a modern telenovela, so it’s not that big of a deal and the writers had a story to tell.

Many authors know what rejection feels like; we hear the word “no” more than unattractive unpleasant men do from happy hour to last call. Here are some fun stats that will either be a brutal reminder for current authors or will ruin the day of aspiring writers:

  • Agents receive around 600 submissions a year.
  • Agents reject around 95 percent of submissions they receive.
  • Over a million books are self-published a year.

Here are some more unsettling stats:

  • Authors make a median average annual income of less that $7,000.
  • Around 20 percent of full-time published authors’ income was 100 percent book-related.
  • Around 25 percent of long-time authors can make $0 a year in book-related income.

This isn’t looking promising, except for Jane Villanueva. I’ve been rejected over 100 times. That sounds like a lot, and it is, trust me, I don’t know how my unstable mind has processed it—I think I’m just numb to the fact. However, brain-numbing is good for authors just like a short memory is for athletes.

Though, the latter doesn’t necessarily work for writers if you’re anything like me (I apologize if you are). I’ve saved every rejection I’ve ever received. It’s torture, but also motivation. You start to understand the process more as the denials filter in, but you also start seeing the same response agents will copy and paste into most of their replies. I’ll sum up a majority of the answers you will receive: “It’s not a good fit for me at this time, but the publishing agency is a very subjective business.”

They will keep your confidence high by saying the issue isn’t in your writing, but if you’re writing is so good then why no representation? Why have hundreds of people brushed you off like some amateur when you’re obviously up to professional standards? Subjectiveness? Not necessarily, because with that many negative responses, it seems everyone has the same tastes.

It may not be the agents who are subjective, but rather the market, which is unfortunate for everyone not writing in a trendy genre. When an agent takes on a project, they have to sell that project, and what’s trending is what sells to publishers because they then have to sell the book to bookstores and online outlets who then have to sell the book to the reader who’s obsessed with paranormal romance right now (maybe, who knows, I can’t keep up with all the hot sub-genres).

I once received a response that said, “I just wouldn’t know how to market this book, so I don’t think I can take it on.”

Reading books isn’t trendy, reading a genre is, and an agent’s livelihood depends on what’s popular at the moment, not necessarily what they love to read. Someone could be selling the next great young adult epic fantasy, and then going home and reading The Idiot in a red leather chair with a glass of brandy on their end table being warmed by a crackling fire; or cuddling up on an uncomfortable contemporary couch in their small apartment while reading The Help as their cat knocks over their glass of chardonnay. Personally, I would be reading My Struggle 6 with some whiskey and a game on in the background—no fire, no cat and probably no actual time to make that situation happen. Ah, life.

With that being said, of course agents love the books they’re pushing because they’re passionate about their preferences and the book industry as a whole, and that’s why a thorough search before you submit is vital. While you’re doing your research, also pay attention to what starts the agent’s list of interests and if there are genres that DON’T fit your book. They could want Sci-Fi, but also women’s fiction (which everyone wants right now), so if your main character is a womanizing hardboiled space bounty hunter gone rogue, maybe the agent isn’t going to find your book appealing based on their other interests. Also, just because they mention they like mystery and suspense, for example, it doesn’t mean that that’s what they’re looking for right away. Sometimes what they’re currently accepting is mentioned elsewhere in their profile, so make sure to read their whole bio and get to know them—or, at the very least, get to e-know them through a generic conversation in the form of an auto-response.

Here are some uncontrollable things to consider of why your story, the one you’ve been dedicating your time to with no pay, will be rejected:

  • It falls into the slush pile for an intern to read, and your whole life depends on the tastes of one arrogant 22-year-old.
  • The market is bad and all publishers are being cheap (unless you’re a celebrity or James Patterson).
  • It’s the summer (damn, that’s right now) and many agents have checked out, are working on their backlog, working for their current clients or attending more conferences than office meetings.
  • You’re a young straight white male because that’s so 20th century, and you just don’t get it.

Okay, that last one might not be true if taken literally. On the other hand, there are certain topics and certain writers that are more marketable for the industry to push. The key word there is “marketable.” I was speaking to a nice woman who I enjoy talking to when we cross paths, and she asked me about the next Jack Swift book. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m currently shopping it at the moment.”
Her: “Why don’t you just hire an agent?”
Me: “I wish. It’s a little harder than that though.”
Her: “Well, [Daughter’s name] got an agent for her book. They edited it and published it and dealt with all the legal matters or whatever. She even has an assistant for all that stuff now because she just can’t deal with it, you know.”

Both offer light chuckles… and scene.

Her daughter is a very marketable person who writes in a hot genre with a trendy topic. With that being said, her book was featured in a friend’s book club and no member could finish the novel because it was too boring. She had a marketable trifecta, and though the book was “boring” to readers, it was still traditionally-published.

Don’t be upset if you’re not in the 5 percent who are accepted by an agent because 95 percent of authors are in the same sinking ship as you are. Don’t be upset at Jane Villanueva.

More importantly, don’t change your story to something you can’t write just because it’s hot in the market. Your time will come, you just have to keep submitting and learn from your rejections.

Next week we’ll get into writing that query that’s going to be rejected. Hooray.

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